Closing ticket offices prioritises short-term cost-cutting over positive user experiences, at a time when industrial action has already impacted on passengers’ ability to travel the UK via rail
Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrats’ Climate Change and Transport Spokesperson and MP for Bath
Rail firms have announced plans for the mass closure of England’s ticket offices, with almost all 1,007 remaining offices to be shut down within the next three years. At the same time, the government has refused to say by how much rail fares will increase next year as Retail Prices Index (RPI) inflation, the usual measure for calculating rail price increases, reached 9% in July. It is clear that the government is failing our railways: this latest suggestion on ticket offices is likely to exacerbate as-yet unresolved issues with the rail unions at a time when the cost of rail transport is becoming increasingly unaffordable for commuters.
By moving staff out of recognised points of sale, the closure of ticket offices will make it more difficult for passengers to find the best value fares and navigate train stations. This is particularly an issue for those who are older or disabled, those who have fewer IT skills, and those who are not familiar with online ticketing or app systems, such as tourists. Millions of visitors from overseas use our rail network to explore the UK, and this suggestion will leave them without in-person guidance on how to get around and which tickets to buy. Yet this is only one of a whole range of reasons why people need to speak to someone in person at a ticket office. When urgent advice is needed, in-person assistance can be far more reassuring and helpful than online information or apps.
Closing ticket offices prioritises short-term cost-cutting over positive user experiences, at a time when industrial action has already impacted on passengers’ ability to travel the UK via rail. Over the past year, passengers have had to contend with some of the most sustained and extensive rail strikes of modern times, and on-the-day cancellations have risen to the highest level since records began. The government and the rail unions have yet to come to a lasting resolution over pay and staffing disputes, and this latest suggestion is only likely to inflame tensions further. Even those passengers who do not feel the need to use ticketing offices are thus likely to be affected by this measure.
The possibility of up to 9 per cent increase in rail fares next year seeks to deal another serious blow to all passengers, many of whom are already suffering the effects of the cost of living crisis. According to Lib Dem analysis, the price of a season ticket in Bath to London Terminals could go up by £868. With frequent delays and cancellations, the closure of ticket stations, and the ongoing impact of industrial action both making our rail services less reliable and easy to use, you would be forgiven for wondering what a typical rail commuter is receiving in return for this hike in prices.
Meanwhile, all of these issues are unfolding against the backdrop of the climate crisis. The government should be promoting rail travel as a sustainable form of public transport and an energy-efficient way of getting around the UK. Instead, their failure to get round the table and negotiate a settlement with the unions, to say nothing of the suggested closure of ticket stations and possible fare hikes, demonstrate a wilful disregard of our rail systems and the role they play in achieving our Net Zero emission targets.
My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I are fighting for a fair deal for commuters, who will be left forking out massive sums for train journeys in return for poorer service, delays, cancellations, and more strikes. Instead of ineffectual cost-cutting, the government should be ensuring that major stations are staffed from the first train to the last train to ensure that passengers can get assistance – whether that’s buying tickets, help if trains are delayed or cancelled, or advice about how to continue their journey. It is vital that, with or without ticket offices, help is on hand for the passengers that need it most.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have called on the government to do the decent thing and freeze rail fares immediately. Several of my colleagues and I have tabled an Early Day Motion to hold the Government to account over the increasing cost of train tickets. While the government appears determined to make rail more expensive than ever before, we call on them to freeze the fares, alleviate the pressure on families struggling with the cost of living, and help us promote clean transport to help the UK meet its Net Zero targets.