Before I call Chris Loder to move the motion, I want to give Members as much advance notice as possible that the time limit will be a maximum of two minutes. I will try to get everybody in, but I want to get to the Front Benchers no later than 10.30 am.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered railway ticket offices.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. We know that the future of railway ticket offices is important; the level of attendance here today and the fact that the Transport Committee is, in parallel, currently receiving evidence about this matter confirms it. It feels like the old days, when I was a member of the union having a union meeting, to see so many friends and colleagues from across the House here, and I warmly welcome them all to take part in the debate.
I am here today on a mission. That mission is to ensure that the staffed hours at West Dorset railway stations are protected and definitely not slashed by more than 50%, as is currently proposed by South Western Railway in its station change consultation.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Scunthorpe is another station that will see a huge reduction in hours under the proposals. I know the Minister will address this, but does my hon. Friend share my worry that staff clearly cannot get out from behind the ticket office and do any work around the station if their hours are cut, because they simply will not be there?
I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that there is a lack of understanding about this issue, and I shall look to expose that later in my speech.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but not because I have been bankrolled by a trade union and feel obliged to speak; I know that some Opposition Members present are in that position and that union cash—[Interruption.] Union cash has gone into the back pocket of some Members who are here, to the value of tens of thousands of pounds. That is not why I am speaking. I am speaking because before I was elected I worked for the railway for 20 years, and that career started as a station assistant—the very role that is affected by these proposals, and in my case the proposals from South Western Railway.
The trade unions and particularly the RMT—the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—have for many years blocked meaningful reform of station staff’s conditions of service, even though those reforms may have been beneficial to staff. That has meant that when ticket offices are quiet and no customer is there, staff have in many cases not checked the car park, cleaned the station or helped those in need on the platform, often because they were instructed by their union not to undertake any other responsibilities or, indeed, not to fully undertake the responsibilities they have. That is nothing new, but I am very proud to say that it is not an issue at the stations in West Dorset.
No one can say that I do not believe staff are important. They are, and much more so than some train operators and others have given them credit for. For the record, I would like to thank those members of staff, many of whom are former colleagues of mine, who continue today to diligently and carefully look after the many thousands of passengers who pass through their stations. To Judith and Winifred at Dorchester South, to Colin and Bob, who both retired from Sherborne a few years ago, and of course to Anne, who has worked at Sherborne station since I was a little boy, I would like to tell you all today that as your MP I shall stand up to protect not just your employment but the cherished service that you give, which is so welcomed by the hundreds and hundreds of local people you help every single day.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. I assure him that I am here not on behalf of any trade union but on behalf of my residents, particularly those who have a disability or who need special tickets, such as extensions to freedom passes, and women travelling late at night on their own. The new measures will see highly used stations, such as Whitton and Teddington in my constituency, reduced to only 20 hours of staffing a week. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that without an equality impact assessment and ticketing modernisation, we should not be pressing ahead with the changes?
I will highlight some of the issues in a moment. There is clearly a veil, behind which is hidden an enormous reduction in staffing hours at stations, which is a key issue that I shall address in a moment.
To completely alter decent ticket services for constituents is wrong, primarily because of what Munira Wilson said, but also because the impact will be even greater in rural areas across the United Kingdom, particularly for elderly constituents and those who are not au fait with the online system. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as the hon. Member for Twickenham said, we need a review and for everybody to be able to input into the process before the Government and the Minister progress with the changes?
I will address those points later, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.
Moving staff from being solely behind the ticket office window to being more visibly present on the station, and directly helping passengers with purchasing tickets or helping people on and off trains, is a good concept. In principle, it is an initiative that I support, but behind the veil is the reality: at Sherborne station, the overall staffed hours will be 40% less than today; Crewkerne station in south Dorset, which serves the rural west of my constituency, will have its hours slashed by 50%; and the reality for Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, is that South Western Railway currently proposes to slash the staffing presence at Dorchester South station by 55%.
Staff cuts are also proposed at Barnes, Earlsfield, Putney and Wandsworth Town stations, which serve my constituents. Does the hon. Member agree with me and my constituents, who do not understand why the Government seem to be pushing for this change and why the potential changes to the ticketing and settlement agreement made earlier this year have forced the changes on the rail companies? Does he agree that many people are concerned that this violates the Equality Act 2010?
Some of the hon. Lady’s questions are for the Minister to address later, but I agree that a number of aspects have not been taken into account in the current consultation and proposals, which is why I called for this debate and am making this speech.
The disingenuous veil of moving staff from behind the ticket office window to be out on the station, with no change in staff hours, is patently untrue in West Dorset. This is not reform but inequality against not just those with mobility issues, but the elderly and those who are often without access to technology, driving issues of rural isolation still further.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and I congratulate him on securing the debate. There is a still more fundamental issue here: we are stripping life of human interactions and connections between people, in both the private and public sectors—in everything from shops to banks and now railway stations—and in doing so we are unpicking the threads that bind us together and make up the tapestry of civilised life. This is a time to think again and take a stand.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who I think is entirely in agreement with a lot of what I have to say. I shall elaborate further in a moment.
The proposed changes will compound years of really poor service to the people of Dorset. South Western Railway has previously slashed the train service, totally cutting us off from direct trains to London for prolonged periods, removed all on-board catering for train journeys of almost three and a half hours, and dumped passengers, at all times of day or night, with no way to travel forward just to save a few minutes in delay. Those are just some examples of what my constituents face day to day.
I recognise that proponents of the scheme say that it is vital to progress de-staffing and ticket office closures because only 12% of all tickets are sold at ticket offices.
Those wishing for closures argue that only 12% of tickets are bought at the ticket office, but I know that my hon. Friend has travelled through Thornaby’s brilliant little train station, where almost 25% of tickets are still bought at the ticket office. Does he agree that those 25% of people are often the most vulnerable, and that Thornaby’s ticket office must stay open?
Anyone would think that my hon. Friend has had prior sight of my speech. Yes, I agree with him, and am about to articulate why.
In West Dorset, South Western Railway has refused to tell me what the percentage of tickets sold at ticket offices on both the Weymouth and Exeter lines actually is—I wonder why. Operators that have wanted to do the right thing have been open and shared that information because it is in the public interest. Regardless of the background, we have some realities to face. The real question that my constituents are asking is: does a national figure of 12% of all tickets being purchased from ticket offices warrant them all being closed down?
On that point, I am staunchly against the proposals for not only a reduction in staffing hours but the closure of ticket offices in Keighley and Ilkley. Given that the proportion of tickets sold at Keighley and Ilkley is higher than the national average—it is one in six, as opposed to the lower national trend—does my hon. Friend agree with me that the proposal to close Keighley and Ilkley ticket offices is absolutely wrong?
