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De-Staffing by Stealth: The Fight for the Future of the Railway

Taj Ali

The campaign against ticket office closures isn’t just about fighting proposals that make railways less accessible – it is against bosses wrecking a vital public service while their millions keep flowing in.

The closure of 1000 ticket offices would threaten the railway as we know it. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

In the nineteenth century, a sprawling network of railways was constructed across Britain. Since its inception in the Industrial Revolution, the railway has been central to the country’s political, economic and social life. But now, more than any time in its history, its future is in doubt. 

In the 1990s, privatisation turned Britain’s railway into a vehicle for private profit-making rather than delivering a public service. As a result, privateers extract in excess of half a billion pounds in profit from the system every year, to the benefit of bosses and shareholders and the detriment of rail workers, taxpayers and the travelling public.   

What remains is an industry battered and bruised by systematic underfunding and privatisation. For passengers, crowded and cancelled trains, fare hikes and crumbling station infrastructure. For railway workers, never-ending attacks on jobs, pay and conditions. And now the railway is expected to endure another hammering.   

The closure of 1,000 ticket offices announced last week threatens the existence of the rail system as we know it. In addition to thousands of job losses, the closure of ticket offices will create a whole host of accessibility problems. Elderly and disabled people, as well as those on low incomes, are less likely to have access to the internet and will be discriminated against by the push towards exclusively online and electronic ticketing.  

Without ticket offices and on-station support, huge swathes of passengers could be excluded from the railways altogether. Last week we spoke to passengers, detailing the devastating impact this will have on accessibility and safety. But the planned closure of ticket offices must also be understood as part of a wider assault on the railway, with jobs and public services sacrificed at the altar of austerity.  

A Public Service in Decline

Rachel has worked on the railways for over twenty-one years. Nineteen of them have been in the ticket office.  

‘I absolutely love my job. Every day we learn about changing products, promotions, new stations, and new lines like the Elizabeth line. You can’t replace that with a machine.’ Rachel has seen many changes to the industry in her time. Some positive, others deeply regressive. Cuts to ticket offices aren’t about making jobs like Rachel’s any easier or improving customer experience. Rachel works at a location that is set to retain a ‘Customer information centre’ that will be open twenty-seven hours a week less than the ticket office currently is.  

‘Every single day, we deal with customers who have purchased online and booked the wrong day, the wrong times, the wrong ticket type or paid too much, or young people and families who are all paying too much because they believe everything is cheaper online. So many people buy the wrong tickets from the machines mostly because they are unaware of the restrictions.’  

Luke works as a member of ticket office staff in the South East and says work is busy. ‘Leisure travel is back. We are crazy busy on Saturdays and Sundays and do more in offices than people realise. Boat tickets, attraction tickets, split tickets, rovers, sleepers. People struggle with most of that online.’  

Rachel concurs. ‘The ticketing system is too complicated and complex, and the ticket machines are not able to talk to customers to find out what they actually need.’  

On a recent ASLEF strike day, very few trains were running aside from a mainline London service. Rachel ended up doing seventeen refunds for people who purchased tickets from machines without realising there were no trains for the journey they wanted to make. Under new proposals, getting a refund for a ticket purchased at a machine won’t be anywhere near as simple. ‘They will need to contact the customer relations centres, send off their unused tickets and wait a very long time for a refund. This is not about improving customer service.’

Sue, a member of ticket office in Sussex, says there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what her job entails.  ‘We sell tickets, provide journey plans and alternative routes, sell railcards, deal with refunds, all of which will become unavailable after this proposal goes through. On top of that we litter pick the platforms, booking hall, footbridge and car park and provide assistance for customers. Anything from ramp assists, a guiding arm for visually impaired passengers, carrying luggage over the footbridge as we do not have lifts at our station, and use of the station wheelchair.’

Her station will now be open from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. under the proposals. That is 43 hours a week of lost staffing at a single station. ‘Local school children use the station and we are the closest station to two holiday parks. Despite having ticket prices increased year on year, customers will still have to put up with a very disrupted service, last minute cancellations, overcrowded trains and now no customer service- only a help point button.’

Chris works as a train guard in the West Midlands, regularly checking tickets on trains and supporting passengers onboard. He believes the closure of ticket offices is short-sighted. ‘It will lead to more fare evasion, less customer satisfaction and more people being ripped off. Whenever I go away with my friends, the majority of us use ticket offices. It’s the ability to use cash and know you’re also getting the right product. This is just an excuse for de-staffing by stealth.’  

Chris has a lot of interaction with his ticket office colleagues. ‘Yesterday and today, I have interacted with fourteen members of ticket office staff. This idea that they are hidden behind a screen is nonsense. They help customers to the train, provide wheelchair assists which cannot be underestimated when it comes to delays, clean the station and check for anything suspicious. One was even explaining a ticket they’d sold to me that I was confused and caught out by.’  

‘Elderly and disabled passengers are particularly worried,’ says Luke. ‘We have customers who can’t open purses and wallets, so we come round to help. It’s the human contact aspect too. We provide advice and reassurance.’  

