Over a year has passed since the RMT union began industrial action on the railways. In that time, we’ve had three prime ministers, four chancellors and three transport secretaries. One constant, however, has been the determination of the government to force through damaging cuts.
The closure of 1000 ticket offices announced yesterday is the latest escalation in the attack on public transport. The plans were met with strong opposition from rail unions and passenger transport groups who warned of the devastating impact on accessibility and passenger safety.
On the back of the announcement, statutory redundancy notices are being issued to hundreds of railway workers. Instead of getting around the negotiating table and averting another round of strikes, the government wants to steamroll through its plans, setting the stage for industrial action to continue.
The justification given for the decision to shutter ticket offices is ‘modernisation’. While it is true that most passengers now rely on ticket machines and online purchases, the depiction of station ticket offices as a relic of a bygone era is misleading and ignores the devastating impact their removal will have on passengers who rely on them. Writer and disability activist Rachel Charlton-Dailey estimates that in 2021-22, around 118 million train journeys were made possible by ticket offices.
The purchase of tickets online is simply not an option for many disabled people who are more likely to be digitally excluded. In 2018, twenty-three percent of disabled people had no access to the internet compared to six percent of non-disabled adults. Ticket vending machines can also be inaccessible. According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, only three percent of blind and partially-sighted passengers are able to use a machine. The disability equality charity Scope has previously highlighted how life for disabled people costs £583 more on average a month—a brutal financial penalty exacerbated by the cost of living crisis and likely to be compounded further by the removal of ticket offices. The fifty percent wheelchair user discount, for instance, can only be purchased at ticket offices.
Katie Pennick, Campaigns Manager at the disabled-led campaign group Transport for All, warns that if the closures go ahead, ‘up to 14 million disabled people could be prevented from travelling by rail, and years of progress to make transport more accessible would be reversed,’ describing the proposals as ‘deeply regressive’.
Railway workers have always been happy to embrace developments that enhance the quality of the service they deliver. But the closure of most ticket offices across England is not about modernisation; the term is a euphemism for ruthless cuts, with the jobs of railway workers and the accessible service provided to passengers sacrificed at the altar of austerity.
Not Just the Ticket
Getting a train was a simple and straightforward experience for Jane until she developed a visual impairment. Now, she requires additional support—support that often comes exclusively from ticket office staff. ‘I’m now almost completely blind. I’m not very computer literate either, so I always use the ticket office. They know who I am and what ticket I need,’ she explains. ‘If they take the ticket office away and they have these roaming offices, how on earth will I be able to find out where I get my ticket from?’
Kath in Yeovil is registered severely visibly impaired. She navigates with a white cane and has done a considerable amount of rail travel over recent years. In many smaller stations, ticket office staff are the only members of staff, and they provide guide assistance to visually impaired passengers like her. ‘Ticket office staff give me instructions about where to walk safely, especially when there are a lot of passengers. They give guide assistance where you hold on to their elbow and they lead you. I don’t know how I’d cope if they disappeared.’
Kath can’t see ticket machines and requires assistance finding the right platform for her train ‘I use stations like Yeovil Junction, Castlecary, Exmouth. The other day, it was Bridgwater. All of those stations have only one member of staff at a time, and that is the ticket office staff.’ Staff at these stations are responsible for priority assistance, helping disabled passengers like Kath. ‘They will help me at Yeovil Pen Mill and Yeovil Junction, which both have steep footbridges, with fifteen to twenty steps on each side before each platform.’
Sarah Leadbetter uses a ticket office at her rural village train station. She uses a guide dog and struggles due to the large gap between the platform and the train. It’s ticket office staff who often help her board. ‘I need a member of staff to help me on the train, to put a ramp out for me and to tell me when my train is delayed. I can’t read any print as I’m visually impaired, so I rely on staff telling me what’s happening.’
Elderly, disabled and vulnerable passengers like Jane are anxious about the proposals. ‘I’ve fallen between the gaps on many occasions and been very seriously hurt, and it would put the fear of God in me if there was no one to help me get on and off the train because I can’t do it myself. If this goes ahead, I’ll be hesitant to use the railways.’
To mitigate the risks of such falls, tactile paving is being installed at a number of stations, but it hasn’t been rolled out entirely just yet. ‘If there are no people at stations, it’s a real safety risk,’ warns Kath. ‘Especially without the tactile pavement being there. I visited a station the other day, and it’s not been installed yet. It will be impossible for us to use rail safely.’ The closure of ticket offices could also impact the availability of facilities such as accessible toilets, which are often closed when stations are unstaffed.