I agree that my hon. Friend shares many of the same difficulties and challenges that I face in West Dorset. I will be pleased to articulate further why I agree with him.
The fact that nationally 12% of tickets are purchased from ticket offices does not necessarily warrant them all being closed down, particularly as the percentage for many rural stations and among higher-age communities is much higher than the national average, and no more so than in the south-west. The demographics of constituents in my West Dorset constituency are such that 30% of the population is over 65, which suggests that more people than average use ticket offices. That totally busts the myth that only 12% of tickets are sold at all stations. For example, at Barnstaple station in the constituency of my hon. Friend Selaine Saxby, 45% of all tickets are sold at the ticket office.
In Dorchester, even if the company gave me the stats they would not offer an accurate picture because such is the level of management incompetence that the ticket office door was closed for in excess of three months last year, awaiting repair. That will undoubtedly have skewed the statistics and is, quite frankly, questionable in itself. The only reason why that situation got sorted was because I complained about it.
I have an email from a whistleblower who works for Abellio Greater Anglia. The key thing it says is that
“the ticket offices are used much more than people realise. Although the figures say only 12% of tickets are issued by ticket offices, this is an average…Stations like Billericay, Wickford and Raleigh are selling over 500 per shift at weekends.”
So people who work for the railway and who know the truth would agree with everything that my hon. Friend just said.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution and support.
There is a significant Access for All bid in for Dorchester South, for a new footbridge to make the station accessible. What company of any moral standing would propose a reduction in staffing hours of 55% when half the station is inaccessible, and when the company refuses routinely to change the platform to help those in the greatest need?
Typically, when we buy our tickets online through retailers such as the Trainline, we assume that they are working in our best interests as fare-paying passengers, and that they automatically search for the cheapest fare possible, perhaps through something called a split ticket. I can tell the House today that that is not the case, and I shall offer an example or two.
The cheapest way for rail passengers to get from London to Plymouth is to travel via London Waterloo and change at Exeter St David’s. They should buy a ticket from Waterloo to Axminster, and another ticket from Axminster to Plymouth, which in total will cost £93.90 for a return, and with a railcard just £64.50. Any Members present with a smartphone should feel free to have a look for themselves. I checked this before the debate. If they enter London to Plymouth on the Trainline, they will be given the option of taking the 10.04 am from Paddington to Plymouth, and offered a ticket for a staggering £158.70. That is almost £100 more than the cheapest alternative, which is actually on the 10.20 am from Waterloo to Exeter, and then change.
Why is that? It is because anti-competitive online digital algorithms have been set to block certain ticket combinations, in this case on the Waterloo to Exeter line. To be fair, it is not just on the Trainline app that this happens. Those who want to should have a look on South Western Railway’s website and try to book the same fare. Put in those details—why not even try specifically to put London Waterloo to Plymouth? It will not give them the cheapest combination either; it will send them to Paddington and make them pay more.
Do not think that the issue is reserved to the south-west alone. This time last year, I called out Avanti West Coast and the Trainline for similar behaviour on the route between Manchester and London, where the supposed walk-up fares were quota-controlled if bought online. If the ticket quota had sold out, the customer would be redirected to a more expensive online fare, or the cookies on their smartphone would tell the system that they wanted that ticket and it would automatically charge them more.
My hon. Friend seems to be describing my journey home this evening. He is outlining the reason why we need people in our ticket offices: so that we can ask for advice and guidance, how to get about, and how to navigate the system, which is so badly orchestrated for those buying tickets online. Can he go further in telling us how we might provide a solution for that system?
My hon. Friend is taking the concluding words of my speech out of my mouth.
If a customer went to the ticket office, where the regulations require that the cheapest ticket is to be sold, they could indeed buy the cheapest ticket there at the advice of someone in the ticket office. What is really disgraceful about all this is that the issue I highlighted on the west coast main line this time last year happened during the period of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II lying in state, when so many people wanted to travel to London. It is pure commercial disdain, and it makes me sick.
Frankly, this is a scandal. After the debate, I will be writing to the Competition and Markets Authority to ask it to investigate, and I hope the Minister will do so as well. If any other Member, regardless of which side of the House they sit, would like to co-sign my letter, I will be delighted to hear from them after this debate.
I remind the House that I am here to make the case for station staffing hours to be maintained, not just because we need these experienced and knowledgeable members of staff, but to ensure that, in this cost of living crisis, passengers can get the cheapest fare, rather than rely on manipulative apps and online digital prices that overcharge them. The one person who can be trusted to provide the cheapest fare is the ticket office clerk.
Proposals for reform should not just improve efficiency; they should enable a growing railway for the future and access for all. The Secretary of State kindly gave me the assurance last week in my Westminster office that the sort of duplicity that is being proposed could be vetoed. Those of us here are making that point on the record; I hope the Minister will be able to concur.
I am not averse to reform. In fact, it is important to recognise that I think it is good, but, as the constituency MP for West Dorset, I request that the Minister stops these ridiculous proposals from South Western Railway and ensures that we do not see a reduction in staffed hours at Sherborne or Dorchester South. I expect other Members will make similar requests.
As everyone can see, this is a heavily subscribed debate. I want you to help each other. I have 18 people on the list, which makes two minutes each, without interventions. If anyone intervenes, that is nothing to do with me but it may restrict the number of people who can speak. That is all I ask. Without interventions, everyone on the list will get two minutes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Chris Loder on securing the debate. I agree with a number of his points but disagree entirely with his characterisation of trade unions. It will come as no surprise that I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding my membership of several trade unions.
Time is limited so I will make only two or three key points. According to the Financial Conduct Authority, there are 1.1 million adults in the UK with no bank account, of whom one in five is aged between 18 and 24. One of the regions with the highest number of unbanked people is Greater Manchester, where my constituency lies. With the proposal to close ticket offices and given the unreliability of station ticket vending machines, how are people who are predominantly cash based meant to purchase tickets? What provision is the Minister proposing? Would not simply keeping the ticket offices be the best solution to any potential problems of creating a more inaccessible rail network? What about part-cash, part-card payments? What about refunds for tickets purchased with cash? There are 467 stations managed by Northern Rail, of which 449 have cashless ticket machines. It seems that people who want to pay with cash or part-cash are excluded from this new, in theory modern railway network. I hope the Minister will address that point.
The ticket offices are the only form of regulated station staffing. If they are closed, there will be no more statutory regulation for staffing at stations. The RMT union tells me that that will undoubtedly mean that train companies proceed with a massive reduction in staffing across the network. Does the Minister accept that such a move will mean job losses for thousands of railway workers? I have three train stations in my constituency: Brinnington, Heaton Chapel and Stockport. Two of those do not have disabled access. The idea that the Government are working towards a more modern network is complete nonsense, because there is no access available.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Loder on securing the debate. In a longer session, it would be worth looking at how things such as contactless travel could be extended, particularly incorporating railcards into that offer.