De-Staffing by Stealth

Shaun has worked on the railways for over thirty years. Half of those years have been spent working in a ticket office. He’s worried about the future, but he says the news of ticket office closures comes as no surprise to anyone in his line of work. ‘It’s been clear for a while that there has never been any intention of the union being offered any sort of proposal that they could even consider accepting or putting to the staff.’   

The closure of ticket offices is one aspect of a broader agenda to de-staff our railways. To facilitate the plans, regulations on staffing levels will be abolished, in a move which RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch warns will leave train operators ‘free to staff or de-staff any station to whatever level they choose.’

Clothed in the rhetoric of modernisation, the proposals will inevitably lead to redundancies. The Rail Delivery Group, representing train operating companies, have refused to guarantee no compulsory redundancies beyond 2024. Shaun expects train operating companies will offer all ticket office staff to apply for voluntary redundancy. A trial run of this was carried out last year to gauge interest, according to Shaun. ‘Managers are going to start having one-to-one sessions with staff. They are being briefed today by senior management about to what to say to us.’ The big worry, of course, is if people leave ticket office jobs, what alternative job do they get and where? ‘A very large number of ticket office staff are former drivers and guards, who are medically restricted. They are especially worried that these new all-purpose jobs won’t be suitable for them.’ 

Rail engineer and writer Gareth Dennis describes the proposals as nonsensical. ‘The lifeblood of the railway is the character of its staff, which will be lost if stations are unattended. At a time when the railways need to double their ridership by the middle of the next decade for the UK to meet its own net zero carbon targets, this is calamitous.’ 

According to research by the TSSA rail union, ticket office staff sell up to a whopping 360 million tickets a year, generating significant revenue for the railway. ‘Ticket office sales account for one-ninth of annual rail income,’ says Gareth. ‘That’s as much as £1.4 billion—and that’s ignoring income that the railway retains through the improved service that station ticket offices provide. In the last month, there were 1.4 million passenger assists, generally for disabled passengers. Consistent feedback from disabled travellers is that they want to have a person who can offer advice in a prominent or fixed location, such as a ticket office, not roaming, particularly at inaccessible stations. If they lose that, they aren’t travelling by rail, and that’s a significant additional revenue hit.’ 

But ticket sales alone don’t provide the full picture. ‘It doesn’t take into account all the planning we might do or looking at different routes, times and prices for customers,’ says Rachel. ‘Some journeys are so complicated that we can easily spend an hour with a customer just booking one trip.’ 

For Gareth, the long-term role of station ticket offices on a per-location basis could reasonably be up for consultation under three conditions: that all stations and trains are made fully accessible, for instance, level access and boarding; that wholesale ticketing reform has been completed; and that the percentage of tickets sold in ticket offices has dropped to the low single figures. Until then, he says, ‘it’s a transparent attempt to shrink the railway.’ 

But there’s another aspect of the proposals that has received scant attention: the looming threat that rail stations will be sold to the private sector. ‘The Treasury is in a race to the bottom, so it makes sense by their logic that if you have a property that you’ve just emptied of staff, why not sell the building for a quick buck too? And if all that’s left of the railway is the tracks and a few platforms, it starts looking easier to sell the whole thing off and replace it with a bus… that you can then cancel.’ 

Mike, a ticket office staff member in Yorkshire, is furious with the lack of detail in the proposals.   

‘They are removing some key hub station offices, which is absolutely ludicrous. The accessible toilets in one station will be locked while the staff member is at another station. A remote member of staff means that they can cover four stations, and they will still be classed as staffed. It is an impossible situation, but the fact they’ve done this “consultation” without any full answers for passengers and staff is absolutely shameful.’   

While some ticket offices may remain open, they will significantly reduce their opening hours. ‘It’s the wording that is incredibly smart by them. In terms of rotations, it would be hard to specify as they’ve conveniently left that out. A station is technically staffed, but they aren’t saying for how long. Some train operating companies already have a form of clustering of stations with a home station, so I can only assume it would work the same.’

‘Having worked at holiday parks, supermarkets, clothing stores, restaurants and bars, this is by far the worst so-called customer focused decision I have ever come across,’ says Sue. ‘It genuinely offers nothing to the customer. Don’t let anyone fool you, this moving people out from behind the glass is solely being used as a transition period into unstaffed stations.’

Unions and disability equality groups have vowed to fight back—and the public is on-side. ‘In the year or more we have been involved in this dispute, 99 percent of people coming through the ticket office have been in support of us,’ recalls Rachel.  

The changes are being imposed against the wishes of local and devolved government. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is considering a legal challenge to the proposals while the RMT union are holding local actions at railway stations across the country. In many ways, the proposed closure of ticket offices is a spectacular own goal on the part of the government. It has led to a situation where many traditional Conservative Party supporters, voters, and even Conservative MPs are now on the same side as the rail unions. And it’s not hard to see why.  

There are two competing visions for our railways. A soulless, unstaffed and underfunded railway in a cycle of decline or a well-staffed, well-funded and well-maintained railway that brings people together and improves the lives of millions across the country. The fight to save ticket offices will go a long way to determining which vision is realised.