'Secret plan' to close every railway ticket office in England to save £500m

All 980 railway station ticket offices in England could close with physical train tickets axed under plans to save up to £500m.

The Sunday Times has reported that the rail industry has drawn up a confidential strategy to close or "repurpose" all ticket offices in England, starting the closure programme in September. Around 12 per cent of railway tickets are still sold over ticket office counters.

A Department for Transport spokesperson told The Yorkshire Post that although no final decision has been taken on the plan, there has been a "significant decline" in the use of ticket offices in the past decade.

Union leaders are seeking urgent talks over the plan. The Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) said the report was “explosive”.

More contactless barriers are being installed at Northern railway stations as part of the planned changes

The union, which is balloting hundreds of its members for industrial action over pay and jobs, warned that closing ticket offices would increase the likelihood of strikes.

Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, said: “Trust has hit rock bottom between rail workers and bosses in both the industry and government.

“We’ve been asking for clarity on rumours about ticket office closures for months but no proposals have been shared with us or the staff who work day in day out serving passengers.

“This Government has no respect for rail staff or passengers if they think this is the way to run our public transport services.

“The Government has badly miscalculated the reaction this will have from staff and passengers who rely on and value station staff. This will simply make more members vote for strike action.”

Details of the plan have been revealed ahead of the imminent rail strikes and just days after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said rail industry reforms including the closure of ticket offices were required if staff in the sector wanted pay rises.

Mr Shapps said: "Nowadays, just one in eight tickets is sold over the counter, yet we still have roughly the same number of ticket offices as in the days when we all queued up at stations to buy our tickets. The quietest office sold just 17 tickets in three months. That’s one ticket every five and a half days.

"Any sensible plan would move staff away from where they are not needed, like ticket offices, and increase shifts where they are needed, like weekends."

He added: "Rail pay rises can only be afforded in the long term alongside reform."

The Sunday Times report said the industry would seek to phase out the use of paper tickets - meaning all rail passengers would have to make online purchases. The Government has already announced plans in November for the £360m rollout of contactless tap-in and tap-out ticketing barriers at 700 stations across the North and Midlands over the next three years.

But there are concerns about the potential impact of ticket office closures on older passengers.

Caroline Abrahams of Age UK said: “Many lack an up-to-date smartphone or tablet, or live in a place with unreliable broadband. These people have relied on buying tickets face-to-face or over the phone and then collecting them from a station machine. What are they expected to do if everything goes online?”

Should that change go ahead, it is intended that passengers who struggle to cope with digital services would receive help from staff on concourses to help with ticket purchases.

The general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union Mick Lynch told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that the union has been informed of the ticket office closure plan.

He said: "They've told us every single booking office in Britain will close."

A Department for Transport spokesperson said today: “While no final decision has been taken on ticket offices, they have seen a significant decline in passenger use over the last decade yet numbers have not substantially changed since then.

“Staff will always provide face-to-face services on the railways, which can be crucial for those who need additional support and cannot, or do not want to, use contactless or mobile tickets.”

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) also said no decision had been taken on ticket offices.

An RDG spokesperson said: “The pandemic has been an unprecedented financial shock to the railway.

“While no decisions have been taken over ticket offices, with the acceleration of changing travel patterns and more passengers migrating to digital technology, many jobs will need to change to become more passenger-centric.

“Train companies want to work with unions on how to address those changes while making sure the industry takes no more than its fair share from the taxpayer.”

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