In the time I have, I will focus on the situation at the ticket offices at Torquay and Paignton stations. Although the national average is about 15%, the consultation document confirms that at Paignton 41.3% of tickets were sold at the ticket office. The high percentage of passengers purchasing a ticket at this ticket office shows that demand and need for this service are still strong. It may partly reflect the fact that Paignton and the neighbouring areas are communities with a higher than average percentage of people aged over 70, who may be unfamiliar with online booking methods. Similarly, many tourists use the ticket office not just to buy a ticket but to clarify which tickets are available and the validity of their tickets, and use some of the GroupSave options that may be harder to get from a machine.
At Torquay station, 29.4% of tickets are still sold at the office, but I recognise that the situation is far from ideal for passengers. The ticket office is on the down platform, from which the only destination is Paignton station. Most people therefore depart from the up platform, which has the self-service ticket machine—though often with a large waste bin right behind it—no indoor waiting area and no staff facilities whatever.
I hope that, as part of this process, the Minister will look at feedback about facilities as well as the ticket office issue. I would be particularly interested to hear from him whether the response will be a blanket one, or one that considers the situation at each station. Will thresholds be considered to give more clarity to the level of usage that would see a ticket office retained, and will there be action where the consultation highlights issues such as a lack of other suitable facilities at a station?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. As the SNP disabilities spokesperson, this topic is very important to me. For disabled people, particularly those who are learning disabled, the proposal is appalling. Transport for All has given me a very full briefing on this issue. At no stage in the consultation on the recommended closures has there been any consideration at all of disabled people and their requirements.
The equality impact assessment has been mentioned. Has the Minister any idea how the proposed changes will affect disabled people? Has he spoken to disabled people or his Department’s disability champion? I am glad to see that the Minister is nodding, but I fail to understand why he has not considered the fact that the notification and advertising of the consultation is severely impacting disabled people, some of whom could not read the notices.
None of this is of any use to people who are visually impaired or deaf, older people, people with no access to anything but cash, or people in wheelchairs, who at present cannot get the required discount from the self-service machines in stations. There is only one answer to this whole mess: for the UK Government to do as the Scottish Government have done and nationalise rail operators.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Loder on securing the debate and highlighting this important issue.
Southeastern and Southern, the two rail operators in my beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye, have made proposals that were subject to consultation. I have urged constituents to engage in the consultation to ensure that their views are heard and taken into account. I have also met representatives from Southeastern and Southern to highlight my concerns and those of constituents who have contacted me.
Southeastern’s proposal is to close the ticket offices at St Leonards Warrior Square and West St Leonards and have station staff visible and available to provide a wider range of customer support, including accessibility and safeguarding. Hastings station is to be a travel centre, where customers will have access to help, information and all ticket-selling facilities currently available at a ticket office, including a face-to-face service. I welcome the proposal for Hastings station, which is one of the busiest on the rail network, serving a highly diverse range of customers, including tourists arriving and departing or changing trains.
Southern proposes to reduce the opening hours at Rye station and, worryingly, to close all ticket office facilities on Sundays. This proposal is unacceptable. Hastings is to be a travel centre because it has a large volume and range of customers, including tourists, during both the week and the weekend, but this is also true of Rye. I am advocating for Rye station to be made a travel centre because Rye is also primarily a tourist town, and has an older demographic that is not always adept at using online services or ticket machines. One size does not fit all.
Although I am acutely aware of the financial constraints following on from covid, the reduction in passenger numbers and the huge subsidies provided by the Government, I ask train operators to tailor their plans according to local need. I have asked them not to judge local response to their consultations, as people might not know about them or they might be unable to respond for some reason, even though they care about what happens. It is important that train operators listen to local residents and, importantly, to their staff on the ground as to what they consider to be an essential ticket office service for a given locality.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I want to discuss my opposition to the proposals that would close or reduce the opening hours of most train station ticket offices in England. Ticket office staff provide the human face of a complex system and play a vital role in helping passengers understand their travel options, buy the right ticket, find the right platform and secure assistance for those who are disabled. It would be sheer folly to cut or remove such a vital service.
Many of my constituents have expressed that view. One, who works in a railway station ticket office, is concerned about what this will mean for her job. She is right to be concerned. According to the RMT, the proposals put 2,300 station staff jobs at risk. Another constituent who has a severe visual impairment has been in touch with me to say that for blind and partially sighted people, the support provided by ticket offices and staff is vital. She has expressed serious concern, saying:
“Ticket office closures will see even more visually impaired people excluded from travelling independently by train.”
That chimes with the results of a survey by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, which showed that only 3% of blind and partially sighted respondents said they could use a ticket vending machine without problems.
We must also remember the impact of the proposals on those with poor literacy and numeracy skills. In England, 7.1 million adults—that is 16.4% of the adult population—are functionally illiterate. It is a matter of extreme concern that the Department for Transport refuses to release its equality and impact assessments regarding the potential closures. The Government must make the assessments available; people have a right to know what is in them.
Public transport must be inclusive. It is vital for employment, leisure, accessing healthcare, visiting friends and the operation of the economy. Making it harder to travel by train simply makes no sense.
The second highest number of signatures on the petition against these proposals comes from my constituents in Rayleigh and Wickford. I have been pressing the Minister for months for figures on ticket office sales in my constituents’ stations. They arrived yesterday afternoon. At Hockley, he says they sell an average of 219 tickets a day, in Rayleigh 461 and in Wickford 480, but the email I read out from the Abellio whistleblower—by the way, I have no faith in Abellio’s management—says that in fact, and particularly at weekends, the figures of ticket sales are even higher. I ask the Minister to listen to my constituents and to people who work on the railway.
In my reply to the consultation exercise on
“In summary, I do not believe that what is proposed will provide significant savings for train operators but will conversely provide serious disbenefits to passengers. In other words, ‘the game is not worth the candle’. I very much hope…that these proposals will be reconsidered and eventually dropped.”
That “very much” remains my view.
I have had the privilege of being a Minister, and the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, is a fair Minister, I know. In all seriousness I offer him and the Government some genuine advice: look around. The proposals are completely unloved. They are not popular even among Conservative Back Benchers—quite, quite the opposite. I urge the Minister to accept that mistake has been made. It may not have been his mistake, but I say to him: take the hint, drop it, get rid of it and retreat gracefully. Do not press forward with this. The House of Commons does not want it and nor do our constituents.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Chris Loder on securing this important debate.
