Rail Ticket Offices

– in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 6 July 2023.

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Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 10:30, 6 July 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if he will make a statement on plans to close rail ticket offices.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I am answering the urgent question on behalf of the Secretary of State, who is currently involved in this process, so it is appropriate for me to respond.

There has been a huge shift in the way in which passengers purchase tickets at railway stations, with about one in every 10 transactions taking place in ticket offices in 2022-23. That is down from one in three a decade earlier and equates to 13% of rail revenue. Despite this, our stations have hardly changed in the past 10 years, which means that staff are constrained to work in ticket offices, although they could serve passengers better on station platforms and concourses. I am pleased that the rail industry has launched consultations on the future of ticket offices under the ticketing and settlement agreement process, which will give the public an opportunity to scrutinise the train operating companies’ proposals to ensure that they work in the best possible way for passengers.

These changes are about modernising the passenger experience by moving staff out of ticket offices to be more visible and accessible around the station. Crucially, no currently staffed stations will be unstaffed as a result of this reform—staff will still be there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it—and the new approach will take into consideration the potential impact on individuals with protected characteristics. It is of course vital that our railway is accessible to all and I have engaged directly with accessibility groups and will continue to do so.

This is an industry process, so I encourage Members and their constituents to engage with their local train operators to find out more about the proposals for their local stations. If passengers want to raise any views, they can contact the relevant passenger body. I believe that the industry’s proposed reforms could enable staff to provide a more flexible, agile and personal service, creating the modern experience that people expect.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Yesterday, the Rail Delivery Group confirmed plans to close hundreds of rail ticket offices across the country but, this morning, as is usual when difficult decisions are made, the Secretary of State was nowhere to be seen. This announcement, driven every inch of the way by his Department—not the industry, as the Minister claimed—has caused huge anxiety to vulnerable and disabled passengers and rail staff up and down the country; and how long have people been given to respond to these hugely consequential plans? Just 21 days. This is a massive change to the network, affecting more than 150 million rail journeys a year and hitting elderly and disabled passengers the hardest, and they have been given only three weeks to have their say. Why does the Minister not just admit that this consultation has nothing to do with taking on board their concerns? It is a rubber stamp for a decision that he has already made, with the most vulnerable cut out altogether.

Can the Minister give any reassurance to vulnerable passengers who rely on staff in railway stations to help them to purchase tickets and board trains? Why has he not published equality impact assessments alongside these consultations? Given that he claims the solution is modernisation and digital ticketing, does he know how many stations do not currently have tap-in or barcode capability? What assessment has he made of the impact on revenue for our rail industry? Will he admit that this process is merely a prelude to job losses that will mean far fewer staff to serve the travelling public, and the continued managed decline of our railways?

We know what this is really about. It is not about reforming our railways; the Government have already ditched plans for Great British Railways. It is not about modernisation; the Department has already confirmed that the contactless ticketing roll-out is limited to London and the south-east. This is about one thing and one thing only: the Conservatives crashed the economy and now they are asking for more self-defeating cuts on our declining railways.

On the Minister’s watch, our rail services are already being run into the ground, with cancellations at record highs, basic services such as wi-fi being taken away and legislation to reform the network on the scrapheap. Will he simply acknowledge that the Conservatives cannot fix the railways because they broke them in the first place?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Let me give a little more detail on the Secretary of State’s role in the ticketing and settlement agreement, which has been in place not just under Conservative Administrations, but under the last Labour Administration. The Secretary of State is required to make a determination where the train operators and the passenger groups cannot reach an agreement. That makes it entirely right for him not to be here to respond to the urgent question.

The hon. Lady mentioned job losses. First and foremost, this is all about taking expert ticketing staff into the parts of the station where currently they are not seen. If only 10% of tickets are sold across the ticket counter, crudely, that means that 90% of passengers are not accessing that member of staff. The idea is to take the member of staff on to the platform to help passengers to purchase tickets via a ticketing machine or online. Ninety-nine per cent of tickets can be purchased in that manner, so there is no reason why this will not be an improvement.

In the event that there are some staff who do not wish to make the transition, of course, the train operators will need to look at that. The sad reality is that there is an offer on the table that would guarantee no compulsory redundancies up to December 2024, but the union leaders refused to put that offer to their members. If there is any concern about the impact on jobs, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and those it backs financially might wish to take some responsibility for that.

The hon. Lady talked about pay-as-you-go being rolled out only to the south-east. The devolution deals that have been announced will enable the roll-out of pilots by the Mayors of the West Midlands and Manchester by the end of this year. She also talked about wi-fi being taken away, but that is not the case either. We are looking for each train operator to do research to show how much the wi-fi is used, how helpful it is and what more can be done.

