Another Blow to Rail Passengers

There's more bad news for rail travellers! The cheapest rail tickets can no longer be bought from station booking offices, and in order to get the best fares, passengers are being forced to either use ticket machines or buy their tickets online.

Rail companies have now stopped ticket offices from selling cheap advanced fares, which is a reversal of the 2017 reforms designed to make it easier for passengers to buy the cheapest tickets.

Long-suffering UK rail passengers are already faced with a totally confusing fare structure. In fact, fares have not been reformed since privatisation in the 1990s. And with the number of rail passengers doubling since then, there are now an incredible 55 million different fares!


What are the changes?

Rules preventing the sale of advanced tickets ‘on-the-day’ were abolished in July 2017 as part of changes to allow customers to "get the best possible deal whenever they travel".

Since then, advanced tickets (which are up to a third cheaper than standard fares) could be bought on-the-day, up to 10 minutes before the train’s departure.

So for example, on Northern Rail, an advanced fare from Leeds to York would be £8.20 compared to a standard off-peak single ticket that costs £12.90.

But rail bosses have now restricted where advanced tickets can be bought on Northern Rail, the second-biggest operator in the UK. In future, customers will only be able to buy a cheap advanced ticket online or from a ticket machine.


Why the changes?

Restricting the sale of advanced tickets to ticket machines and online comes ahead of an anticipated series of ticket office closures. This is part of a major cost-cutting drive which will see ticket offices closed and turned into flats, shops or offices.

Keeping rail services running since the start of the pandemic has cost the Treasury an estimated £42 billion. But the Treasury has now ordered the Department for Transport to balance the books on the railways. 

The Government argues that the number of tickets bought at ticket offices has fallen from 85 per cent in 1995 to 12 per cent this year, because more and more passengers are using 'tap-in-tap-out' services (like Oyster cards in London) or they pay for train tickets online.

Proposals by train operators (leaked to the Daily Telegraph earlier this year) set out plans for "re-purposing of the traditional ticket office facilities". It is believed that these plans are part of ongoing negotiations between the RMT and the railway companies.

The Government has previously insisted that no final decision had been taken on station ticket offices - despite union leaders saying that more than a thousand will shut. The leaked document sets out how ticket office staff will be forced out of their booths and onto the platforms.

"This could include conversion to an alternative retail or commercial outlet, retention of staff accommodation or, for a designated number of stations, a passenger hub facility will be created to deal with passenger issues which has the capability to sell tickets where required."


Why is this a problem?

According to the Office of Rail and Road (the industry regulator) there were 369 million passenger journeys in the final three months of 2022. This equates to around 1.5 billion passenger journeys within a year. Official figures show that 12 per cent of these tickets were bought at ticket offices, which means that roughly 170 million train tickets are bought at ticket offices every year.

Caroline Abrahams, Director of Age UK said: "Millions of older people are not online and therefore rely on traditional methods, including face to face, for everyday transactions such as buying train tickets. It’s unfair if they are excluded from accessing the cheapest prices, just because they don’t own a smartphone or other digital device. Companies should be legally obliged to treat all their customers fairly when it comes to prices and access, whether they are internet savvy or not."


What do the experts say?

Norman Baker, the former transport minister who is now a director at the Campaign for Better Transport said: "The ticketing system on the railway is already far too complicated without adding further variations based on how and where you buy your ticket. People should not be penalised for using a ticket office."

Mick Lynch, the RMT General Secretary said: "The train operating companies and the government are laying the ground for their mass closure of ticket offices by deliberately restricting the range of sales. Ticket offices are critical to the running of the railways and should be fully equipped to provide the exact same ticket prices for passengers as they could buy online or at ticket machines."

He continued: “The fact that some rail companies are restricting the ability of our members to provide the best service possible is deeply cynical and discriminates against the elderly and disabled who are more likely to need the assistance of ticket office staff.”

Darren Bugg, Editor of The Customer Service Blog said: "I wrote an article back in 2018 predicting that rail companies wanted to cut the number of staff at ticket offices by forcing customers to use ticket machines. This was long before the secret document was leaked to the Daily Telegraph. It appears that my prediction is now coming true."

He continued: "Over the last few years, the railway companies have made it harder and harder for customers to purchase tickets at ticket offices, and this new development will now add an element of unfairness in ticket pricing for more vulnerable members of the population, such as elderly people, or people with disabilities."

This article contains some materials that first appeared in the Daily Telegraph, and we acknowledge their ownership of the copyright in these parts of the article.

Click here to read Darren Bugg’s original blog article from 2018 that is referred to above. 

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