Looking through the correspondence I have received from my constituents on this issue, it has become clear why the public consultation was originally intended to last just three weeks: the train operators knew they would not get the response they wanted. Of course, I have not had the opportunity to see all the submissions made—over 460,000 of them—during the three months in which the consultation was open, but if the overall public response is anything like the response that I have seen in my constituency, it will have been emphatic and nearly unanimous. The verdict of the British public is clear: they do not want the ticket offices to close.
I am grateful that in my constituency of Birkenhead, not a single ticket office is slated for closure. That is because they are all operated by the Merseyrail network, which is under the leadership of Steve Rotheram, the Metro Mayor, who has announced Merseyrail’s ambition to become the most inclusive rail network in all of Britain. Just as it did in its approach to the pay dispute, when it sat down with the unions to reach an equitable deal, Merseyrail has chosen to break with the scorched earth tactics of the Rail Delivery Group and will instead pursue a path that works in the interests of both passengers and rail staff. When travelling within and out of their community, my constituents will still be able to rely on the expertise, support and assistance of ticket office staff.
According to research conducted by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, only 3% of blind and visually impaired people reported being able to use ticket machines without problems, while 58% said that it was entirely impossible for them to use ticket machines. Ticket offices are indispensable to ensuring that everyone can access our rail network, but the bleak reality facing many people who are blind or visually impaired is that if ticket offices close, their world will grow smaller because their ability to travel freely and independently will be constrained. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Huw Merriman, should recognise that ticket office closures represent a profound threat to the progress that has been made in fighting for equal opportunities for all in this country.
My constituency has three railway stations: Warrington Central, Warrington Bank Quay and Warrington West. The latter two will see their manned ticket offices close, and although Warrington Central is one of the few stations where ticket offices will not be shut entirely, there will be a reduction in staffing hours there.
This public consultation is one of the poorest public consultations I have seen, because there is simply no explanation for the vast difference in the way that two stations that are less than a mile from each other are being treated. Warrington Bank Quay, which is the main line station on the west coast main line, will have no members of staff at its ticket office, yet Warrington Central will have a fully staffed ticket office. That makes no sense at all.
My hon. Friend Chris Loder cited a figure saying that 12% of tickets last year were sold through a ticket office. That really is an oversimplification of the situation, especially when we consider just how many journeys are made annually. The latest figures for 2018-19—pre-pandemic—show about 1.8 billion rail journeys taking place in the UK. If we accept the 12% figure, that means that 200 million tickets were purchased through a ticket office. That is a huge number, but we are simply to withdraw ticket offices from around the UK. The 12% figure also does not take account of the conversations that take place at ticket windows when a ticket is not purchased but advice is sought about the best route, or details are given about buying a ticket at a later date. All these things are not being taken into account.
I will not take up any more time in this debate, save to ask the Minister one question. Can he explain to me why there is a difference in the way that Warrington Bank Quay station, which is run by Avanti, is being treated and the way that Warrington Central, which is run by Northern, is being treated?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies.
I congratulate Chris Loder on securing this debate. He made an excellent speech, although he will not be surprised to learn that I disagree with him about his characterisation of the trade union movement. Labour Members are very proud to be associated with that part of the labour movement—and of course, to the extent that we are funded by unions, it is the cleanest money in British politics. [Laughter.] Some colleagues laugh, but I will sure we will have a look at their entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The proposals we are debating today are appalling. Let us get this matter into some perspective. These 13 companies are planning to close nearly 1,000 ticket offices. That will leave 2,300 working people in our constituencies right across the land out of work. I am concerned about the ticket office staff in my constituency of Middlesbrough and my constituents who use the service, but the same situation applies right across the country. About 25% of the staff will be lost.
As a former shadow Rail Minister and shadow Transport Secretary, I wholeheartedly agree with the remarks of Sir John Hayes. This is about a human relationship with the railways. People find it very difficult to travel in any event. To strip that out would be a disaster.
I wondered whether my former shadow might raise that issue. The people in Spalding in Lincolnshire want that human interaction. The hon. Gentleman and I worked closely to pursue transport policies in the national interest and for the common good. That is what this is about. This is about the common good of the communities we serve: Spalding, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere.
That was so well articulated, but the reality is that companies are issuing section 188 notices and advertising premises to let now, while the consultation is under way. I ask the Minister, who is a good man and who thinks about these things very deeply and has good intentions in this regard, to really think about this matter.
I find myself in total agreement with Mr Francois. There is universal condemnation of these proposals, and there is an opportunity to retreat and consider a better way forward. Of course we want to see technological advances, but it is not an either/or; that human contact can still be there, with more people on the platforms but also in ticket offices. Let us think outside this box.
Transport for London have the most remarkable system of fares and ticketing. That is the sort of initiative that we should be rolling out across our country. I have recommended Labour’s plans for ticketing and fares before, and I encourage the Minister to look at those carefully. We have got the ability and the algorithms to do it, but it cannot be at the cost of losing that human contact that so many people—disabled, vulnerable or otherwise—depend upon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Loder on securing and so ably leading this important debate.
Darlington station’s ticket office sold 133,785 tickets in 2022. That is 368 a day. I recently spoke to one of the ticket clerks there, and they have been sending a member of staff out on the platform to work in the proposed way. This is not scientific, but the clerk estimated that 50% of the people they tried to help still needed to come into the ticket office to be properly assisted.
As the Minister is aware, Darlington Bank Top station is in the process of a £139 million transformation, including the construction of new platforms that will significantly increase the station’s capacity and the number of people it serves. It seems madness to close the ticket office at Darlington at this time and undermine the important Government-funded redevelopment.
The Minister has already heard my concerns on this issue. I have raised a number of issues with him, including the siting of ticket machines, the unavailability of tickets via apps and machines in the minutes before boarding a train, and the anxiety caused to passengers threatened with penalty fares.
There is tremendous cynicism in our society these days as to what a consultation means. It is now almost a universally held belief that, when a consultation is commissioned, the decision has already been made and the process is conducted solely to pay lip service to the public’s views. I am grateful to the Minister for listening to me on this issue and for his reassurance that this is a genuine consultation, that the voices of my constituents will be heard loud and clear, and that Darlington Bank Top station can keep its ticket office.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. In rural communities like the one where I live in Devon, ticket offices play a role that extends way beyond selling tickets. By being able to speak to a real person and talk through journey options, it means that people can avoid online vendors ripping them off. I would like to hand my platform over to a couple of constituents who have written to me about how the changes will affect the four stations in my constituency: Axminster, Honiton, Feniton and Tiverton Parkway.
I received an email from Marian. She lives with a visual impairment and is deeply concerned about how these changes will impact her and other people who are blind or partially sighted. She wrote to me:
“Without ticket offices, we will have to purchase tickets online or through vending machines at stations. These are often inaccessible, so improving this basic accessibility should be the first priority, not ticket office closures.
