Will closing ticket offices help improve rail services?

July 16, 2023

A couple of weeks back I was standing by the departures boards at Newcastle Central Station.  A gentleman asked me what platform a particular train was coming into. I was about to point him to the departures board, when I noticed he held a folded white stick.  So I read the board for him, and we found a member of staff to help him to his platform.  Just then the Guardian journalist I was waiting for arrived with comic timing – I had to assure him it was not a set up!

Last week it was announced that almost every ticket office will close.  My first thought was for the workers who’ll lose their jobs.  My second thought was for that visually impaired gentleman at the station – let’s call him Joe.

Without a staff presence, how will Joe navigate our public transport system? Who will help him book tickets?  Or get information on train times and platform numbers? If those staff disappear, would he even feel confident using the rail network anymore?

How can Joe make his voice heard on these proposed changes? Well, he can register his opposition with the official 21-day public consultation process.  But here’s the real kicker – the train companies are not required to put the consultation documents into an accessible format. If I’m Joe, I’m starting to feel like a third-class citizen at this point. If I’m Joe, I’m angry.

Joe’s freedom to travel will be reduced – possibly removed.  He’s not alone.  Fewer staff means less support for anyone who’s vulnerable.  Government and train operators are saying if you’re disabled, a young person, or a woman travelling late at night, good luck, but you’re on your own.

And as for changing your ticket or working out what time Super Off Peak starts, well, if you struggle with technology, you’ve got no chance.  I’ve got a degree in engineering and it baffles me!

Northern Trains intend to scrap 53% of ticket office roles over the next two years.  They’ve sent out notices of redundancy.  Of their 149 ticket offices, they want to close 131.  LNER are planning to effectively close facilities at stations – without station staff,  waiting rooms, toilets and baby change facilities will eventually close.

I’ll be at the Maltings in Berwick at 5pm on Friday, talking about this very subject.

Maybe you don’t use the trains.  But this is part of a pattern of behaviour.  We’ve been deregulating and selling off public services and infrastructure for 40 years.  We were told the profit motive would improve efficiency.  Do you believe it has panned out like that?

Maybe ask the small business owner sending a parcel to the Highlands. Ask the commuter staring at display screens of cancelled trains. Ask the landlady of your local pub if she can afford to keep the lights on and the doors open next month. Ask the child swimming in raw sewage at one of our beaches.

If you own a restaurant or a joinery firm, I want your business to be profitable.  We’ve helped thousands of businesses grow.  They succeed by providing better products and services, and investing for the long term.

But privatisation of our utilities, services and NHS is driven by short-term quarterly results.  £billions have been taken out and transferred to the mega wealthy, typically non-UK taxpayers, while services crumble and investment shrinks.

Dedicated ticket office staff are seen as a line on a spreadsheet, a potential ‘efficiency saving’, an equation to be resolved. And as for people like Joe, well, they’re just collateral damage.

Enough is enough.  Polling shows two thirds of British people, including Tory voters, support public ownership of our key utilities and services.  I agree.

I don’t want us to be at the mercy of any government. In February 2020 I went to the Treasury and successfully argued for £billions in transport funding as part of our expanded North East Devolution Deal. I want us to control our own destiny and build a Total Transport Network across the region – with integrated ticketing, reliable services, cheap fares, guards on trains, publicly controlled buses and free travel for all under-18s.

It’s time to reverse privatisation.  Shy bairns get nowt.