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

The Transport Committee is conducting an inquiry into accessible transport. We have received alarming evidence that the quality and range of assistance to vulnerable passengers has declined markedly since the pandemic. If the redeployment of staff is to be meaningful, it is essential that the new roles and training are designed with the support of campaign groups for vulnerable people. Will my hon. Friend assure me that that will happen?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The very first discussions I had with any groups about these changes were with those groups that represent passengers with accessibility and mobility issues on the railway. I told them that I am keen to work with them to help to ensure that these proposals are designed such that they work for each group with different characteristics. I will be looking to meet them again to ensure that that occurs.

At 9.30 am, the Office of Rail and Road issued its rail passenger assistance bookings update for the latest year, which shows that passenger assists increased by 68% compared with the previous year. That demonstrates that more help is needed at stations for people with accessibility needs. Again, by freeing people who are currently under-utilised in the ticket office and putting them on to the platforms to give help and guidance, we will help those who need it the most. That is at the forefront of everything that the train operators are looking to do with these proposals.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Labour, Weaver Vale

In May 2021, there was a partial collapse at Northwich station—it was the ticket office. It is being rebuilt as we speak and there is an investigation into the collapse. I am now told by the Minister and the Secretary of State that it is incredibly likely—it seems a foregone conclusion—that the ticket office will never reopen. Disabled and elderly people already struggle accessing the station, but they will struggle even more without staff. This is a folly. The Minister needs to think again.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

It is not the ticket office but the expert people in it who assist passengers. With these proposals, the train operators are looking to free up people from behind the glass, often in parts of the station that passengers do not access, to help them to use their skills to get tickets sold at ticket machines and to advise people on how to purchase online, so they can do that in future, and thereafter to help them with the entire passenger journey experience, giving them information and making them feel more reassured.

These roll-outs have occurred across other parts of the network. London Underground did this some years ago, and I do not believe the current Labour Mayor of London has any plans to turn it round because it actually works. It gives a better passenger experience. People can either live in the past or look towards the future. The way in which passengers transact across a whole range of services is exactly the same, and we are keen to see the railways modernise and thrive.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

Many of my constituents write to me about overcrowding, on an almost daily basis, particularly on Chiltern Railways. No one has ever written to me about ticket office provision. Sympathetic as I am to the argument for ensuring staff come out from behind the counter to assist people directly on platforms and around the station, how will this solve the demands of passengers, which we are probably all seeing in our inboxes on a day-to-day basis, in relation to rush-hour capacity and weekend capacity?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Chiltern Railways, for example, is looking to expand coverage at High Wycombe. By redeploying staff, it can get more staff on to the platforms. This is an example of where my hon. Friend’s passengers will benefit because train operators can flex staff to provide more coverage, which makes people feel more reassured. Again, as hon. and right hon. Members look at the details and engage with the consultation, they may find their constituents are getting a wider range of services over a wider range of hours than they currently receive.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

As a booking and ticket clerk on the underground back in the 1970s, trust me: I know ticketing is now easier. I still use the buses and the underground every day, so I am familiar with the scenes at stations in the mornings and evenings. However, more screens and more opportunities for things to go wrong are not the answer to every problem. Does the Minister know how many ticket machines fail every day? These machines will make it harder, not easier, to buy tickets. It will be harder, not easier, to secure refunds. It will be harder, not easier, to apply for rail cards. Who uses booking office clerks? Disabled people, the elderly and people with language problems or difficulty understanding how to use the ticket machine. Will he give the green light for the RDG to change track and scrap this train wreck of a proposal?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

There are 979 regulated, operated stations, but 43% of all stations currently do not have any ticket office facility at all, and people are still able to use those stations to access trains. Ninety-nine per cent of transactions can be completed either online or via a machine. In the event that a machine is not working and there are no staff—a lot of stations, like my own, are staffed for only half the day—a ticket to ride can be acquired and then a ticket can be purchased at the end of a journey. Again, these processes are already in place for those stations with no ticket office. We have those blocks to build on.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

Many people using stations such as Stoke-on-Trent station are infrequent travellers, and many are vulnerable or elderly and need support to buy a ticket. Can the Minister assure me that there will always be someone at Stoke-on-Trent station to provide a paper ticket to those without digital skills?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

There are no plans to replace paper tickets through the train operators’ process. Again, the aim is to ensure that ticket office staff are freed up and on the platform to sell the tickets and help passengers to purchase them at the machines or online. The hope is that, thereafter, those passengers will be able to book for themselves with confidence, without needing to use that service. Those staff will also be available at Stoke-on-Trent to provide other services and information: more customer services. This is the exact way in which our rail passengers transact across the retail and financial space, which is why it is the right approach for the railways.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East

My constituents who use Cross Gates station and people across the country will be worried about this proposal, because closing ticket offices is yet another example of private profit being put before the public good in our railways. This move is really about gutting railways of station staff, who have a big impact on passenger accessibility and safety, especially for older and disabled people. Does the Minister really believe that this will make the railways more welcoming for people—or does that not matter?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

