Disabled activists have vowed to fight back against government-backed plans for sweeping closures of ticket offices across England – including at some major city stations – with legal action now almost certain.
Even ticket offices at major stations such as Euston in London, Manchester Piccadilly, Birmingham New Street and Glasgow Central will eventually be closed, with nearly 1,000 ticket offices in all set to go.
It is the first suggestion that any Scottish ticket offices will also be affected by the closure plans.
Leaked documents have also revealed the first admissions by train companies that the plans to close ticket offices and move staff “out of ticket offices and on station platforms, concourses and ticket halls” will also lead to staff cuts.
The rail industry says the plans – pushed by the government – will modernise “station retailing” and see ticket office staff moving to “flexible roving roles”, where they “would be better able to give advice about the best and cheapest fares, advise on journey planning and support customers with accessibility needs”.
At least 13 train companies are believed to have launched three-week consultations on their own closure plans yesterday (Wednesday).
Train company Avanti West Coast says its plans will eventually lead to the closure of ticket offices at four major stations.
It says that ticket offices at Euston, Manchester Piccadilly, Birmingham New Street and Glasgow Central will only “remain for a short period” while customers “transition from traditional over the counter purchasing to a self-serve proposition”.
Avanti said the stations would stay open “short-term while the industry works together to digitalise the full range of tickets available at all stations”, which will “allow a period of time to support customers during the transition from traditional over the counter purchasing to a self-serve proposition”.
An Avanti spokesperson said: “The proposed changes will bring our staff closer to our customers and better trained to assist customers purchasing tickets, planning their journeys, and to provide extra support for those with accessibility needs.
“This should offer a better service to customers at our stations.”
But disabled activists have described the closures as “catastrophic”, “disgraceful” and “horrendous” and say they will have a huge impact on disabled passengers and their right to use the railway.
A document seen by Disability News Service (DNS), sent to staff by Northern, says it plans to close 131 of its 149 station ticket offices over 18 months from early 2024, leaving just 18 open.
And it warns that stations that are staffed will in future have staff on hand “on average for fewer hours per week”, while the “overall headcount” at stations “will reduce” once the new roles are introduced.
Sam Jennings, a leading accessible transport campaigner, told DNS that disabled people would fight back against the proposed closures, including possible legal action.
She said: “It’s a smack in the face and I felt it coming. It’s just disgusting.
“They know this is going to be catastrophic for disabled people and they are not mitigating it in any way.
“They are going to leave tens of thousands more people disabled by the railway. They are disabling us. It’s public transport. We are all tax-payers.”
Jennings, who was awarded compensation of £17,000 by Southern in 2021 after being left stranded on trains and station platforms more than 30 times, said: “After the last five years of asserting my rights and being given platitudes, it’s all been bollocks, because they’ve been planning this the whole time.
“I feel really mugged off as a member of the public who has had to fight so hard for access to public transport that should be accessible.
“The Disability Discrimination Act is nearly 30 years old… I shouldn’t be fighting like it’s my full-time job to be able to get on a train.”
Another disabled activist, Doug Paulley, who has previously warned transport secretary Mark Harper that he will take him to court if he goes ahead with ticket office closures, said legal action was now very likely.
He said he was “grimly sad” and “unsurprised” by yesterday’s announcements.
Paulley said: “It’s going to knock passengers’ sense of ease and confidence in travelling, particularly disabled people.
“It just shows that they don’t care about the travelling public and groups made vulnerable by them. It’s disgraceful.”
He said the government and the rail industry were being “knowingly disingenuous” when they talked about the closures, as they were just a cover for staff cuts.
Another disabled activist, Sarah Leadbetter, national campaigns officer for The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFB UK), said: “We are definitely fighting. We will fight to make sure this doesn’t happen.
“We have got to stop this because it’s horrendous and it’s disgusting.
“I am so angry. They are just excluding disabled people and elderly people again and again and again.
“I will not be able to travel. It will be excluding and isolating. That’s my independence gone.”
She said she believed NFB UK would support legal action against the planned closures.
One of the key concerns is that station ticket machines are often not accessible to many disabled people, while many disabled passengers – including blind and partially-sighted travellers – may not be able to track down a “roving” member of staff if they need assistance.
And campaigning organisations like the Association of British Commuters (ABC) are convinced the closures will lead to staff cuts.
Leadbetter, a guide dog-user, said the consultation process at her local station in Narborough, Leicestershire, appears to have involved simply putting a piece of paper on the wall of the station.
She also criticised the transport secretary, Mark Harper, as a former minister for disabled people.
She said: “I hope he lives to regret it, because [the closure plans are] excluding people.”
To respond to the consultations launched by individual train companies, passengers should contact the independent transport user watchdog Transport Focus, or London TravelWatch in London. The consultation period lasts just 21 days (until 26 July).
Rail Delivery Group, which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways, said in its briefing: “An estimated 99 per cent of all transactions made at ticket offices last year can be made at ticket vending machines (TVMs) or online and where needed, TVMs across the network will be improved and upgraded.
“Ticket office facilities will remain open at the busiest stations and interchanges, selling the full range of tickets while the transition takes place.
“Following these changes, if a customer is unable to buy a specific ticket before boarding the train because it was unavailable at the station, they would be able to buy one during their journey, at a ticket office en-route, or at their destination.”
But Caroline Eglinton, a disabled accessibility expert who has worked in the rail industry for 17 years and is the government’s disability and access ambassador for rail travel, told DNS: “I believe that it’s much more difficult to deliver an accessible service without ticket offices – so many rely on them to make their journeys possible, be that buying and paying for the correct ticket with cash or for seeking reassurance about their journey.
“Whilst it is useful to have staff ‘in front of the glass’, I don’t think that should be achieved by wholesale closure of ticket offices and could be delivered whilst maintaining the familiar and essential purpose that ticket offices serve for millions of people, particularly older and disabled people.”
The rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, provided some hope to disabled passengers yesterday by writing to train companies (PDF) to demand that they provide an assessment of how the closures will impact on their accessible travel policies (ATPs) and show what changes they plan to make at stations to ensure they comply with ATP guidance.
This includes the impact on providing a “turn up and go” service to disabled passengers, and on booked assistance, buying tickets, and providing information.
An ORR spokesperson said in a statement: “In light of proposals to change staffing arrangements, ORR has written to all train operators to ask them how they propose to remain compliant with Accessible Travel Policy guidance.
“The guidance addresses a wide range of issues, including ticketing and provision of assistance.
“Operators will need to submit any material changes to their Accessible Travel Policies to ORR for approval.”
ABC had led on drafting a letter from disabled campaigners and allies to ORR and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (see separate story) which called on Tuesday for the two regulators to make an “urgent intervention” to prevent the closures.
In the open letter, they said the plans were likely to “undo decades of progress made towards rail accessibility” and warned that the real purpose of the closure programme was to make cuts to staff by “stealth”, and that it could create 500 more unstaffed stations across England.
They also warned that access problems with ticket machines meant the planned closures would “guarantee a discriminatory impact on disabled people”.
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…