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Rail operators are drawing up plans for the potential closure of most station ticket offices in England, in a move that will inflame the rail unions’ long-running dispute with the industry and the UK government.
The industry intends to launch a public consultation process on the closures in the coming weeks with ministerial backing, according to four people familiar with the matter. They said only busy hubs or major tourist stations were expected to keep manned kiosks.
Just 12 per cent of rail passengers now use a ticket office, official data has found, and ministers and senior executives have long said they want to redeploy these staff as part of sweeping modernisation plans that have led to clashes with unions and the biggest wave of strikes in a generation.
One person close to the Department for Transport said there would be a public consultation in due course. “My understanding is that the train operating companies were asked three or four weeks ago to start preparing the ground for this, probably in July,” he said.
Attempts to shut down a swath of ticket offices have been driven by the growth in fare purchases via phone apps or vending machines.
Ministers privately claim that some counters in the quietest train stations sell as few as one ticket an hour. “This is about freeing workers from their Perspex prisons and allowing them to be on the concourse advising on how to use the ticket machines or helping people with access requirements,” said one government official.
The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, declined to confirm the plans. However, it said it had been in discussions with the RMT, Britain’s biggest transport union, for a year on reforms including moving staff out of ticket offices.
“Sadly, those talks have stalled . . . the railway is too vital to those who depend on it for negotiations to continue to go round in circles,” the RDG said, adding that any changes would be subject to public and employee consultations.
Industry bosses do not expect the counter closures to lead to immediate job cuts but the RMT said it would “vigorously oppose any moves to close ticket offices” with the “full industrial force of the union”.
“We will 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,” said RMT general secretary Mick Lynch.
The union has called three more walkouts next month, extending the long-running row with employers over pay and changes to working practices that began in June last year. Train companies have offered pay rises of 5 per cent for last year and 4 per cent this year in exchange for the RMT’s agreeing to major changes, including the redeployment of ticket office staff.
One industry figure said pushing through the closures, one of the most contentious reforms, had been prompted by the union’s repeated refusal to put pay offers to its membership.
One government official accused Lynch of “trying to scaremonger”, given that ministers have not prejudged the lengthy consultation. “We’ve made no secret about the fact that the railways need to reform in order to survive, but this should be in a way that works for passengers,” he said.
The industry and government argue that changes to the railway service are essential because of a loss in ticket revenue following the rise in people working from home.
The transport department declined to comment.
The planned changes on the railways emerged as ministers on Tuesday set out plans to strengthen air passengers’ rights during flight disruption in the wake of bouts of travel chaos.
But a proposal that was the subject of consultations last year — to boost access to compensation on domestic flights, including payouts for delays of one hour rather than three — was not included, with the DfT saying “more work” was needed.
The department said travellers would be “better protected” under its proposals, which include legislating to offer “faster and cheaper” out-of-court settlements where passengers and airlines are in dispute.