If we like seeing station staff when we access our journey and like the fact that we will be seeing more of them because they will be freed up, then I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Rather than gutting the railways, this Government, and indeed the taxpayer, have provided £41 billion of support since the pandemic. That does not sound like gutting the railways to me. I truly believe that we will end up with a better station experience, one that better reflects modern usage, which is why we are happy to support the train operators with these proposals. As I say, 10% of transactions are purchased across the ticket office counter—10 years ago, it was one in three. The railway is adapting to the manner in which consumers have changed their habits.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard Conservative, Blackpool North and Cleveleys

Disabled, elderly and other vulnerable passengers have been troubled by today’s announcements, but does the Minister share my weary exasperation at the fact that people do not understand that the best way to help disabled and elderly passengers is for staff to come out from behind their screens to assist them in using a ticket machine, to help them on and off trains, and to help them to move around the station? Does he agree that for more than a decade Ministers have sought to improve services for passengers on the stations but have been blocked at every turn? Does he not see an opportunity to improve accessibility on our rail network here? It should be welcomed, not rejected.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend speaks with experience, having done this role himself, and he is absolutely right in what he says. I find it patronising to be told constantly that those who have disabilities or those who are elderly cannot access things online and cannot do this. That is not the case at all. At the moment, we do not have enough products online, and, as part of this process, I have been pushing to ensure that we have more online. It will mean that people do not have to go to the station beforehand to pick up a travelcard because they need a photo that they have to take. The idea is that this move should make things better for those who have accessibility and mobility challenges, not just in putting more tickets online and into a place where they can buy them from the comfort of their own home and phone, but in making sure they have more help at the station. So I thank him for the points he makes; he speaks with expertise.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The Government have overseen the largest increase in rail fees. My constituents must deal with frequent delays and cancellations, and now people in Bath and across Somerset face losing their ticket offices. Bath is a world heritage site that has a large number of visitors. Foreign visitors, in particular, find getting through apps and ticketing machines bewildering; they depend on the ticket offices. It more important than ever now to attract people on to public transport, so will the Minister explain why my constituents, and the many visitors to Bath who would otherwise come by coach, should feel confident that train journeys will be more reliable, cheaper and more attractive than driving?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

It is because we want to give that better customer experience, so that more passengers are seeing more staff at the stations to help them with information, make them feel more secure and welcome, help them purchase a ticket, and do so in a manner where those passengers are used to transacting across the space. I very much hope the hon. Lady will see a better staff experience as a result and therefore even more people will be attracted on to rail.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

My hon. Friend is a good Minister and a good friend, but I think even he knows he has a tough gig this morning. To use his Beatles analogy, can he not just let it be? I queue up at my ticket office every Monday morning. There is always a queue of people wanting route advice, people with disabilities who cannot use the machines and people wanting refunds. I have to queue because I have an open flexible ticket, as many Members do, that I cannot get from the machine. Will roving members of staff be subject to statutory regulation? At the moment, ticket office staff are the only staff subject to statutory regulation, so I might not even be able to find a roving member of staff to take me to the machine, to request a ticket that the machine will not give me. It is not going to work, is it?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The Beatles analogy rather flew past me, I am afraid. Let me repeat the statistic to my hon. Friend: 99% of all tickets can be purchased from a ticket machine or online. In terms of the 1% we need to work on, I have asked the industry and officials to speed up the process, so that more tickets can be purchased in that manner and ticket machines can be changed so that that can occur. I seek to work with my hon. Friend to convince him that that is the right approach.

As the former Chair of the Transport Committee and having spent all my time on transport since I became a Member, I would not be making this statement if I did not believe this was the right thing for the railway and for passengers. That matters to me hugely. I am not a stooge; I do this because I think this is the right thing to do, it will create a better passenger experience and it guarantees our future in rail.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Minister spoke of modernising passengers’ experience of railways. Having visited, he will know that Luton station is not fit for purpose and that the ticket office is integral to the upper level walk-through from the town centre to High Town. Any closure of the ticket office will pose risks to the security and safety of staff and passengers. Crucially, can the Minister assure me that the proposed closure of ticket offices will not be used as a reason to delay, decrease or halt refurbishment of stations that are in need of renovation in the future, such as Luton station?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I have stood at the Dispatch Box and assured the hon. Lady that the maintenance improvements for Luton station will start in August and will be delivered by the beginning of next year. I can give her that assurance. This programme is completely separate and does not have any knock-on effects regarding the Access for All programme, through which 400 stations will have been given step-free access by next year.

