What do train station ticket office closures mean for rail passengers?

In the biggest upheaval in the railway industry for a generation, the vast majority of railway stations in England will be left without ticket offices: that is the plan from the major train operators, with the blessing of government ministers.

The rail firms – including all the leading intercity and commuter operators – say only one in six of the 1,766 stations within their control currently have a full-time ticket office – and that 43 per cent of railway stations are entirely unstaffed.

As revealed by The Independent, rail firms say they aim to redeploy staff to wider roles at stations. Passengers can expect “more face-to-face support”.

The intercity train operator Avanti West Coast says staff will transition to “multi-skilled customer ambassador roles” and “would be available to give advice about the best and cheapest fares as well as supporting customers with accessibility needs”.

But disability campaigners claim the scheme will prevent disabled people from using the rail network entirely, while the boss of the biggest rail union insists it will “create the conditions for a muggers’ paradise on the railways”.

These are the key questions and answers.

What’s the big idea?

All the big train operators in England are seeking to close most ticket offices at the stations they run.

“Train companies across the country are launching passenger consultations to move staff from ticket offices and into stations,” says the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) which represents the operators.

The chief executive of the RDG, Jacqueline Starr, said: “The ways our customers buy tickets has changed and it’s time for the railway to change with them.”

The rail firms are under the control of the Department for Transport (DfT). They include key long-distance train operators (Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry, East Midlands Railway, Great Western Railway, LNER and TransPennine Express), as well as Northern, Chiltern, West Midlands Trains and London commuter operators: Greater Anglia, GTR (Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern, Thameslink), Southeastern and South Western Railway.

Stations managed by Merseyrail, ScotRail and Transport for Wales (which includes a handful of England stations – Chester, Hereford, Leominster, Runcorn East and Shrewsbury) are unaffected.

The RDG says: “Where adopted, the proposals will see ticket office staff transitioning to multi-skilled ‘customer help’ roles – already in place in many parts of the network – where they would be better able to give advice about the best and cheapest fares, advise on journey planning and support customers with accessibility needs.”

The train companies make four pledges:

  • Across the network as a whole, there will be more staff available to give face-to-face help to customers out in stations than there are today.

  • Customers will never have to travel out of their way to buy tickets.

  • Those with accessibility needs will always be supported.

  • All rail staff will be treated fairly and their new roles will be more engaging.

That’s all good, then?

Not according to the many opponents to the plans. Transport for All, the disabled-led group striving to increase access to transport, says: “These plans are unjust, discriminatory, and shocking.

“Removing staff from a visible, designated point will increase safety and security concerns, especially for disabled passengers. Ticket office staff are a crucial accessibility feature, and we expect that up to 14 million disabled people in the UK will be affected by this.

“If these plans go ahead, many disabled people will be prevented from using the rail network entirely.”

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) says: “A mass closure of rail ticket offices would have a hugely detrimental impact on blind and partially sighted people’s ability to buy tickets, arrange assistance and, critically, travel independently.”

Disability rights activists have demanded “urgent action” from the Office of Rail and Road and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the main rail union, the RMT, called the proposals “a savage attack on railway workers, their families and the travelling public” that will “pave the way for a massive de-staffing of the rail network”.

He said: “Travellers will be forced to rely on apps and remote mobile teams to be available to assist them rather than having trained staff on stations.

“This is catastrophic for elderly, disabled and vulnerable passengers trying to access the rail network.”

What has brought about this move?

The rail industry and the government says that the present station arrangements are rooted in the 1990s and take no account of radical changes in passenger behaviour.

The number of ticket offices is basically unchanged since rail privatisation, during which time the number of tickets bought from booking offices has slumped from 82 per cent to just 12 per cent.

Between 2019 and 2022, habits changed dramatically, the RDG says.

  • Tickets bought from booking offices: halved from 24 to 12 per cent

  • Tickets bought online: up by half from 34 to 50 per cent

(The remainder are from ticket vending machines, currently 12 per cent, or through “pay as you go” cards such as Oyster in the London area, which currently cover 26 per cent.

With half of journeys covered by online tickets, the belief is that ticket offices are an expensive luxury that can be removed without detriment to the passenger.

Will I be able to buy the full range of tickets from machines at stations?

No. According to the RDG: “An estimated 99 per cent of all transactions made at ticket offices last year can be made at ticket vending machines (TVMs) or online and where needed, TVMs across the network will be improved and upgraded.

“Ticket office facilities will remain open at the busiest stations and interchanges, selling the full range of tickets while the transition takes place.

“Following these changes, if a customer is unable to buy a specific ticket before boarding the train because it was unavailable at the station, they would be able to buy one during their journey, at a ticket office en route, or at their destination.”

But the rail expert Mark Smith – former fares and ticketing manager at the Department for Transport (DfT), and who runs the Seat61.com international rail website – has sounded a warning on Twitter.

