Rail bosses make their ticket office plans clear

According to a Times report (£), Michael Roberts, Chief Executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) used his speech at last week’s Future of Rail conference to urge the government to scrap regulations that prevent train companies from launching a programme of wholesale ticket office closures.

The Ticket and Settlement Agreement specificies the opening hours of ticket offices at stations across the country.  Any changes that TOCs want to make must be subject to consultation with passengers.

The trouble is those pesky passengers keep asking for their ticket offices to remain open. 18,000 annoying members of the paying public recently objected to London Midlands plans to close and cut ticket office opening hours.

Not that it stopped the government giving London Midland the green light to do it anyway. That will be them “putting the customer first” as they subtitled their rail command paper in March. 

Michael Roberts thinks that the growing use of internet and ticket vending machine purchasing signals an end to people wanting to buy tickets and get help and assistance from trained staff at stations.

He stated:

“People are voting with their feet and we want to be able to respond accordingly. We are looking to the Government to allow us to change our booking office opening hours as the cost of this retail point of sale is twice as much as all the channels put together.”

Yes, well I think we clearly see where he’s going with that. Clue: read the last bit again.

Answering the question everyone in the room is immediately thinking, Roberts goes on to say:

“This is not about the train operators wanting to line their pockets. The Government wants us to become more efficient and we can do this by lowering our retail unit costs.”

To an extent, he’s right. This forms part of the government’s attempts to allow TOCs to slash costs so as to reduce public subsidy for the bloated system of corporate welfare that we call ‘privatised rail’ in this country.

The trouble is, not only does “lowering retail unit costs” put people out of work. It leaves passengers in the lurch. Passengers who largely still want to get tickets from staff who offer the full range of ticket prices and can help them navigate the insanely complicated fares structure.

In fact, over half of all nationally available ticket retail is provided through face to face contact with ticket office or train staff.  Nearly all (89%)[1] ticket retailers offering the full range of tickets for passengers are handled by trained staff in ticket offices and on trains.  What’s more, surveys show that passengers value face to face contact when it comes to navigating their way around the complex ticket pricing system.  The Department for Transport’s own review into ticketing acknowledges Passenger Focus research that shows that “passengers are more confident with ticket offices than any other sales channel of obtaining the best value ticket for their journey”[2].  

Which is why plans to close ticket offices cause such anger among passengers who will soon be seeing yet another part of their service removed while, yes, train operators continue to line their pockets.

This is exactly why Action for Rail will be out and about round stations again on 11th December.  Letting the government and train operators know that we’re not going to let our jobs and services go quietly.

[1] Rail Fares and Ticketing Review: Initial Consultation, Department for Transport, March 2012

[2] Ibid