As part of the process for the programme, passengers will have a three-week period during which they can provide their views on individual stations, so they can give their views on Luton station. There will then be a 35-day period during which passenger groups will assess what they have seen, and they can work with train operators on issues with which they are uncomfortable, perhaps for reasons of meeting accessibility needs. Finally, the Secretary of State will determine matters, if the two parties cannot agree. So there is a process in place to ensure that every station meets its requirements, which they must do from an accessibility perspective. None of that changes through this mechanism.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Ten per cent of ticket sales is still an awful lot of ticket sales. In this process, I hope that people who choose or need to buy their tickets from a ticket office will not suffer from the tyranny of the majority who choose not to, and that their interests will be properly protected throughout. Will the Minister assure me that those people who want to pay for their tickets using cash will still be able to do so? To me, banning people from using cash to buy tickets would be completely unacceptable.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I think I see the Beatles analogy, because there is a ticket to ride process—[Interruption.] Okay, that was it. That process is available to anybody who wishes to pay cash. For example, if my hon. Friend looks at the Northern Trains website, he will see that there is a whole feature explaining how cash can still be used. The machines should take cash. In the event that they do not, there is a process for passengers to purchase a ticket on the train without fear of a penalty. So yes, cash can still be used in the machines.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

The Minister is clearly on Southeastern time. That is why he was late getting the analogy. He said that just 10% of tickets are sold over the counter, but that does not explain who are using the ticket offices and what alternative arrangements he is going to make for them. Southeastern has announced 40 ticket office closures, 35 of which are in south-east London—that is 35 in south-east London. That is an outrage. One in my constituency has closed, but all the ones around my constituency are closing as well. What will he do to ensure that these people not only keep their jobs once they are moved out from behind the glass, but are not moved from being redeployed to redundancy? And what will he do about the 10% who rely on ticket offices?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I say respectfully to the hon. Member that Southeastern has had its best performance in six years. He stood in this place in January rightly saying that changes in the December timetable had led to higher cancellation rates. Those rates have gone down from 13% to 1.6%. Southeastern was one of the best operators in terms of performance. That was all down to the staff, but never has he stood up to thank the staff for turning things around and working so hard. He should not think they are his friends when they have to listen to him going on and giving misinformation about the situation. He has also got Southeastern’s consultation wrong. Southeastern is doing its part in stages. The first part is on the Metro, so it is London TravelWatch that will deal with the responses. It will then roll out the changes to the rest of the network. He knows that, because it was on an email sent to him.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

I pay tribute to and thank people such as Vinnie at Chislehurst station who was actually very busy when I came through this morning to get my rather late running Southeastern train—but we will leave that on one side. Does the Minister accept that 21 days is a very short period for such an important consultation? Secondly, one of the stations named—Sundridge Park—does not have step-free access to both platforms. It is staff currently in the ticket office who help people get on the trains: they put up the ramps and help passengers to negotiate the steps. Will he give an undertaking that no staff will be removed until cast iron arrangements are in place for somebody to be in attendance on those stations to assist people throughout all the hours that a station is operating?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The changes mean that some staff may be best deployed on the platforms, because that is where they are seeing most of the passengers and some of them need their help. There may be other situations where it makes more sense for that member of staff to be near where they are currently positioned because of the design of the station. The idea is that each station is looked at, so that when a member of the public decides to fill in the consultation, they will get a dropdown, which will locate the station in which they are interested and then they can provide their comments. The passenger groups will then look to see whether what is proposed will work. If it does not, that is a different matter. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that the train operators and the passenger groups will make their determinations on a case-by-case basis. Where things do not make sense, those changes will not just be put through to make for a worse experience.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice)

The announced closure of 45 railway ticket offices across Greater Manchester, including at Levenshulme and Gorton stations, will be to the detriment of my constituents who depend on them. Just when we should be encouraging travel by rail to reduce our carbon footprint, this measure will push people away from our great British railways. We should be trying to make train travel easier, cheaper and more accessible, so why are the Government acting against the interests of the public?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I re-emphasise that the aim of these measures is to redeploy staff who are currently underutilised and who are not seeing the passengers that they used to because passenger habits have changed. Those staff will be freed up to work in other areas where they can not only sell the ticket to the passenger, but also help them with information and cater for any particular accessibility needs on the platform. This is all about making for a better passenger experience. All I can say to the hon. Member is that he has the consultation and he should complete it. He will find that things such as this happen in all walks of life and in train stations as well. Manchester has looked at using ticketless travel. Tyne & Wear Metro has just done this and London Underground has done it for years. It actually works and it gives a better passenger experience and that is what I am determined to see the train operators deliver through this change.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

I have huge concerns about these plans. As the Minister knows, my hard-pressed constituents trying to get to work, college or university from Marsden or Slaithwaite stations and transiting through Huddersfield still face huge disruption on the TransPennine route. When the computer says no, does he not agree that the best way for them to get advice on ticketing, refunds, alternative routes and when the next train is coming is by speaking to fully trained staff in ticket offices?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