Ticket Office staff are usually my first point of contact at my local…station where staff are exceptionally knowledgeable and helpful, taking time and trouble to be as informative as possible.”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the bizarre things about the proposal affecting Axminster is that its station will actually get more staffing hours rather than a reduction?
People who live in Axminster recognise that the station will be poorly served, and they as constituents will be poorly served by the changes. They will mean that blind and visually impaired people such as Marian will not know where to go in the station concourse.
Another constituent, Josie, describes herself as an “active pensioner”. She wrote:
“The staff provide an invaluable service, giving accurate up-to-the-minute information especially during disruption of trains due to adverse weather, cows on the line, bridge damage, engineering work and strikes. They provide reliable advice in advance for other services and for fares. They print out timetables and have at hand leaflets for obtaining railcards.”
Those are just two testimonies, but they show the real, human impact of this appalling proposal to close ticket offices in rural places such as my corner of Devon.
My constituents, rail user groups and I are absolutely flabbergasted by these proposals. We are frustrated and deeply angry. It is fair to say that the way in which the consultation has been handled is suboptimal. Three weeks would never have been long enough and that has undermined a lot of public confidence.
Five railway stations in my constituency will be affected by the plans, four of which are on the great eastern main line. My constituency is proudly in the middle of Essex. We are growing; we have more commuters across villages such as Hatfield Peverel, Kelvedon and Witham town. I use Witham railway station myself. I buy my tickets in the ticket office; I am proud of the staff there and the service that they offer. The point is that we rely on rail services as a commuter constituency in the heart of Essex. We feel safer and more reassured by the outstanding service that station staff provide, and we want to support them during this time.
The Minister knows that commuters on our line and our franchise have been at the forefront of innovation. We believe in innovation. For over a decade, our commuter groups and rail users, supported by MPs, have focused on flexible season tickets, 15-minute delay repay, more online ticketing and investment in our railway. We believe in those things, but not to the detriment service delivery. That is why I thank my hon. Friend Chris Loder for convening this debate and for his authoritative opening. This is about people and rail users.
If I may say so, the Minister is one of my favourite Ministers in this Government because he engages and listens. I urge him to consider the nature of this debate and the points he has heard, and readdress the concerns. I invite him to Essex and to my constituency to visit our many rail stations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I have been vocal in my opposition to this proposal. Indeed, I have responded to the consultation, setting out the many reasons why I oppose ticket office closures. If closing ticket offices was really about customer service, it would not be happening. It is a reduction in service, which is not wanted by any rail users I know or, I suspect, any of the nearly 700,000 people who have reportedly responded to the consultation.
The chair of the English Regional Transport Association, based in Bedfordshire, spoke for many when he said that members are
“opposed to the closure of local ticket offices generally as a cut and closure of an amenity many people still find useful and which with creativity can double up as a local information point bridging on-rail and off-rail information.”
I agree with him that closing tickets offices is a stupid proposition.
As a frequent rail user, I enjoy the flexibility of being a digital ticket buyer and a regular ticket office user. A huge number of rail users either do not have access to digital services, or cannot or do not want to use them. The plans are discriminatory, especially against older people, people with disabilities and those on the margins who cannot afford a smartphone or the average cost of tickets. The Government should be working proactively to encourage people to use public transport to travel, but instead they are restricting people.
I fully agree with my hon. Friend’s important point. What happens when a ticket machine does not work for whatever reason? That happens quite often; it is not unusual. How will a machine advise us on the best or cheapest route? People want to talk to informed people, not machines, to address their queries and concerns. Ticket offices and well-staffed stations are absolutely essential to ensure safe travel for customers and to keep our rail network accessible for disabled and vulnerable people.
These mean proposals are not about improving the rail service. They are all about putting profit before people. The British public are sick and tired of being taken for granted, and having to pay more for less in return. I hope the concerns raised by the hundreds of thousands of people who responded to the consultation will be listened to and acted on, which should mean that this ill thought through proposal is fully derailed.
This is an excellent debate and I am delighted that it was raised. Supposedly, the driver for closing ticket offices is the reduction in sales to 12%. In coastal and rural areas, that is clearly not true. Certainly, in Newton Abbot 22% of sales are at the office, while at Teignmouth it is 26% and at Dawlish it is 34%. Therefore, why am I being told that ticket offices at two of my three stations will be closed this year, and the other one will be closed next year? We have just spent £80 million getting that line up and running. The line is key to the local economy—the line is about the economy. Those closures will damage not only the economy but access for people, such as the disabled, the visually impaired and the vulnerable who can only use cash, as well as our tourist industry, which is hugely dependent on ticket offices.
Chapter 6 of the ticketing and settlement agreement states that changes to opening hours can be made only if
“the change would represent an improvement on current arrangements in terms of quality of service and/or cost effectiveness and members of the public would continue to enjoy widespread and easy access to the Purchase of Rail Products”.
Minister, that test has not been met. We have had 680,000 responses to Transport Focus. We know it is going to be referred to the Government, so in his reply the Minister should not tell me that this is nothing to do with them and that it is a private matter for companies. Government play a huge role in the matter of funding; it will be referred and the Government will have to take a view. When the Minister is asked the question, he should—please—say no. It is clearly about money, not about stations, so find another way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Chris Loder on securing this important debate.
I wish to make a few points the short amount of time available. First, my constituency, which is in south London, has only one tube station, so we are overwhelmingly reliant on services from the 11 railway stations in my constituency to be able to get to work, visit friends and family, get to school, and for shopping and leisure activities. Those commuter rail services are vital for London’s economy as well as for the convenience of my constituents. Only one of the stations in my constituency currently has step-free access.
Secondly, we have seen the erosion of our rail services in recent years. Timetables have been cut, services have become progressively less reliable, and the use of short trains has increased, with consequent overcrowding. My residents are thoroughly fed up at the quality of the rail services they receive week by week, while the costs of those services have continued to spiral.
Thirdly, cuts to ticket offices will have a disproportionate impact on disabled or visually impaired constituents. I am listening to my constituents. My constituent who is a wheelchair user explained to me that when he arrives at a station and needs assistance, he will visit the ticket office, where help can be easily called. How is he to find somebody to help when there is not that single anchor within the station?
Fourthly, the proposed model is set up to fail. We saw this with police stations. When the police closed all their front counters in my constituency and popped up in supermarkets once a week, residents could never find them, so the service was never used and it declined. I put out a survey to my constituents, and 96% are opposed to these measures. I implore the Government to listen to residents up and down the country, scrap these measures and keep our ticket offices open.
I congratulate my good friend Chris Loder on securing the debate. My constituents do not have to use the train. They choose to, to avoid congestion; to avoid high parking charges when they arrive anywhere by car; to reduce their carbon footprint; because it is easier; because they enjoy the journey—anyone would, coming down to west Cornwall; and because we like and value the staff. All that is at risk by the ludicrous proposal to close the dedicated ticket offices in Penzance and St Erth.
