Image above: Chiswick ticket office
Government scraps plans to close ticket offices nationwide
Plans to close hundreds of rail ticket offices in England have been scrapped by Transport Secretary Mark Harper. The Government decided to ask train operators to withdraw their proposals because of the huge response they received from the public opposing them.
Ticket offices at Chiswick and Brentford would have been scrapped by South Western Railway.
The proposals, initially approved by the Department for Transport, have met strong opposition from various quarters, including unions, disability groups, and passenger watchdogs Transport Focus and London Travelwatch. The public consultation on the matter received a staggering 750,000 responses, 99% of which were objections.
One of the primary concerns that led to the abandonment of the closure plans was the potential for excessive queues at ticket machines, coupled with a lack of evidence regarding value for money from the rail companies. Additionally, there were no proper alternative arrangements for people with accessibility issues, a key point of contention.
Mark Harper said:
“The proposals that have resulted from this process do not meet the high thresholds set by Ministers, and so the Government has asked train operators to withdraw their proposals.”
The sudden reversal came as a surprise, especially considering the Government’s earlier push for rail companies to reduce costs, given the decrease in passenger numbers due to the pandemic.
The closures were originally seen as a way to support the financial struggles of a rail network grappling with the post-pandemic challenges, and it is unlikely the proposals will resurface before the next general election.
Nine train operators, including South Western Railway, which services Chiswick, had announced plans to shut ticket offices, with a total of 269 offices slated for closure nationwide. For Chiswick and Brentford stations, this would have meant reduced staffing and operational hours, potentially impacting commuters.
Michael Roberts, Chief Executive of London TravelWatch, emphasised the importance of addressing the concerns raised by the public during the consultation. He said:
“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.”
The Rail Delivery Group, representing the rail companies, expressed its intent to continue exploring other ways to “improve passenger experience while delivering value for the taxpayer.”
The decision to withdraw support for the closure plans has reportedly left rail bosses “furious”.
Local politicians praise decision
Both Labour-run Hounslow Council and the leader of Hounslow Conservatives praised the decision to scrap proposals to close ticket offices.
Hounslow Council published a formal objection to the plans in August. In a strongly-worded letter addressed to SWR, Mr. Nwokeoma said:
“We recognise that technology and the pandemic have changed the way we travel in many ways but there are still residents for whom in-person support is a necessary part of their journey and which could be the difference between them making a trip or not.”
In reaction to news of the U-turn, Cllr Katherine Dunne, Cabinet Member for Climate, Environment and Transport and Deputy Leader of the Council, said:
“I am very pleased to see the Government deciding against disproportionately affecting those residents for whom in-person support is an integral part of their journey and which could be the difference between them making a trip or not.
“It is especially important for this announcement to come at this time of year, reducing the need for vulnerable members of society to wait around in uncertainty and increasingly cold temperatures. Ensuring that public transport is fully accessible and as easy as possible for all is vital for the borough, as it is across the country.”
Leader of Hounslow Conservatives, Cllr Peter Thompson said:
“I’m pleased the Government has instructed train operators to withdraw their completely misjudged closure plans.
“We know that the ticket office in Chiswick is only open for a few hours Monday to Friday, but it will be reassuring for residents when travelling around the country that they will have someone to talk to if they have problems or questions.”