If I give my station as an example, we have one member of staff, who is in a ticket office. Most people already have their tickets, for the reasons I have given; only one in 10 buy them from the ticket office. They access the platform through a gate and do not see any members of staff. If there are delays and problems, it is better for passengers to be alongside the member of staff on the platform to get that information, rather than trying to find them behind glass.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

There is a problem with the Minister’s point about looking to the future. Back in 2021, Transport for the North, of which I was a board member at the time, was forced to abandon its integrated smart ticketing programme after the Government pulled the funding. I am sure the Minister will remember that from his time on the Select Committee. That work would have helped to digitise transport and create multi-modal, multi-operator pay-as-you-go travel on rail, light rail and bus. We thought it was a deeply flawed decision at the time, and recent events have shown that to be the case. Will he work with TfN and others to see whether any of that work can be reinstated?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I have the greatest respect for the hon. Member and I will certainly look at what more can be done. We are keen to roll out more pay-as-you-go. There will be 400 stations by the end of the year that will have pay-as-you-go in place, where people can tap in and out. That tends to be the future, as we see with London Underground. Those pilots are in place for the end of the year in the west midlands and Manchester. I recognise that does not cover the area he mentions, and I am happy to work with him to see what more can be done.

Coming back to London Underground, this system has been in place for some years. London Underground does not have staff behind ticket office counters, and I believe it works well. It has freed those staff to come out into the station area as a whole, where they can give much better advice and understanding to passengers. It works really well, and that is why, I believe, no Labour Mayor has asked for it to be reinstated.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

Residents in Swindon had a taste of things to come yesterday, when the ticket office was closed and people were queueing out of the door to use the wholly inadequate machines at the station. The wi-fi was unreliable as well. If we are to proceed with this significant change, the technology available to customers must be significantly better and we need to avoid a situation where elderly customers who come to pick up an advance ticket have nobody to help them. Will the Minister do everything he can, working with the rail authorities, to ensure that residents do not face—to quote the Beatles again—a “Magical Mystery Tour” when they come to Swindon station?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I will certainly do so, with my right hon. and learned Friend, and I will share a bit of experience that led me to want more in this direction. I need to get a weekly travel card, but I could not get it online because it was not available. I went to the station but did not have a photo with me. I asked, “Why is it the case that we still need a photo when that weekly travel card is less than an Avanti single?” I was told, “That’s the way it has been on the railway for 40 years. That’s why we do it.” That is not good enough. I have mobility, so I can walk up to Charing Cross to make that transaction —or not make it—and then leave, but for others who do not, it does not work for them at all. I can give him the assurance that alongside this programme is a strong exercise to make all products accessible from machines and online; 99% are already accessible, but we need to get the full suite of products so that people do not have to queue in the manner he has just described.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian

Although these station office closures are in England, they have implications for Scottish passengers. Many in my constituency, myself included—never mind those in the Borders and elsewhere in southern Scotland—access services through stations in northern England, in Berwick and elsewhere. That is not just a matter of choice, but often a matter of necessity; it is required because of the pan-UK services timetabling from LNER, TPE or CrossCountry, all of which are signed off by the DFT. What discussions are taking place with the Scottish Government or with Scottish passenger representatives to ensure that the rights of those north of the border who are impacted by this change will be protected?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I will be looking to speak to the Scottish Executive. In Scotland, similar proposals have, as I understand it, been rolled out to a number of ticket stations by ScotRail. I want to assess whether that was a mandate from the Executive. I will certainly be having a chat with them to see what lessons can be learned, given that Scotland appears to have gone before England in that regard.

Photo of Gagan Mohindra Gagan Mohindra Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

May I take this opportunity to welcome the extension of contactless payments to Berkhamsted and Tring in South West Hertfordshire? I declare an interest as a local commuter from one of those stations. Although this initiative on rail ticket offices will, in my eyes, help more travellers, can my hon. Friend reassure the House that additional support will remain for those who require help, such as the elderly and the disabled?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Yes, I can. I thank my hon. Friend for his points. I know that he has busy stations and will want to ensure that his constituents are looked after. The very first meeting that I had when we were looking at the train operators’ proposals was with disability and access groups and age concern groups. I wanted to work with them—I still do—to find out what individual characteristics of the design may work for some but not for others. I can give him the assurance that we will continue to support those who have the greatest vulnerabilities. I firmly believe that taking people out from behind glass and putting them into areas where they can be best accessed will mean that they will be able to give passengers the greatest help, making for a better rail experience.

