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Railway ticket offices closure plan scrapped after fierce opposition with Preston highlighted

Posted on - 3rd November, 2023 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Politics, Preston Council, Preston News, Preston Railway Station, Ribble Valley News, South Ribble News
The front of Preston Station Pic: Donna Clifford
Preston Railway Station Pic: Donna Clifford

Railway ticket offices across Lancashire will remain open after passengers – and the organisation representing them – objected in their droves to plans to pull the shutters down on the facilities for good.

The controversial rail industry proposals have now been ditched on the orders of the government, after an overwhelmingly negative response from the travelling public following a consultation carried out earlier this year.

The U-turn came shortly after the passenger watchdog Transport Focus revealed that it was objecting to all of the suggested ticket office changes, declaring that “key issues that are critical to maintaining accessibility for all to the national network…remain unresolved”.

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The organisation gave the train companies that run the stations a raft of reasons why the changes should be left in the sidings – and specifically highlighted Preston as one of the large stations at which there was “still a need for a staffed retail point”.

Transport Focus said that at Preston, along with all other stations on the network, queuing time targets needed to be set for self-service ticket vending machines to prevent excessive waits in the event of ticket office closures.  Remaining staff would then be expected to “queue bust” with hand-held devices – or additional ticket machines would have to be installed.

Across Lancashire, more than a dozen closures had been on the cards – although it was proposed that staff at most of the affected stations would be redeployed from behind their glass screens and still be available to help passengers, largely during the same hours as the previous ticket offices operated.  However, fixed staff would have disappeared from four Northern-operated stations – Adlington, Burnley Central, Morecambe and Parbold.

The plans had been to retain ticket offices at some stations run by the firm – in Lancashire, those being Blackpool North and Blackburn, which were to see their hours of operation increased.

The change of heart has also raised the prospect that the new Cottam Parkway station – which is to be built in the Preston suburbs by the end of the decade – might also come complete with the ticket office that it was always intended to have.  The inclusion of a ticket desk had been thrown into doubt by the national proposals, which were brought forward when the now-approved station was midway through the planning application process.

Out of the 19 stations run by Avanti West Coast across the country, it was the threatened loss of the ticket office at Lancaster that generated the most passenger displeasure – with 2,163 objections being lodged specifically about that facility.  That compared to 586 responses in relation to Preston – putting that station twelfth on the list of concerns out of 19 Avanti boarding points.

Across the Northern-operated stations in Lancashire, the most objections to a specific ticket office closure were reserved for Poulton-le-Fylde – at 319 – followed closely by Chorley, for which 295 complaints were lodged.  That put both of them in the top 20 Northern stations by the number of objections received – out of almost 150 across that part of the network.

The proposed closure of the offices at Poulton and Chorley also attracted petitions –  of 527 and 758 signatures, respectively.

Huge volumes of general objections were also received – not related to individual stations – totalling more than 60,000 for Northern facilities and almost 48,000 for Avanti.  Nationwide, there were 750,000 consultation responses – and 99 percent were opposed to the closures.

The plans had prompted plenty of political ire in Lancashire, including over the potential impact on passengers with disabilities. Councillors who had objected to the proposals lined up to celebrate seeing them driven into the buffers.

County Cllr Azhar Ali, the Labour opposition group leader on Lancashire County Council. described it as “a victory for common sense” and a reflection of what could be achieved by “people power”.

“The Labour Party in Lancashire has been campaigning for this – and we’re delighted that common sense has prevailed,” he added.

Chorley and South Ribble councils had both backed notices of motion calling for a rethink of the plans in the summer.

Chorley Council leader Alisatir Bradley told the Local Democracy Reporting Service:  “I’m pleased that the government have now seen sense, listened to local communities and are now scrapping the decision to close ticket offices.

“It was a terrible plan from the start. It was clear that the loss of ticket offices in Chorley would be catastrophic for those who rely on the vital face-to-face experience when using the rail service.

“We sent a letter to government condemning these plans and we want our residents to be assured that we will always fight their corner and challenge the Government on policies which will affect them,”  said Cllr Bradley.

Meanwhile, South Ribble leader Paul Foster said that while he was pleased with the decision, he found it “baffling how [the government] thought this measure would be a good idea considering the number of people across the country – and particularly in South Ribble – who rely on face-to-face contact and services”.

“We heard a notice of motion at our full council back in July on this very issue and wrote to the government condemning their original decision.

“While I am glad on this occasion they seem to have taken the voices of local communities on board – I think it should stand as a lesson to ensure that the welfare of our communities and their access to vital services should be considered paramount when seeking to introduce cost saving measures,” Cllr Foster added.

While it was officially the rail industry that had proposed the ticket office closures, the plan appeared to chime with a reported  government desire to reduce the subsidy given to the railways.

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said that “significant amendments and changes have been secured” to the original proposals – including “reverting to existing times when staff will be on hand at many stations”.

He added: “Some train companies were closer than others in meeting our criteria. However, serious overall concerns remain about how potentially useful innovations, such as ‘welcome points’ would work in practice. We also have questions about how the impact of these changes would be measured and how future consultation on staffing levels will work.

“Some train companies were unable to convince us about their ability to sell a full range of tickets, handle cash payments and avoid excessive queues at ticket machines.

“Passengers must be confident they can get help when needed and buy the right ticket in time for the right train.”

The watchdog says that it supports “the principle of redeploying staff from ticket offices to improve the overall offer to the passenger”.

“We also recognise the extreme financial pressure facing the railways and the need to find new, cost-effective ways of working. We will continue to work with the train companies to help them resolve the issues raised by passengers during this process,” the organisation pledged.

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Railway Reaction

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said of the decision not to press ahead with ticket office closures: “The consultation…has now ended, with the government making clear to the rail industry throughout the process that any resulting proposals must meet a high threshold of serving passengers.

“We have engaged with accessibility groups throughout this process and listened carefully to passengers as well as my colleagues in Parliament. 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.

“We will continue our work to reform our railways with the expansion of contactless Pay As You Go ticketing, making stations more accessible through our Access for All programme and £350 million funding through our Network North plan to improve accessibility at up to 100 stations,” Mr. Harper said.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Transport for the North said that the strategy-setting body was pleased with the new direction of travel.

“As [the] report from Transport Focus clearly shows, withdrawing ticket office staff would leave passengers very disadvantaged and would be a barrier to people using the railway. The way that people buy their tickets is changing, and we need to take account of that, but the presence of staff is about so much more than simply retailing tickets. They are a human point of contact, including helping passengers who might need assistance or providing reassurance for those who might be wary of travelling alone.

“We believe ticket office staffing should be looked at only as part of a wider review of stations, that takes in pay-as-you-go, retail and other services. Done correctly, we can ensure that reform supports growth and the needs of all passengers. But it must not be to the disadvantage of any station users, especially in regards to accessibility and safety.”

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