Parts of the rail network are set to become even more inaccessible to many disabled people if the government presses ahead with proposals to close all ticket offices in England, campaigners have warned.
The Sunday Times reported this week that plans had been drawn up to phase out paper tickets, close or “repurpose” 980 ticket offices, and force passengers to buy tickets online.
But not only would such a move impact those disabled and older people who do not use the internet, it would also be likely to have a significant impact on the ability of passengers with mobility impairments to travel on the railways without booking assistance in advance.
The cost-cutting measure would almost certain lead to more unstaffed stations, which – when combined with train services that run without a guard – would effectively mean that disabled passengers who need support from a member of rail staff to access and leave a train would be prevented from using large parts of the network without booking assistance.
The Department for Transport told Disability News Service (DNS) last night (Wednesday) that “no final decision has been taken on ticket offices” but did not deny that the closures were being considered.
Emily Yates, founder of The Association of British Commuters (ABC), told DNS: “The prospect of closing every ticket office in the country would be devastating to disabled and older people’s rights.
“Station destaffing would be the inevitable next step, meaning more unstaffed trains running though unstaffed stations; more booking ahead; difficulties with ticket purchasing and penalty fares; the denial of access to station facilities and increased safety risks at the platform edge (see separate story).
“The government should be reminded that the denial of ‘turn up and go’ travel is almost certainly in breach of the Equality Act 2010, the public sector equality duty, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“As asserted by both DPTAC [the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee] and the Equality and Human Rights Commission for years, there is an extremely high likelihood of new case law in this area.
“Legal action cannot come soon enough – to set a precedent that disabled people can never again be denied transport on an equal basis.”
In its response to a Department for Transport consultation on “pay as you go” in 2019, DPTAC, the government’s own accessible transport advisers, warned of the potential impact of the closure of ticket offices.
This could leave train companies “free to reduce or remove staff”, said DPTAC, which would threaten the provision of assistance, and the availability of toilets, waiting rooms and lifts.
In this response – which was secured by ABC through a freedom of information request – DPTAC also suggested that closures and staff reductions could dissuade train operating companies from improving access at stations, to avoid stimulating demand for assisted travel.
DPTAC did say, though, that ticket office closures could provide an opportunity to “redeploy staff to where they are most effective”, such as providing information and assistance in the public areas of the station.
Ann Bates, former rail chair of DPTAC and a retired transport access consultant, said that even those disabled passengers who book assistance ahead of traveling would be affected.
She said: “If unstaffed trains will now call at unstaffed stations the entire network will become inaccessible, despite all the money spent on the new pre-booking passenger assistance app.
“There is a ‘pilot’ going around with staff on a minibus being deployed to your booked station.
“Given the state of traffic nowadays, what happens when the minibus doesn’t get there?”
A DfT spokesperson said: “No final decision has been taken on ticket offices.
“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.
“Our planned railway reforms aim to help provide greater flexibility for industry to deploy staff where they will offer greatest value to customers, while ensuring customers are able to make the most of the services.”
DfT is currently carrying out an accessibility audit of all 2,563 British rail stations, which it says will help shape future investment in accessible rail travel.
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA rail union, said: “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.”
He is to write to transport secretary Grant Shapps to demand an urgent meeting to discuss ticket office closures.
But he added: “Sadly, I’m not holding my breath as Shapps and his fellow ministers appear to be on strike themselves as so far no-one from the government has met with our union to discuss booking office closures or our disputes with railway employers who are directly controlled by the Department for Transport.”
The rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), declined to say by noon today if it was concerned about the possible closures.
But an ORR spokesperson said: “Train and station operators must continue to comply fully with their obligations in respect of passenger assistance as set out in their accessible travel policy, and ORR will continue to monitor progress closely.
“It is important that those passengers needing assistance to travel, booked or unbooked, receive assistance and that information on any changes is made clear.”
The Rail Delivery Group, which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways, had failed to comment on the potential closure of ticket offices by noon today.
Picture: Office of Rail and Road
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