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee

The Minister says that he has engaged with relevant disabled people’s organisations, but there has been widespread opposition to ticket office closures from such organisations, including Disability Rights UK, the National Federation of the Blind, Transport for All, Royal National Institute of Blind People, Royal National Institute for Deaf People, Guide Dogs and Scope. The Minister thinks that taking expert staff out of station ticket offices and putting them on the platform will help people, but how will people know which member of staff to go to for the help they need? A ticket office means that people know where to go to get that help. If those staff are to be redeployed, there will not be a single redundancy, will there, Minister? I have a funny feeling that these proposals will go down not like a yellow submarine but like a lead balloon.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I have stated the position with regard to redundancies. A deal is on the table but the RMT will not give it to its members to make a determination. It included a commitment to no compulsory redundancies until December 2024. It is for the RMT to decide whether it wishes to get that protection in place. I will say the same thing to the hon. Member that I have said previously: I have worked with those groups; they were the first I met and are at the forefront of my mind in ensuring that this works. From a passenger perspective, if they want to reach out to a member of staff for any reason, they will do so, and members of staff will—because they are great members of staff—signpost them to somebody else. All members of staff must have the requisite training, and they do. I have great faith in our railway workforce to continue looking after passengers. I believe that these changes will bring more benefits in that regard.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I thank the Minister for meeting me yesterday to discuss the proposed closure of Darlington’s booking office. I also met David Horne yesterday afternoon to discuss that issue. I remain deeply concerned that our mainline station, which is currently receiving £139 million of expansion investment, will be left without a booking office. The elderly, disabled and vulnerable rely on help from our ticket offices, and if a station has barriers, that help needs to be in front of those barriers, not behind them. Ticket machines and apps have cut-off times, making purchases impossible in the minutes running up to a train leaving. Will my hon. Friend look into that problem? Will he assure the House that there is proper consultation, and that some ticket offices can be saved? Will he make it clear that representations can be made by letter and not just by email?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Yes; the way in which the ticketing and settlement agreement process works means that anyone can access it online, but they can also write. Details will be available at stations, and indeed online, explaining how people can write through to make their points about their stations.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for meeting me and for doing so in a constructive manner whereby he was able to give me examples of his concerns, including tickets not being available within 15 minutes of travel. I have taken that point away because it forms part of the catalogue of changes that I want to see—the remaining 1% of tickets that cannot be purchased for that reason should be reduced towards 0%. I invite all right hon. and hon. Members who can give other examples to get in contact with me as well, because I will take those problems away and look at getting them fixed.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Tim Loughton was right: sometimes it is just too complicated to purchase a ticket without using a ticket office. I recently had that experience, and buying my ticket from the ticket office was £50 cheaper than if I had purchased it from the machine. I am afraid that the Beatles analogy he started is right: he’s got a ticket to ride, and he don’t care.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I was not even aware that I had started a Beatles analogy. Actually, this is more important than joking about music; this is about reassuring passengers that we can deliver a better experience but also an experience that they are very familiar with, in terms of the other transactions they make across the retail space. More and more people are doing that online, and they start doing it online by being taught how to do it. The idea is that ticketing staff who are currently behind glass, not seeing those passengers, will help to deliver that and ensure that those passengers have a better experience and do not need to queue up next time, because they can do it in a seamless manner. Where that operation does not exist because of the machine, we are looking to upgrade. I will take any examples he has, to ensure that passengers get the best price but can do it online or via a machine.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Staff at Kettering railway station are superb; they are friendly, polite, efficient and dedicated to simply outstanding customer service. Given that Kettering is one of the stations potentially affected, will the Rail Minister encourage rail passengers in Kettering to take part in the public consultation promoted by East Midlands Railway? Can he confirm that if the changes go through, a passenger who turns up at Kettering railway station with cash to buy a ticket will be able to do so?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that cash purchases would remain across the network. If there is a machine that is not working for cash, passengers can enter the train, safe in the knowledge that they can then purchase their ticket on the train or at the end of their journey. There are a number of stations that are not part of the current consultation, and they will tend to be the end point where passengers will find a busier station. I can absolutely give him that assurance.

My hon. Friend mentioned the staff. We are looking at the ticket office as a place that people are not accessing any more, but the ticketing staff are brilliant. All we want to do is utilise them more, so that they can see more people and use their expertise. Passengers want their ticket office staff to be more accessible, so that they can gain that expertise, and that is exactly why we want to put them in the places where the passengers are.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I am a bit worried. The Minister keeps saying that staff are not utilised and that people are not accessing ticket offices. I can tell him that in Hull last year, nearly 180,000 tickets were sold from the ticket office—that is one ticket every 1.6 minutes. We have gone through years of bad management with TransPennine at Hull Paragon station. This looks like another downgrading of facilities for passengers. We have heard about the effect it will have on the elderly, the disabled and the vulnerable. Can the Minister just for once put the travelling public first?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I am putting the travelling public first when I make these points. What the right hon. Lady and others cannot deny, despite saying it cannot be believed, is that 10 years ago one in three tickets was sold across the ticket office counter, because people were not purchasing as much online or through machines. Now it is 10%. That demonstrates that ticket office staff are not being utilised fully. We want to utilise them in a better manner. Redeploying staff where they are not as busy as they were and could be better utilised and have a more rewarding job is what happens across the retail sector. The railways should be no different.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

