Disabled union activists have pledged to fight the closure of hundreds of rail ticket offices, with just two weeks left for passengers to respond to a series of consultations.
An emergency motion opposing the closures – proposed by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union – drew overwhelming support from disabled delegates at the TUC Disabled Workers Conference in Bournemouth this week, and was passed unanimously.
It was the first in-person Disabled Workers Conference since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Delegates lined up to attack the proposed closures of nearly 1,000 ticket offices, announced last week by train companies, and to highlight the impact that would have on disabled passengers.
Natalie Amber, an Equity delegate, pointed to the impact of the closures on disabled freelance workers, including many Equity members, who rely on rail travel to “go from job to job”.
She told delegates that she had to rely on a train driver to help her off the train on the way to the conference because of a failure of booked assistance, and then needed to have her ticket validated in a ticket office so she did not have to buy a new ticket.
She said: “It is this kind of thing that will stop people from being able to take work [if ticket offices close].”
Amber said that many people needed to be able to speak to someone in a ticket office because ticket machines are not accessible to them.
She said her industry and union would lose “extremely talented people” because of the closures.
Kathryn Downs, from the NASUWT teachers’ union, a wheelchair-user, told the conference: “I cannot believe we are here with another battle for our access needs.”
She said many of the ticket machines at her local station were not accessible to wheelchair-users.
Like Amber, she highlighted how ticket offices can help disabled passengers who have been delayed by a failure of assistance.
She said: “It’s the ticket office that ensures we can… validate our ticket to make sure we can get to our destination.”
Downs said she relied on ticket offices for support as a neurodivergent person because of the barriers she experiences, and that she would not have capacity to search the station for a member of staff to support her.
She said: “I do not trust rail bosses when they say [there will be] no cuts to staffing.”
Graeme Ellis, another wheelchair-user and a UNISON delegate, said the closures would have an impact “in our work lives and our social lives”.
He said ticket machines were not accessible to him, and he added: “We are going to be severely impacted by the withdrawal of ticket offices.”
Ellis warned that many disabled ticket office workers were likely to lose their jobs in the closure programme because new positions in which they would have to roam around the station would not be accessible to them.
Kevin Daws, from the University and College Union, said many tickets sold in ticket offices are sold to disabled people who have no other way to buy them.
He told delegates: “When we are at these stations, many of us need a lot of support and advice and that will not be there if all these ticket offices are not there.”
Proposing a motion on accessible public transport, which was also passed unanimously, Nigel Braithwaite, from the Musicians’ Union, praised RMT ticket office staff at Birmingham New Street station who enabled him to find the right train to the conference after his initial train was cancelled.
He said: “The closure of the ticket offices… is the latest escalation in the attack on public transport.
“It’s the latest move to make rail travel less safe and less accessible, while shareholders line their pockets.
“The closure of ticket offices is not about modernisation, it is a euphemism for ruthless cuts.”
Paul Miles, from the train drivers’ union ASLEF, said the closures would have “devastating consequences for jobs and accessibility”.
He said: “We know these closures will be used as an opportunity to reduce staffing levels.”
He said his union believed the closures would “impact heavily” on the ability of disabled passengers to “turn up and go” without booking assistance in advance, and that the closures would breach companies’ accessible travel policies.
Speaking at a packed fringe meeting organised by the RMT transport union on Tuesday (pictured), RMT’s equal opportunities officer Jess Webb told activists to “mobilise everyone in your union” against the closures.
GMB delegate Dawn Lovatt described how a member of ticket office staff had printed out an alternative route for her to get to Bournemouth for the conference.
She said: “I wouldn’t have got here without it. Computers can’t replace people.”
Andrew Coley, from USDAW, said he uses ticket offices to find the easiest routes to take to a destination with the least inconvenience.
Tracy Cannard, also from USDAW, said the closures were a “health and safety issue”.
She described how she arrived on a train in Warrington in the early evening, and there were no staff at the station, even though she had booked assistance on the passenger assistance app.
She had to be helped off by a fellow passenger, and when she arrived at the taxi rank, she was threatened by a man with a knife.
But because of a lack of staff there was no-one at the station from whom she could seek help, which meant she was unable to shelter in the ticket office.
She said: “I wouldn’t be able to travel without them.”
RMT delegate Christine Willett, who chaired the fringe meeting, said: “A railway is a part of the community and we have seen so much taken away from local communities that has destroyed them.
“We have to fight for everything now.”
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).
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