He says the current fares system is so complex that it needs to be reformed ahead of changes.

“Personally, I wouldn’t touch ticket office hours before major fares reform made buying on TVMs and online simple enough to understand,” he writes.

Mr Smith also says that improvements to online sales and ticket machines should have been “done first, not promised for later”.

He writes: “Ticket machine capability varies enormously. Some can do journey planning, reservations and any origin/destination, some can only sell tickets from the station you’re at.

“There are certain things – refunds, priv tickets [discounted fares for rail staff], rail vouchers, reservations – that currently need to be done at a ticket office, but which could be done online if a system was implemented.”

What happens now?

Under Schedule 17 of the Ticketing & Settlement Agreement, train firms were legally obliged to give notice of the intention to close a ticket office and invite responses from the public by 1 September. These were directed to the passenger watchdog Transport Focus (or, in the capital, London TravelWatch). These bodies are assessing proposals and feeding back to operators.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, has the final say on whether closures take place.

How soon could closures start, and how long will the whole process take?

Legally, the first closures could begin within weeks, but in practice, no changes are expected until late this year.

The full programme is expected to take three years to complete.

Do ministers think closing ticket offices is a good idea?

Yes. In January, rail minister Huw Merriman told MPs on the Transport Select Committee: “We want the ticket office staff to come from behind the ticket office and interact with passengers, customers, on the platform, where they can be of more assistance.

“I hope that actually helps those who have mobility issues who may struggle to get on to the train and also want more information on where the train is.”

At the Transport Select Committee session, the rail minister predicted there would be fewer staff, but said there were no plans to make compulsory redundancies.

What happens to ticket office staff?

They will be offered redeployment – or can take redundancy.

The RDG’s Jacqueline Starr said: “Our commitment is that we will always treat our staff, who are hugely valued and integral to the experience our customers have on the railway, fairly, with support and extra training to move into new, more engaging roles.”

The RDG says: “Train companies will continue to engage constructively with unions at a local level to manage the transition in a way that works best for staff.”

Why is it happening?

Rail finances are in a parlous state since the pandemic, “with revenue continuing to languish at 30 per cent below pre-pandemic levels,” according to the RDG. Moving staff from fixed locations to provide more help at the station will increase productivity, officials argue. Improving passenger experience would encourage higher usage.

But, says Mark Smith, once staff are out of the ticket office, it is easier do to away with their roles.

“The TSA [Ticketing & Settlement Agreement] Schedule 17 change process – which is what’s going to be used to close these offices – was designed to protect ticket office hours whilst allowing sensible changes where the volume of sales justified the change.

“But it was designed to be managed by DfT acting as gamekeeper to keep those pesky operators under control. Things have changed. The DfT is now both poacher and gamekeeper. It’s regulating itself.”

He concludes that the move is viewed as a cost-saving measure, and predicts job losses.

“The proposal is to place staff outside ticket offices. Ticket office hours are regulated in Schedule 17 of the Ticketing & Settlement Agreement, but I expect the hours when mobile staff will be provided won’t be listed.

“So I wouldn’t be surprised if staff disappeared soon afterwards.”

What do the unions say?

The white-collar rail union, the TSSA, believes it is about cutting jobs. The interim general secretary, Peter Pendle, said: “What we are seeing today from the train companies – no doubt pushed by the government – is widespread plans for redundancies by the back door.

“Ticket office staff are hugely valued by the travelling public, and we urge commuters to resist these foolish plans by sending the government a crystal-clear message that they are on the wrong track.”

Mick Lynch of the RMT accuses train firms of profiteering, saying: “Fat-cat rail operators and the government do not care one jot about passenger safety, or a well-staffed and friendly railway open to all to use.

“They want to cut costs, make profits for shareholders, and run the network into the ground without a thought as to the vital role the rail industry plays in the country's economy.”

Will the train operators’ profits rise if the plan goes ahead?

Not according to Mark Smith. He writes: “The proposals appear to be driven by the government (DfT) as a cost-cutting exercise, rather than the train operators.

“The DfT now pays all the railway’s costs including the cost of ticket offices, DfT gives the train operators 2 per cent on top as their management fee – so paradoxically, if offices close, operators will lose the 2 per cent they’re paid on those ticket office costs.

“Closing ticket offices actually cuts their profits, which some people may not have entirely grasped.”

What does the Labour Party say?

The Labour Party is firmly against ticket office closures. The former shadow rail minister, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, said: “Closures of rail ticket offices will hit hardest passengers who are older, disabled or need more assistance.

“We should be encouraging passengers onto our railways, not cutting them off. Government must stop its managed decline of our public transport.”

Were Labour to be elected, the new government would find itself halfway through the process of closure, which presumably it would reverse.