Anyone who has experienced the long queues from the machines and the ticket office at my local train station of Leigh-on-Sea—sometimes it goes out of the office and around the block—on a Monday morning, and sometimes on a Saturday, will know why I have been campaigning for contactless ticketing to be extended to Leigh-on-Sea and Chalkwell stations ever since I arrived in this place. As such, I am personally delighted; however, innovation must never be used as an excuse to exclude any of my constituents or deliver a worse service. The blind and partially sighted, such as the wonderful Jill Allen-King OBE, cannot access the touchscreen ticket machines and need a person to help them buy that ticket, but that person does not need to be behind glass. Can the Minister assure me that there will always be somebody available at Leigh-on-Sea and Chalkwell ticket stations to help the blind and partially sighted, the elderly, and anyone else who needs help?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Yes—any currently staffed station will not become unstaffed as a result of these changes. As I have said, 43% of stations do not have ticket office staff, but if the stations that my hon. Friend has mentioned are currently staffed, they will not become unstaffed.

My hon. Friend referenced guide dogs. I am very grateful for the meeting I had with the Guide Dogs team, because we know that when it comes to mobility and accessibility issues, what may work for some does not work for everyone. Sight loss is a particular example of that, so I am very keen to continue to work with Guide Dogs to reassure my hon. Friend’s constituents that they will always get the help they need at her local stations.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons)

I have several rail ticket offices in my constituency: Stockport, Heaton Chapel and Brinnington. The Minister will know, because I have raised it with him frequently, that Heaton Chapel and Brinnington do not have disabled access, so I am not convinced by the notion that this Government are looking to deliver more for passengers, and I do not think my constituents are convinced either. The ticket offices at all three of those stations—Stockport, Brinnington and Heaton Chapel—seem to be earmarked for closure, and the people who work in those ticket offices will be worried. Some 240,000 people work on the railway; they will be worried that the Government are running the industry into the ground, so I urge the Minister to rethink this proposal. Twenty-one days is an absolutely outrageous period of time for a consultation.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Again, I point to the accessibility stats. There was a 68% increase in the number of passengers who needed assistance at stations, so it surely makes sense to free up people who are working behind glass and are unable to provide that assistance—people who may not be as utilised, because fewer passengers are purchasing tickets in that manner. Those people can then go and assist the passengers who need that help the most, which is at the forefront of these changes.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

I very much welcome the announcement that Gillingham and Rainham ticket offices will be kept open, and I pay tribute to the fantastic staff in Gillingham and Rainham. Across the board, constituents have raised with me the needs of an ageing population and the elderly. I accept the need for innovation and adaption, but whether it is banking or seeking repeat prescriptions, services are going online, and the elderly are finding it difficult to access face-to-face services. Regarding transport and getting advice and support at public train stations, can the Minister please ensure that face-to-face provision is always available for our elderly residents?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I hope that these changes will lead to more face-to-face interaction, because those who work on the railway and provide such brilliant help, information and reassurance for passengers will be more likely to be in the places where those passengers are located. Southeastern is doing its consultation in stages—the current part is for the metro side of Southeastern, after which it will be rolled out further—but I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

My constituents and I are getting a bit fed up of everything being pushed online, because as we have heard today, it does not work for everyone. However, I want to ask the Minister what he is going to do to help operators deal with this change. Merseyrail, for example, does not accept tickets on phones, and there have been plenty of examples of people who bought through tickets online being fined because they have not been able to produce a physical ticket. Is the Minister going to do an assessment of operators’ capacity to deal with this issue and give them some financial support to make that change?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

We will certainly be working with the train operators to ensure that passengers are not inconvenienced. As I mentioned, 43% of stations do not have ticket offices right now, and people still purchase their tickets and get on board. However, if members of the public are not able to purchase a ticket for whatever reason, including in stations that do not have a ticket office—perhaps because the machine is not operating—there will be a means to ensure that they are not inconvenienced. Obviously, the changes could be rolled out further, so I will make sure that train operators are fully geared towards that end, and that passengers are not inconvenienced in the manner that the hon. Gentleman has described. I give him that assurance.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

