The government and train operating companies have refused to rule out further attempts to close rail ticket offices across the country, despite ministers scrapping proposals to shut nearly 1,000 of them across England.
Transport secretary Mark Harper this week reversed the government’s previous position supporting the closures, announcing on Tuesday that ministers had “asked train operators to withdraw their proposals”.
But both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Rail Delivery Group – which represents the companies which run Britain’s railways – refused to rule out further closure proposals when asked to do so yesterday (Wednesday) by Disability News Service (DNS).
Sarah Leadbetter, national campaigns officer for The National Federation of the Blind of the UK (NFBUK), said the victory over the government and the rail companies was “bittersweet” because she expected further reforms to follow, which could include new proposals on ticket office closures.
She attended an online meeting with rail minister Huw Merriman on Tuesday morning – having been alerted to the meeting late the previous evening – shortly before the government climbdown was announced.
And she said she came away with the impression that further worrying reforms were being planned, including the possibility of ticket office closures and job losses.
She said: “We just got the impression that something else is brewing.
“He came in and said, ‘We still need reform.’”
After listening to his comments to others at the meeting, and his answers to questions asked by NFBUK, she told DNS: “Reading between the lines, something else is going to come.”
She suspects some of these reforms will relate to the use of technology.
But she said: “Technology is a wonderful thing, but we need people to speak to, to do tickets, to put ramps out and guide you to seats… some of us don’t want to use [technology] or can’t use it.”
Doug Paulley, who took a legal action alongside Leadbetter that helped lead to the train companies extending the consultation period this summer, said disabled people and their allies should celebrate the victory over “ill-conceived and ableist” government plans that “caused so much distress, and treated disabled people’s access needs with such contempt”.
But he said campaigners “shouldn’t kid ourselves that the prospect of destaffing the railway is gone, nor the ableist mindsets that allowed such a hateful initiative to be proposed in the first place”.
He said he expected new proposals to expand driver-only operated trains would follow the decision to withdraw the ticket office closure plans.
Tony Jennings, co-chair of a rail accessibility panel and co-founder of the Campaign for Level Boarding, said the government U-turn “demonstrates the collective power of campaigners, activists, the RMT union and disabled people’s organisations”.
But he said he feared the victory was “just the beginning and not the end” of proposals for damaging reforms, with the Rail Delivery Group now looking for savings elsewhere.
He said: “Campaigners and the RMT need to remain vigilant that it does not result in a recruitment ban and destaffing by stealth and the DfT pushing for more driver-only operated trains, which would have equally disastrous consequences for disabled people.”
The ticket office closure plans sparked widespread opposition from disabled campaigners, disabled people’s organisations, unions and allies, when they were first revealed in June by the Association of British Commuters.
Public consultations into the proposed closures saw 750,000 responses to TransportFocus – a government agency – and London TravelWatch, which is sponsored and funded by the London Assembly.
Of the statements issued by the two watchdogs this week, London TravelWatch’s raised more concerns about accessibility.
Michael Roberts, chief executive of London TravelWatch, said in a statement: “The three big issues for the public arising from the consultation were how to buy tickets in future, how to get travel advice and information at stations, and how disabled passengers can get assistance when they need it.
“London TravelWatch has heard these views loud and clear, and would like to thank all those who took the time to take part.
“Despite improving on their original proposals, we don’t think the train companies have gone far enough to meet our concerns and those of the public.
“We cannot say with confidence that these proposals would improve things for passengers and that is why we have objected to all 269 ticket office closures [in London].”
Transport Focus particularly highlighted concerns over plans for train operators to introduce new “welcome points” at stations, which would provide a “focal point on entering a station that provides any customer who needs support and/or advice a place to start their journey and get help from staff”.
It said: “The welcome point concept is a fundamental change for passengers, especially disabled passengers, so it is important that they work in practice and that passengers have confidence in them.
“These proposals must be piloted to establish what works best at different types of stations and how passengers react to them.
“Proposals on ticket offices would need to await the outcome of these pilots.”
It also said it was “supportive of the principle of redeploying staff from ticket offices to improve the overall offer to the passenger”.
The Rail Delivery Group said a statement: “While these plans won’t now be taken forward, we will continue to look at other ways to improve passenger experience while delivering value for the taxpayer.”
But it refused to rule out future proposals for ticket office closures.
Harper said the proposals “do not meet the high thresholds set by ministers, and so the government has asked train operators to withdraw their proposals”.
But DfT also refused to rule out future proposals for ticket office closures.
Picture: Mark Harper (left) being interviewed at last month’s Conservative party conference
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