Rail groups’ own figures confirm the value of Penzance ticket office: as a proportion of ticket sales, a third more tickets are sold at the station in Penzance than in Exeter St David’s or Plymouth. There is huge support for Penzance ticket office, which will be demonstrated by the level of engagement in the consultation. Even the big boss of RMT came down to Penzance in the summer to see what all the fuss was about.
People use the dedicated ticket office to plan their best route, get the best connection, get the best price, get the best and most convenient ticket, and navigate the connections. The reason is that Penzance is the start of the British rail network. Real people are needed to advise and help plan our journeys.
The Government have invested millions—as we heard in relation to the Dawlish route—in the rail network since 2015, in track upgrades, new rolling stock, delay repay compensation, the train care centre in Penzance and station upgrades. Let us not cast a shadow over that impressive investment by closing dedicated ticket offices where they are needed. That will do nothing to increase passenger numbers on our rail network or get to net zero.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Both the proposal and the process have been carried out incredibly badly, and both, I would argue, are discriminatory. The proposal to close all these ticket offices is bad for passengers and the public in general, and it will disproportionately impact disabled people, women and other minorities. That is one of the reasons the public object to it so much.
We then turn to the process itself. How can we have a situation where the Government are pushing through a discriminatory proposal with a consultation that, itself, is discriminatory? The National Federation of the Blind of the UK said that the public consultation was not accessible, and that is the extended one—first it was meant to be 21 days, and then it was extended, but even then, the consultation was not fully accessible to many of those who will be most adversely impacted by this dreadful proposal.
Despite that, nearly 700,000 people have registered their objection to this proposal. If the consultation had been carried out more sensibly and more accessibly, that figure would have been even higher. There have been 13 train operating companies and 25 email addresses, with variation in the level of accessibility of documents, and yet 700,000 people still made their point. Many more out there feel very strongly about it.
The heart and soul is being ripped out of our local shops, our local railway stations and our communities. Human interaction is so important. There are more important things than profit. Community and accessibility are both very important, and they are being ridden over by this proposal.
I am fortunate to have 10 railway stations in my constituency, but only one, Cleethorpes, currently has a ticket office. TransPennine, which manages Cleethorpes station along with neighbouring Grimsby Town station, has issued the following statement:
“If a customer specifically needs station staff assistance to access rail services, by providing help through the station, then outside station staffing times, alternative transport to the nearest accessible station or to their destination will be provided”.
That is complete madness. Not all journeys are planned: an elderly lady might receive a call at 4 o’clock in the afternoon from her daughter saying, “My husband’s gone into hospital and I need your help,” or some other scenario. How is that lady to get a ticket, arrange a journey and somehow get TransPennine to provide a taxi or—the dreaded words—a replacement bus service? This is nonsense. How is it going to apply?
Considering that TransPennine and other railway companies are subsidised by the taxpayer, who is actually going to pay for the taxi driver or the ticket? Is the taxi driver going to collect money on behalf of TransPennine? Is it ever going to reach the company? The whole thing is a nonsense. Grimsby Town station, which is used by many Cleethorpes residents, had its ticket office modernised a few years ago in partnership with North East Lincolnshire Council. Public money was used to modernise the ticket office, which is now proposed for closure.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for rail, I can tell the Minister that the officers of the group have met and are unanimously opposed to this. It is madness. Stop it now.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate Chris Loder on securing this debate. The fact that so many Members are present, representing a lot of political parties across the House, shows how much interest there is in the debate.
I am afraid that I do not share the trade union-bashing rhetoric of the hon. Member’s speech. I am a proud trade unionist. The trade union movement plays a vital role as a social partner in helping so many workers to improve their pay and working conditions. It is fascinating that while the hon. Member was speaking, I was reading the RMT briefing, and all the points made were similar—in fact, there was unique agreement between the RMT and the hon. Member. In seriousness, he is correct, and the points he makes are widely accepted not just by the trade union movement and by hon. Members, but by the wider public. They are important points that I want to address.
As the hon. Member and others have said, there is real concern about whether or not this is an actual consultation. Will it make changes, or is it a fait accompli? It is concerning to hear and read that as soon as the consultation happened, a section 188 redundancy notice was issued to the trade unions, putting 2,300 station staff jobs at risk. I commend the hon. Member for saying that he is supporting his former colleagues in the workplace, because these are people’s jobs and livelihoods. It is also concerning to read that at least one train company, Avanti West Coast, is already proceeding to make arrangements for letting agents to put out their ticket office spaces for rent. I hope that the Minister can tell us whether the consultation is a real consultation or a fait accompli.
The hon. Member and others mentioned the role of ticket office workers. We should listen to what ticket office workers are saying, which is that 97% of them believe that closing ticket offices will make it harder for passengers to get the best-value fare for their journey. The hon. Member made an excellent contribution on that point: he mentioned the Trainline app and others, and the fact that when there is a ticket office, people get the cheapest fare. That was a very important part of his speech, which I hope the Minister will answer.
Some 98% of ticket office workers say that closing ticket offices would worsen accessibility for disabled, deaf and older people, a point that was made very well by my hon. Friend Marion Fellows; 98% say that closing ticket offices would worsen the quality of service provided to passengers; 94% say that closing ticket offices would worsen passenger safety and security. That is a very real issue that a lot of Members have mentioned—people feel safe when tickets offices are staffed.
A few moments ago the hon. Member talked about ticket pricing, and staff do assist passengers through that minefield. Does he agree that when there are 55 million different products on the market in the rail industry, it is imperative to have people in ticket offices able to navigate the complexities of the system?
That is absolutely correct. The staff have the experience and knowledge to do that. It goes back to the points made about human interaction, but it is also about knowledge. Ticket office staff have that knowledge to be able to say, “If you buy a ticket to this place and then this place, that works out much better value for money.”
We have to take into consideration that ticket offices help people who are unbanked—there is still an issue in society around cash. We are having a debate in my constituency about bank closures, for example, and there was a bank closure debate in the Chamber last week. The points raised in that debate could easily be raised here. Ticket offices allow people to make part cash/part card payments because not everybody has online access to make those purchases.
There are real perceptions around how passengers feel safe at stations. Some train stations, sadly, have antisocial behaviour, often requiring police attendance. If there are no staff at the stations, that makes people feel unsafe and they believe it is inevitable that the situation would worsen.