The proposals could also generate additional costs for rail companies. For the past few years, Kath has had an agreement with inclusion managers at Great Western Railway (GWR) that if a station is not staffed on a return journey, she will stop at an earlier station that is staffed and then get a taxi to her home in Yeovil as she wouldn’t be able to cross a footbridge at Yeovil Pen Mill without assistance. ‘I assume they’ll still have to make these adjustments if people can’t access the stations. I’m wondering how much that is going to cost them.’
Jane sees the closure of ticket offices as part of a broader neglect of disabled passengers like herself. ‘Thameslink now is Driver Only Operation [where there is no guarantee of a second member of staff to assist passengers], which is pretty hard going. A couple of times, they’ve not had ramps out. The rail infrastructure isn’t fit for purpose. It’s just so old and antiquated. And I just think the stations are not practical. The lift has broken down on so many occasions at my station and I’ve had to walk up the stairs.’
The picture Jane portrays is not of a railway system being modernised but one taking a step backwards.
‘We’re a modern country going backwards, and it’s disabled people paying the price for it,’ says Sarah from the National Federation of the Blind [NFB]. ‘Disabled people are not being listened to at all. Mark Harper [the Secretary of State for Transport] used to be the Shadow Minister for Disabled People and then the Minister for Disabled People, so what the hell is he playing at?’
When the National Federation of the Blind saw the proposals being put forward by the government and the Rail Delivery Group last year, they couldn’t hold back their anger. ‘If these cuts come in, people won’t be able to travel. They are disadvantaging disabled people. We’re supposed to have the same rights to travel as everybody else.’
The Rail Delivery Group have instead proposed ‘roving’ staff who are expected to move around the station—a proposal that Sarah considers dangerous. ‘How are they expecting blind people to walk around the station and find who they’re looking for? That’s not safe. If someone is there to give assistance, everybody will be asking them for help because everyone’s got a train to catch. As a disabled person, you’re going to get shunted out of the way.’
The NFB launched a petition and released videos highlighting how the proposals would negatively impact visually impaired passengers. ‘We worked with ten other charities and handed in a letter to Number Ten. You’d think after all that effort that you’d get invited to a meeting to discuss your concerns with the Minister for Transport. That never happened.’ In between Christmas and New Year, the NFB doorstepped Mark Harper’s constituency officer. ‘His own constituent, Bill, raised a concern, and even he hasn’t had a response. None of them truly understand the impact of these cuts. It’s bonkers, really.’
The presence of ticket offices also gives passengers the confidence to travel at night. ‘I’ve been in horrific situations where people, mostly blokes, are kicking off,’ recalls Sarah. ‘It puts you in a very vulnerable position. If you have a properly staffed train network, everyone feels safe and it’s more accessible, so you get more people on those trains. That’s good for the industry.’
The closure of ticket offices is part of a wider policy of austerity being imposed on the railway, with the government attempting to cut £4 billion from annual budgets. It is in this context that the profit-making and waste of privatisation—north of £725 million each year, with the servicing of debt costing a further £2 billion—is particularly egregious. Rather than tackling the excesses of privatisation, a vicious assault is being waged on rail jobs, with elderly and disabled passengers the collateral damage. If the plans succeed, the result will be an unsafe, dehumanised railway that excludes disabled passengers.
General secretary of the RMT, Mick Lynch, describes the proposals as a savage attack on railway workers, their families and the travelling public. ‘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,’ he warns. According to the RMT, some of the train operators issuing members with statutory redundancy notices are cutting two-thirds of their workforce.
‘It is clear that closing ticket offices has got nothing to do with modernisation and is a thinly veiled plan to gut our railways of station staff,’ says Lynch. ‘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.’
But the proposals will be fiercely resisted by equalities groups, trade unions and passengers alike. ‘We will not meekly sit by and allow thousands of jobs to be sacrificed or see disabled and vulnerable passengers left unable to use the railways as a result. RMT is mounting a strong industrial and political campaign to resist ticket office closures and station staff cuts. We will continue our fight on 20, 22 and 29 July when 20,000 railway workers go on strike.’
From the outset, the government has attempted to depict railway workers as an enemy of the commuting public. The truth is railway workers and passengers alike have been shafted by a government hellbent on destroying our railways for the pursuit of profit. Railway workers are fighting back for a safer, more accessible railway—and this fight matters for all of us.