Of course, it is always healthy to carry out a review to make positive change, but I have to say that I am deeply concerned to hear that Northern is considering closing the ticket offices in Keighley and Ilkley. I am yet to be convinced that these changes will have a positive impact on disabled passengers, elderly passengers, those with accessibility issues and of course those who want to carry out more complex transactions. One in six people carry out such transactions at those two stations—higher than the national average. Will the Minister meet me so that I can express my concerns, but will he also reiterate to the House that this is a consultation and that there is no done deal, and urge people to comment and give their views to the consultation?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I would certainly be delighted to meet him and any other hon. and right hon. Members who wish to meet me to discuss this issue. Again, let me set out the process, which has been triggered by the train operators setting out their plans. There is a period of time— 21 days—for members of the public to respond. There is then a 35-day period for the transport groups, London TravelWatch and Transport Focus, to assess what is being said at each station. If they are not convinced, they will work with the train operator, and if that mechanism cannot reach an agreement on these matters, it will go to its ultimate stage, which is with the Secretary of State.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Many Members have mentioned the impact on those with accessibility problems, and I would urge the Minister to take that into account. For my constituents in Edinburgh West, the closures announced by LNER, CrossCountry, Avanti West Coast and TransPennine all affect stations on the main line route. Can the Minister tell us how he is going to address the perception, which is growing, that people are not being encouraged on to public transport, and that accessibility to the south of the United Kingdom from Scotland, particularly from Edinburgh, is being undermined?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As part of this process, a number of stations will not be included. They tend to be bigger hub stations, as we call them, so Edinburgh is not included in that regard. I may be in danger of repeating myself, but the reason I sat down on the very first day this came up with those who represent disability and accessibility groups is that I was concerned they would feel that such a change may not be a positive for them. I wanted to work with them to understand how we can make this change positive, and how we can deploy more staff into the spaces where they will be able to access them more than they can right now. I continue to work with those groups, and I give the hon. Member the assurance that that process will remain. Of course, after the consultation and at the end point, all the current accessibility requirements will have to be met under these proposals, as they are under the existing set-up.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

First, I absolutely understand and respect what my hon. Friend and next-door neighbour is looking to achieve through these innovations, but he will not be surprised that I have already had a deluge of concerned constituents get in touch who are feeling that they are being designed out and are set to be disenfranchised. This follows hard on the change to car parking at the station, which now requires a specific app.

I have already had assurance from Southern that there will be assistance for passengers at Eastbourne from the first train to the last train. Under the proposed changes, there are longer ticket assistance hours than ticket office hours, so at face value this may represent an improvement and an extension of support. However, I can only imagine the complex and quite convoluted conversations at ticket machines that will have to take place about journey planning, and the long line of other passengers waiting to access a service with which they are super-fluent. The consultation is for 21 days, which is a very short period of time. I intend to make a significant contribution to that on behalf of the very many people who will not know how or will not feel empowered to do so. Will the Minister encourage operators to accept that?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I can give my hon. Friend and neighbour that assurance. Again, I would encourage hon. Members to look at the train operators in their area to see what the plans would mean. A number of train operators have decided to take a number of people from behind the glass counters, who are all working the same hours, and flex their hours—they have the ability to do so—which means there will be wider coverage over the day. One plan I was particularly interested to see was with late-night coverage where there is no such coverage at the moment; these changes will actually provide that coverage. It is coverage not just to sell a ticket on the platform and provide help and guidance, but to provide safety reassurance, an information point and the greeting that people want if they are to be able to use their railway. That is why I am a passionate advocate of these changes, and I believe they will make for a better experience for the passenger over a longer period of the day.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury)

The Minister may remember our meeting on 1 December with Southeastern. In that meeting, I asked whether there were any plans to close any ticket offices. The response from Southeastern was no. Was the Minister privy to any conversations or plans regarding ticket office closures before our meeting?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I will look back on our notes from that meeting and work out what was said. The train operators have put forward these proposals because they are required to look at their coverage and at how they need to adapt and modernise to give a better passenger experience. I have of course had discussions with them, and one of the examples that I have given over the course of the past three quarters of an hour is that of ensuring that more ticket options are put online and on to machines. I also made sure that my first discussions were with accessibility groups, because I wanted them to be able to give me their views. Yes, I have been involved in the process, and I will look back at the minutes from our meeting in December, assess what was said and write back to her.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Strangford is the centre of the world, Mr Speaker.

Is the Minister aware that not everyone is completely computer literate or has access to a printer? For example, my 92-year-old mother has the capacity to go to the train station for a day trip, but she absolutely cannot go online because she is a cash person. Where in this decision is the consideration of people such as my mother and others of that generation? Surely customer care and satisfaction has to be key to any decision.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: customer care is at the forefront of this change. At the moment, a customer can go to a station and purchase a ticket from an office behind the glass, but only 10% of tickets are purchased in that manner. That means that other members of the public often do not receive any help or journey assistance in other parts of the station and do not get the full benefit of that member of staff. These changes are all about giving passengers a service. This is not just about buying tickets, with a member of staff with them at the machine showing passengers what to do, but about help in all other regards.

I have a great passion for the railways. I love this job, and I love the railways. All the staff who work on them do an amazing job. That is why I am spending three weeks of my summer visiting all parts of the system to learn more, assess more and reassure more. I recognise Members’ concerns, and I hope I have answered as many questions as I can. For those who want to meet me because they want to understand more, I am happy to do that, because I want every hon. Member to have everything they need to ensure that this change is positive for our passengers.