Widely reported new government plans could result in mass closure of ticket offices across UK train stations. This risks creating further barriers for disabled and older passengers, for whom staff at ticket offices are often the first point of contact for assistance.
For many disabled passengers, using the rail network can be a disorienting and frustrating experience, presenting barriers at every turn. But the proposed mass closure of ticket offices could shut people out of the system before they even get to the platform.
The changes come as part of an effort to ‘modernise’ the rail system and reduce costs, with the ticketing system moving primarily to digital platforms or station vending machines. This, however, presents an enormous barrier to many disabled people, for whom these methods are often inaccessible. For blind and visually impaired passengers, those with cognitive impairments, and wheelchair users, Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) can be too complicated, out of reach, or otherwise unusable. TVMs also do not always provide all ticketing options, such as the 50% wheelchair-user discount or the ability to buy railcards or add tickets on to a freedom pass, so staff are needed to support this overly-complicated system.
Maintaining the ability to buy tickets at the station, and using cash, is also essential: disabled and older people are disproportionately overrepresented in the number of adult internet non-users, and many do not use a bank account or card. Moving to a digital-first system then could disproportionately impact these groups’ ability to purchase tickets and travel freely.
Staff at ticket offices also serve an even broader, and equally vital purpose: being the first point of contact at stations for disabled passengers who require assistance. Having staff stationed at these easily identifiable and approachable offices means that disabled people can easily find and request the assistance they need. For blind and visually impaired people or those with cognitive impairments, these staff assist with navigating through the station. Without staffed ticket offices, disabled people rely upon finding a ‘help point’ to request assistance. These are often difficult to find – scattered around the station, hidden out of sight and not clearly signposted. Sometimes they are positioned too high to reach and, sometimes, simply don’t work at all. This poses the risk of leaving disabled people stranded in stations without access to the assistance required.
Though the plan is to move staff to ‘multifunctional’ roles instead, the fact that the changes are coming about because of cost-cutting measures means that compulsory redundancies are likely. Union leaders have already said that they would fight these closures with industrial action if necessary, pointing out that vulnerable groups would be most affected. Manuel Cortes, General Secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, has written to the Transport Minister saying:
“[P]roperly staffed ticket offices play a vital role both at stations and in our communities, allowing everyone to use our railways and keep passengers safe in the way that empty, or partly empty, stations never could.”
Recently, ScotRail have made a U-turn on a similar set of ticket office closures after the public and industry unions expressed their concerns. A public consultation by Transport Focus was held, in which 99% of 1500 respondents expressed their opposition to the closures, with accessibility issues being among the major sticking points.
Transport for All are among the many groups concerned about these even more widespread closures. Though the move towards digitalisation can seem an attractive option, efforts to cut costs must not come at the expense of the many disabled and older passengers, for whom ticket office staff are vital in making the rail system accessible and safe. It is vital that these efforts to ‘modernise’ the railway don’t become a backward step for some passengers.