Why, Mr Davies, is the Scottish National party intervening on ticket office closures in England? I know you are asking yourself that question, as many others are. It is because there are threatened ticket office closures in Scotland. Avanti West Coast wants to close the office in Glasgow, and London North Eastern Railway is proposing to close the ticket office in Edinburgh. It is ridiculous, as I heard someone say. The move to close almost all rail ticket offices in England would be disastrous and should be rolled back immediately. The Scottish Government’s advisers on accessible transport have described the move as “entirely unacceptable”. It appears that some Tory Ministers knew how bad the move would be for their constituents because it is reported that the Chancellor tried to protect his own constituency from closures before they were even announced.
Transport for All, a disabled people’s rights group, has called on people to reject the plans in the consultation as they will harm the rights and access of disabled people to transport. I do not believe in the private sector model in rail provision. I think the privatisation of rail has been a backward step for many people. I hope the Government will consider following Scotland’s lead and bring rail back into public ownership, because it is time we had a rail service for all that was for people, not for profit.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank Chris Loder for opening this important debate and for his work as the chair of the APPG on South Western Railway. He is a former member of staff in the rail sector—I believe as a ticket office clerk and a train guard—so his contribution is particularly valued here today.
As someone who used to commute from Fratton station to London Waterloo five days a week, I want to start by paying tribute to all the ticket office staff in Portsmouth and across the country who have helped me and, I am sure, many others at times of high stress. Hearing constant speculation about their job security in recent months will have been deeply worrying to many, but I hope the words of colleagues today, as well as the 680,000 responses to the recent consultation, show how much they are valued by the British public.
The debate has been popular with valuable contributions from Members of all parties. My hon. Friend Navendu Mishra made the important point that we cannot forget about the 1.1 million British adults with no bank account, who increasingly face barriers at cashless stations. My hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood made helpful comments about the inadequacies of the consultation, and the impact on those with literacy and numeracy issues and on people with disabilities—a point also made by my hon. Friend Mick Whitley.
My hon. Friend Andy McDonald said eloquently that the issue is about people and human interaction, which is why we must find a better way forward on ticketing and fares, and rethink these plans—a view shared by my hon. Friend Mohammad Yasin, who said that these proposals are about putting profit before people. My hon. Friend Helen Hayes made the case powerfully against closures in London. I thank all Members for their insightful remarks about the proposals and the process.
As Members have highlighted, throughout the process the Government have shown no respect to rail staff, passengers and vulnerable people who will be most impacted by the decision. Ministers initially tried to force through these enormous changes, affecting more than 150 million rail journeys a year, with a consultation period of just 21 days. This was evidently designed to be a rubber stamp for a decision that had already been made with the most vulnerable cut out. It was only following an incredible demonstration of widespread opposition—from organisations including Disability Rights UK, the National Federation of the Blind, Transport for All, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and Guide Dogs UK—that the Government issued a chaotic last-minute decision to extend the deadline. Even countless Conservative MPs have spoken out, in addition to 680,000 responses to the consultation, which I suspect are not all glowing endorsements of the Government’s plans.
In contrast, the only support the changes have had has come from Conservative Ministers. Yet, despite that, Ministers seem determined to press ahead regardless—but why? Despite what they say, given the ditched plans for Great British Railways, we know that this is not about reform; given the Government’s dismal record on contactless ticketing, we know it is not about modernisation; and given the huge disruption this will cause, we know it is not about improving the service for passengers. Given the Government’s record on our country’s rail services, we know that it is about lowering quality and running our rail network further into the ground—all to the detriment of passengers.
Many Members have spoken eloquently about key concerns raised by passengers and staff across the country regarding the closures, so I will focus my remarks on the mounting evidence that the Government are not being straight with the public on this matter. Specifically, there are three claims used by the Rail Minister to justify the closures that I simply do not believe stand up to scrutiny.
First, the Minister has put on record that
“no currently staffed stations will be unstaffed”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 735, c. 929.]
However, the evidence from train companies shows that thousands of staff hours will be lost, with stations across the country becoming unstaffed. To name but a few: East Midlands Railway has 16 stations that would become unstaffed, with just daily or weekly visits from mobile teams and a loss of at least 728 staffing hours a week; and South Western’s proposals would see 135 instances where stations that currently have ticket offices in operation are no longer staffed on certain days of the week. For example, Worcester Park ticket office is currently open for 12 hours on Fridays, but would become unstaffed on this day under the proposals. The list goes on: Greater Anglia’s proposals would result in a loss of 730 hours a week; Avanti’s 350 hours; c2c’s 200 hours; and Northern’s a whopping 6,500 hours a week compared with its current ticket office hours. The question, therefore, is not whether currently staffed stations will become unstaffed, but whether Ministers know this to be true and are pressing ahead anyway, or whether the plans have been so rushed that Ministers do not even realise their true impact.
As we have heard this morning, one in nine tickets are sold at physical ticket offices. Many of those are to disabled and elderly people, infrequent passengers and people with language difficulties, for whom getting public transport can already be a tricky experience. As we have heard, 23% of disabled adults are unable to use the internet, and only 3% of blind people are able to use ticket vending machines without problems.
The second claim that the Minister has used to justify closures is that
“staff will still be there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 735, c. 929.]
Operators, however, have admitted that that may not be the case. Avanti has said that this project may lead more customers to use the ticket vending machines, which are not accessible for some disabled customers, including those with visual impairments. Northern has admitted:
“some customers with disabilities may not receive assistance during hours where the staff presence has been removed. This may discourage some passengers from using the railway.”
What a shocking indictment of the Government’s plans. At a time when we should be encouraging as many people as possible to use our trains, the Government are actively making it more difficult, particularly for those who rely on public transport the most.
Members have rightly raised concerns about the impact of closures on job security. The Minister’s third claim to justify the closures is that the proposals were not about job losses, but 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”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 735, c. 936.]
Yet analysis of rail operator plans shows that 2,300 station staff jobs are at risk, representing nearly a quarter of all station staff at those companies. It is time the Government saw sense and rethought the plans, as called for by Labour.
In the midst of a cost of living crisis, the least station staff deserve is honesty and clarity from the Government about their futures. The Minister must set the record straight today. Will he confirm whether he stands by the following statements? First, he said that
“no currently staffed stations will be unstaffed”, despite evidence showing that thousands of staff hours will be lost with stations across the country becoming unstaffed. Secondly, he said that
“staff will still be there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it”—[Official Report,
Vol. 735, c. 929.]
despite operators admitting that customers with disabilities may not receive assistance during the hours where staff presence is removed. Thirdly, he said that the proposals are not about job losses, despite analysis of rail operator plans showing 2,300 station staff jobs are at risk.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks. I restate my thanks to the hon. Member for West Dorset for securing the debate and to all hon. Members who contributed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend Chris Loder for securing this important debate on railway ticket offices. I also give a warm welcome to his new role to Stephen Morgan. I look forward to working with him.
