- Interview by
- Taj Ali
Yesterday, five metro mayors led by Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham announced plans to launch legal action to prevent the closure of 1000 railway ticket offices across England. The government’s proposals, which would result in up to 2000 job losses, have been met with strong opposition from railway workers and equalities groups who argue the shuttering of ticket offices would make the railway less safe and inaccessible to elderly and disabled passengers.
Burnham has been an outspoken critic of rail privatisation, speaking out against the daily chaos of rail services across the north of England. He has also taken on private bus companies to bring services under public control, pioneering an integrated London-style transport system, the Bee Network, joining together buses, trams, cycling and rail. The Mayor of Greater Manchester sat down with Tribune to discuss his campaign against ticket office closures and his broader vision for public transport.
Can you talk us through this legal action you are taking against the rail operators and why you think it’s so important?
We think the proposal is discriminatory and we think the process is discriminatory. It needs to be stopped. The process is a three-week consultation in July. They haven’t made the consultation accessible in formats that people who are blind and visually impaired can access. I mean, it’s appalling, to be honest. This isn’t a minor proposal. This is the difference between somebody having independence and not being independent.
What impact will the closure of ticket offices have on people in Greater Manchester?
I was at a meeting that the RMT union called last night at Friends Meeting House in Manchester City Centre. Mick Lynch was there. We both sat and listened to a blind gentleman who made a very simple statement that really had an impact on everyone in the room. He said if this goes ahead, it will make what is currently accessible to him inaccessible. Really, I don’t think you need to hear any more about why it is an appallingly bad idea.
In general, when we talk about transport and wider public services, the argument is always around modernisation and efficiency. It seems like we really are losing that human aspect of our public services.
It’s a continuous drive to a faceless, soulless society. Particularly something like rail travel. You need that human touch and that contact, don’t you? This goes for everybody. Everybody is that bit extra stressed when they’re travelling, aren’t they? They need that support. One of the greatest flaws in all of this is the industry implying that ticket offices only sell tickets. Of course, they do a multitude of things to help people. They’re valued services at the heart of our communities. People know the staff that work at their local ticket offices. To rip it out in this way is vandalism.
In terms of the legal challenge, there is a question about the very nature of the consultation. It is both slapdash and discriminatory in its effect and, therefore, inadequate. There is a question as to whether or not they’ve even done it in the right way with the right legal basis.
As I understand it, it is based on the Ticketing Settlement Agreement, an industry-facing framework where train operating companies don’t disadvantage each other. There is a whole process laid out in Section 29 of the Railways Act 2005, which says that if anybody is proposing to close all or part of a station, a whole series of hurdles have to be passed. And there has to be a twelve-week consultation. That is the process that they should be using. So that is a question in our legal action. We believe they should have used a process that gives proper and due consideration to the many issues involved in closing up to 1,000 ticket offices.
Looking at the public reaction, it’s clear that it isn’t just trade unionists and equalities groups against this. There’s a significant number of Conservative backbenchers in many commuter towns that have spoken out.
In general, when we look at the polling on rail nationalisation, there is widespread support for an alternative transport system. Devolution almost gives you a chance to show how things can be different. And I can see that you’re trying to pioneer that vision in Greater Manchester as well, aren’t you?
We’re trying to take public transport forward. In terms of the reforms we’re making to buses, putting them under public control, then connecting them with our trams, we’re creating something called the Bee Network. While we’re trying to take public transport forward, it feels like the rail industry is shrinking back to a sort of bare bones kind of system. It is going in the wrong direction. If we’re going to meet our climate objectives as a country, surely we have to be expanding and improving public transport right now, not cutting it back to the bone. The reason why voters of all parties are concerned is because these are very local, much-valued services. I think Conservative voters would feel deeply uneasy. Those services are being ripped out of rural communities that already struggle with bus connectivity. It’s not going to go down well anywhere, as far as I can see. That’s why it has to be fought.
I mean, there is severe discrimination against disabled people in these proposals, but there will be a significant impact on older people as well, many of whom are in a lifetime habit of buying tickets from a ticket office. I include myself in this, actually.
Well, it certainly is cheaper.
Yes, there’s that element. Mick Lynch made this point last night. There’s another opportunity to fleece you because you’ll end up paying even more for tickets because ticket office staff are pretty good at getting people the cheapest product. So on every level Taj, it’s just wrong. And it’s offensive, really, what’s being done.
On the wider questions around the railways, you’ve previously called for train operating companies to be stripped of their contracts and have campaigned against the regional divide in transport infrastructure. You’ve also previously called for rail fare freezes, although Labour doesn’t appear to have a policy on this nationally. What would you like to see from a prospective Labour government?
Labour is committed to nationalisation and public ownership of the railways, and that is exactly what we need to begin the process of reshaping the railways. From my point of view, that creates the opportunity to create the railways as a public service. I think we’ve got to get the railways back to being a public service. And if we did put them into public ownership, what that offers is the chance then to regionalise and localise them more and actually put control of the railways in the hands of people. So you look at Steve Rotherham [Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region]. He already controls the Merseyside rail system. That’s the highest-performing rail system in the country because it’s locally accountable to people there. And he’s accountable to them for the running of Merseyrail.
Obviously, some services will always need to remain national, like intercity services. We would want to work with a Labour government to take the commuter lines into the Bee Network, which is going to become our transport system. And I think all of those are really exciting possibilities. And that would mean we can reshape the rail system as a public service rather than the privatised, unaccountable, failing service that it’s been now for many years.
The other aspect of devolution, particularly as someone who covers industrial affairs, is we see a lot less industrial action in devolved government. We’ve seen the RMT settle disputes with Transport for Wales and Transport for Scotland. I also know that you were involved in brokering talks with Unite the Union and Manchester Metrolink.
I mean, that’s how we work. Being pragmatic. What you’ve had in recent times is a government that has constantly been playing big P politics through these disputes. It’s trying to turn the public against trade unions. And it’s been disastrous, really, as an approach. It’s all about firing up the Tory base, and, in the meantime, they don’t get pragmatic progress. In every dispute, it’s about both sides meeting, talking and finding solutions. Labour mayors and Labour administrations, by and large, have done that. It’s better, I think, whenever you deal with things at this level, to be more practical rather than political and to work to find a solution.
Steve Rotherham and I worked together with the RMT union a few years ago to keep guards on trains. Don’t forget, that was the last thing they tried to remove, and now they’re coming back for ticket offices. They are trying to take people out of the railway. And if you do that, I think that just takes away that confidence that some people need to use the railway. And that’s why we’ve headed them off. And we’re going to throw everything at doing the same on this. I think we can win if we stick to our guns.