Tickets Please

Conrad Landin

Every year around this time I take a train from Glasgow to Abergavenny, changing at Crewe. Even with a railcard, the cheapest fare I could get online or from a ticket machine was an off-peak return at £145.25. Lower advance fares were available for some stretches of the journey, however, and by going to the railway station booking office I was able to buy eight separate tickets that would take me there and back again for £92.25, less than two-thirds the price.

I could probably have made a similar saving using a journey-splitting website (which would have charged a commission), but at a booking office the staff are not only obliged to offer you the cheapest point-to-point fare, they also know their way around Britain’s byzantine fares structure, so you don’t have to (from Mount Florida in Glasgow, for example, you can’t buy a thirty-day off-peak return to Edinburgh, but you can get one to Eskbank, which will cover the whole of your journey).

A rushed three-week consultation on plans to close almost all booking offices in England – and some in Scotland and Wales – will finish tomorrow. The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said in the Commons that the government’s proposals are about catching up with ‘the changed reality that most passengers purchase their tickets either online or from a ticket machine, and most of them do not go near a ticket office’.

His claim is backed by Rail Delivery Group figures which show that only 12 per cent of tickets were bought at a glass window, compared to 82 per cent in the mid-1990s. But that doesn’t mean most passengers don’t want the option. Government and rail industry policy has deliberately encouraged people away from booking offices. Unfilled vacancies – meaning reduced opening hours – have been a regular complaint among station staff at rail union conferences over the past decade.

Station publicity encourages passengers to ‘skip the queue’ by buying online or at a machine, and creates the impression that the cheapest fares are not available at ticket offices. Northern Trains has barred the sale of on-the-day advance tickets over the counter, though you can still get them online and at machines. ScotRail has introduced ‘super off-peak’ tickets which can only be bought online.

According to Harper, ‘getting the staff out of offices and into the station, so they can support all passengers, including those who are older or disabled and who need assistance’, would be a better use of resources than ‘having them stuck in a ticket office’. This is not the view of the RNIB and nine other vision-impairment charities, who argue that the changes ‘would unavoidably have a severe negative impact on blind and partially sighted people’s ability to purchase tickets, arrange assistance, and travel independently by rail’. In a letter to Harper, they cited research in which respondents said they liked having a ‘static point to meet rail staff’, suggesting that ‘getting the staff out of offices’ would make things worse.

In any case it’s far from clear that getting the staff out of offices would get them ‘into the station’. Staffing levels have rarely been maintained following past ticket office closures. The speaker of the Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, has said that the station in his constituency, Chorley, would only ‘have someone available nine until four’, which would be ‘half the time’ the booking office is currently open.

When train companies proposed moving to driver-only operations several years ago, their bosses (and Tory politicians) claimed that relieving guards of operational duties would free them up to assist passengers in need. The only operator that succeeded in implementing the plan without significant compromise was Southern rail. Unsurprisingly, now that trains no longer needed a guard on board to run, the chances of someone being on hand to help passengers have diminished.

The long-running dispute between the UK government and rail unions has shown that, in spite of privatisation and fragmentation, ministerial micromanagement of Britain’s railways is at an all-time high. The RMT union was on the brink of accepting a deal for train operators’ staff a few months ago, but took it off the table because bosses had ‘reneged on their original proposals and torpedoed these negotiations’. The proposed booking office closures look like petty revenge on the RMT for holding out as other unions – and RMT’s members in Scotland, Wales and at Network Rail – accept below-inflation pay deals tied to cuts in terms and conditions.


  • 25 July 2023 at 7:08pm
    Camus says:
    Mr. Lynch gets better every day. I live in Germany whose nationally owned rail service owns some parts of the UK network which did very well out of the subsidies paid to companies not to run trains during the time of the Plague, so thank you for your help in keeping the German system running.

    • 26 July 2023 at 8:41pm
      steve kay says: @ Camus
      In Wales, thanks to the Che Guevara beret wearing Bolshevik Mark “Marx” Drakeford, the railways are to a considerable extent publicly owned and operated. Strikes unusual due to this negotiating business, apparently unknown to the East of Offa’s Dyke. Now Conrad, if I had known you were visiting I would have offered to buy you a cup of coffee in the Chapel. LRB readers not unknown in Pauline’s Griffiths’ establishment.

  • 27 July 2023 at 8:27am
    Franczak Paul says:
    The consultation date has been extended -but most consultations are a sham anyway.

  • 28 July 2023 at 11:30am
    MattG says:
    The whole system of rail fares is ridiculous. Charging should be by mile travelled. A return ticket should be exactly double the price of a single minus an admin allowance.

  • 2 August 2023 at 1:45am
    Graucho says:
    The primary purpose of Thatcher's privatisations was to give the Tories' rich friends a crowbar into our bank accounts. The railways are not profitable and yet the shareholders are getting dividends and the directors bonuses. We are being royally ripped off.

  • 2 August 2023 at 10:36am
    jc636 says:
    >>Unsurprisingly, now that trains no longer needed a guard on board to run, the chances of someone being on hand to help passengers have diminished.
    Evidence for this?

    I volunteer with a deafblind person regularly (Usher syndrome) and he finds it more hassle than it's worth to check in with station staff. They're bureaucratic and officious, he finds dealing with them stressful, and they impose requirements upon his arrival time at the station, which he finds unnecessary. He prefers asking for support from a helpful passenger (aware this isn't a systemic solution, but it shows that the current system isn't doing what it purports to).

    I also work for a national disability charity and I would take with a pinch of salt their arguments. They, too, (or more specifically, their policy teams) have interests). On which note, let's not pretend the unions aren't pursuing their own interests here.

    I'm all for a thorough consultation, but there's unnecessary emotional hand-wringing around disabled people and ticket stations. Sure, the chap behind the counter is helpful at times. But let's not be sappy luddites about this. Technology is moving past this, and providing digital support/accessibility to disabled people and their support so they can buy tickets from home is incomparably more efficient than paying someone to sit in a box all day (and comes with many other benefits).

    Agree with other points around governmental micromanagement, but struggle to see how nationalisation would address that particular problem -- even as someone who is in favour of nationalisation.

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