I will give my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset two minutes to wind up, but in the time I have allotted to me I want to set out a little more detail about the consultation, as many of the questions I have been asked have had that in mind. I will also discuss the rationale for the moves. I will try and take the odd intervention if I can, but, if I cannot, I will ensure that I respond to all right hon. and hon. Members who made their points.
I thank Members for their kind remarks and I enjoy working with everybody across the divide. I want to continue to work with all those who have railways at their heart, and at the heart of their constituencies, to make the railways work. I am a passionate advocate of this, but Members are the champions and I want to continue to work with all Members. I recognise that some of my points will be accepted while others will not, but we will continue to liaise and engage, hopefully with the good spirit and kindness that I have been shown this morning.
I will make some progress and then I may have some time to take interventions.
Together with the rail industry, we want to improve and modernise the experience for passengers by moving staff out from behind the ticket office screens to provide more help and advice in customer-focused roles. As hon. Members have recognised, there has been a huge shift in the way in which passengers purchase their tickets at railway stations, with about one in every 10 transactions taking place in ticket offices in 2022 to 2023, although I take the points that that differs across the estate. Despite that change in passenger transacting behaviour, 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. Ten years ago, the ticket office proportion of sales was one in three and it is now almost one in 10.
On the point about growth in the industry, the Minister and I both know that the growth in real passenger numbers will come from leisure. That means people making not regular but irregular journeys. Is it not more likely that they will need assistance at ticket offices, rather than online? Is that not the case?
To keep some structure to my speech, I will come later to a response that I hope will address that point about ensuring that passenger interaction remains, despite the changes.
The rail industry launched consultations on the future of ticket offices under the ticketing and settlement agreement process, which gave the public and stakeholders an opportunity to scrutinise the train operating companies’ proposals to ensure that they work in the best way for passengers. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, my shadow, the consultation was extended. The 21-day period that was first used was the requirement under the ticketing and settlement agreement, which predates 2010. The volume of responses and interest in the consultation meant that it was recognised that it was right to extend it. I am glad that it was extended.
The train operator consultations ended on
There has been much discussion about reduction of hours and expertise at stations with ticket offices. At this stage, I do not expect a material reduction in the number of hours where ticketing expertise is available at stations, in the manner that some have described. That has been set out in the consultation. I expect that by the end of the process, there will be a differing design. When we talk about redeployment, it is important to note that the volume of hours is similar to what we currently have.
Where agreement cannot be reached between the operators and the passenger bodies, individual cases may be referred to the Secretary of State for a decision. That is the next stage of the consultation. At that point, he will look to the guidance under the ticketing and settlement agreement. That guidance was updated in April 2022, following targeted consultation with stake- holders, and was published in February 2023.
The update was made to ensure decision making could account for differences between stations and modern retailing practices. That included replacing the numerically “busy” ticket office sales threshold with a wider range of factors that should be considered, including how proposals would impact customer service; security at stations; modernising retail practices, such as availability of pay-as-you-go ticketing, which continues to be rolled out; and support for passengers with disabilities, accessibility or other equality-related needs.
Sorry, I will not give way due to the time available.
It remains important that we reform our railway to enable staff to provide a more flexible, agile and personal service, creating the modern experience that people expect. We should also look for ways to ensure value for money for the taxpayer. I know from listening to constituents and parliamentarians that there is great interest in what will happen to ticket office staff should there be any changes. The changes are about modernising the passenger experience, by moving expert ticketing staff out of ticket offices to be more visible and accessible around the station.
As for the points that have been raised, if only 10% of tickets are being sold across the ticket counter, crudely that means that 90% of passengers are not in contact with a member of staff. The idea is to take the member of staff on to the platform or concourse to help passengers where they need it—as opposed to at the ticket office—and to provide extra information, reassurance and additional security for all passengers—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Davies. Crucially, the Secretary of State and I have been clear in our expectation that no stations that are currently staffed will be unstaffed as a result of the reform. I have made the additional point about the hours not changing materially either, with staff still being there to provide assistance and additional support for those who need and want it. That would include advice on tickets and assistance in buying them. Should ticket offices close following the process, we would expect staff to be redeployed and multi-skilled in order to provide advice and assistance across the stations. Exact arrangements will vary operator by operator, and will be the subject of collective bargaining with the trade unions.
It is vital that our railway is accessible to all. I have engaged directly with accessibility groups, and will continue to do so, including at a meeting I have this afternoon with our Department’s own lead. Alongside that, train operators are required to take into account the adequacy of the proposed alternatives in relation to the needs of passengers who are disabled, and to include that in the notice of the proposal sent to other operators and passenger groups.
Turning to the position in Scotland, I believe that ScotRail consulted on proposals for major changes to ticket office opening hours at 122 stations in 2022. Their opening hours had not changed, by and large, for 30 years. As part of that process, ScotRail was seeking to redeploy staff to provide enhanced customer service on the frontline. I understand that ScotRail amended some of its proposals in response to passenger and Transport Focus feedback. We also have the experience with London Underground, which has also moved away from ticket offices.
I make that point to all hon. and right hon. Members, because if the situation is changed whereby passengers are transacting in a different manner and are thus not seeing a member of staff regularly, my ultimate aim is to design a system in which all passengers can see members of staff and can get assistance with ticketing as well as the other assistance that passengers need. It is with that in mind that I will continue to engage with passenger groups and train operators. I want to ensure that the passenger gets the best experience, that the staff have roles where they are fully occupied and fulfilled, and that the railway embraces change. I know that there are concerns, but I reiterate that I will continue to listen, engage and work with hon. Members. I reassure them that this is a genuine consultation, which has some stages yet to go.
I thank the Minister for his response, and every Member for their contribution. My question to the Minister earlier was a request to stop the proposals from SWR to ensure that we do not see a reduction in staffed hours at Sherborne or Dorchester South. I think I have got a “not materially changing” response, which is progress from what we had before. I say to the Minister that I will continue to challenge him and make the case on behalf of my constituents to ensure that staffing hours do not reduce at both of my stations. I am sure that there are other Members who feel similarly.
The railways make an enormous net contribution to society and to the economy in this country. Before covid, on the South Western network, 40p of every £1 that was spent on train tickets came back to the Exchequer. Invariably, that was redeployed elsewhere across the country to support railways or other parts of the Exchequer spend. I fear that some of those wider economic benefits have not been considered in the proposals from train operators. Regrettably, the current set-up does not necessarily encourage that either.
It is clear that across the House we have quite a lot of things in common. That is partly because I was a station assistant at the beginning of my career, and for those who did not know, I am a former member of the RMT. I did not read the brief, but I thank Andy McDonald for pointing it out—I appreciate it very much. If people need a sense check on the fares from what I said earlier, brfares.com is the fact checker. It will be able to call them all out if they are wrong.
I thank everybody for what they have contributed. I thank the Minister for—