Disabled campaigners have responded with anger and frustration after evidence emerged that rail companies are set to launch a series of consultations on government-backed plans to close most ticket offices across England.
The Association of British Commuters (ABC) revealed this week that train companies have been “secretly preparing for mass ticket office closures since early June”.
ABC said a series of public consultations on the plans could be launched within days.
The information, released via posts on Twitter on Monday, produced a powerful response, with the story followed up by mainstream media including the Financial Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian.
Although warnings about plans for ticket office closures first emerged last year, ABC’s posts show the industry – and the government – are now ready to push ahead with their proposals and put them out to public consultation.
ABC’s information also suggests the closures could be even more widespread than feared.
Disabled campaigners have this week promised to fight any plans for ticket office closures.
Sarah Leadbetter, national campaigns officer for The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFBUK), said her organisation would fiercely oppose the closure plans.
She said: “We will be fighting. We won’t be giving up.”
She said disabled people’s right to travel was “definitely” under threat.
Leadbetter (pictured, at Gloucester train station) said: “I fought hard for my independence. I will have to go back to the good old days of waiting for family and friends to take me places, or use taxis.
“I won’t be able to go out, I’ll be isolated, excluded. We’ve got the right to travel as much as everybody else… and this is going to totally and utterly stop that.
“Doing what they are doing is totally disgusting. It’s taking the people out that rely on the trains the most. It will exclude a lot of people.”
She added: “They want to have somebody roaming around the station [instead of in a ticket office].
“That’s inaccessible for a lot of us. I won’t know where they are. I won’t be able to find them.”
NFB UK is also concerned about the accessibility of the consultation process, with the disabled people the proposals will affect the most not being able to take part in the consultations because they will not be made available in accessible formats.
It is feared the consultations will last just 21 days, which Leadbetter said would not be long enough, particularly for many disabled people.
She said: “We are worried that these consultations will just stick a poster on the wall of the station.”
Helen Rowlands, an executive council member of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP), promised a summer of activism to save ticket offices.
She said she and colleagues from GMCDP – accompanied by local MP Debbie Abrahams – had delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street in February with a “clear message for the prime minister” that “safe and reliable rail for Greater Manchester’s disabled residents includes properly staffed stations and ticket offices”.
She said: “We explained to Rishi Sunak that ticket offices are a vital aspect of ensuring disabled travellers’ safety, information and access needs.
“Access to rail is a key means of creating access to education, training, work, social and wellbeing opportunities for disabled members of society.
“It is with deep concern that we learn this week that he has chosen to disregard our warning.”
She said GMCDP also wanted to remind transport secretary Mark Harper – a former minister for disabled people – that access to an accessible transport system is a right set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Rowlands added: “We are urging opposition parliamentarians to commit to the incorporation of UNCRPD into domestic law as a matter of the utmost urgency, and to stand with disabled people in the fight for accessible rail for all.”
Transport for All (TfA), the disabled-led accessible transport charity, said the ticket office plans “risk locking disabled people out of the rail network entirely” and would have “a disastrous impact, at a time in which we are already grappling with a cost-of-living crisis”.
TfA said ticket offices were often the only way that disabled people could purchase rail tickets, with many having no internet access for online purchases, finding station ticket machines inaccessible, or not having bank cards.
Katie Pennick, TfA’s campaigns and communications manager, said: “Whatever a person’s specific access requirements, it is vital that disabled passengers can trust that staff will be on hand and assistance will be provided.
“Without this assurance, disabled people risk being stranded at stations.
“Changing the roles of ticket staff to multifunctional, ‘roving’ staff who move around the station (or worse – ‘mobile’ staff teams that are split across a cluster of stations and having to drive between each) would not be an adequate solution.
“People with energy-limiting impairments or mobility impairments simply cannot trek around stations to find assistance, and blind and visually impaired people will struggle to find and recognise a staff member.”
Pennick said TfA had been meeting with government and the rail industry to oppose the proposals since they were first leaked to the press in spring 2022 but had yet to see any “concrete plans” to mitigate the impact of ticket office closures on disabled people.
Like NFB UK, Transport for All is also concerned about the accessibility of any consultation process.
Emily Yates, co-founder of ABC, who secured the information on the imminent ticket office closures, said: “Due to industry whistleblowers, Mark Harper’s attempts to avoid public scrutiny have been thwarted.
“This has given campaigners a vital headstart – now every day counts to demand equality and accountability.
“These are rushed and secretive plans signed off by the government, and it appears that accessibility and retail systems are nowhere near ready.
“It is now vital that the Department for Transport publishes equality and risk assessments before putting this out to consultation.
“The onus is on the government to prove it has a lawful, consistent, and long-term approach to accessibility.
“Also, serious questions must be asked about which regulators and stakeholders have had oversight of the plans.
“All such parties should take a public position on this shocking news and do whatever they can to gain transparency in this short window of opportunity.”
She added: “If the closure process does begin, there is no doubt it will be met with huge, nationwide resistance.”
Mick Lynch, general secretary of The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), said his union would “vigorously oppose any moves to close ticket offices” and would “not meekly sit by and allow thousands of jobs to be sacrificed or see disabled and vulnerable passengers left unable to use the railways as a result”.
He promised that RMT would “bring into effect the full industrial force of the union to stop any plans to close ticket offices”.
The Department for Transport refused to comment this week.
But a spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways, said it had been negotiating with RMT on the issue of ticket office closures for more than a year.
RDG claims ticket office sales have dropped from 85 per cent of ticket sales in 1995 to 12 per cent today.
The spokesperson said the plans would “include moving staff from ticket offices to concourses where, with extra training, they will be better able to help more customers, not just with buying tickets, but also offering travel advice and helping those with accessibility needs”.
He said talks with RMT had “stalled” and he blamed the union, which he said was “seemingly intent on prolonging the current dispute”.
He said: “While the industry is now looking at how to move forward, any changes would be subject to employee and public consultations.
“Staff always remain front of mind so as you would expect from a responsible employer, if and when the time comes for proposals on ticket offices to be published, they will be the first to know.”
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