By The Rt Hon Mark Francois Member of Parliament for Rayleigh and Wickford.
WHY the government should abandon its plans to close railway ticket offices.
I know that from my email inbox as a constituency MP, many local residents have strong opposition to the railway industries proposals to close railway ticket offices. This is not least shown by the fact that Rayleigh and Wickford have had the second-highest number of signatories on the public petition against the proposals, with currently over 1,600 signatures from my constituency alone.
Consequently, with the petition having rapidly amassed over 100,000 signatures, I recently participated in a debate in Westminster Hall (which is Parliament’s second debating Chamber) against the planned proposals. Notably, not a single backbench MP, from any Party, supported these plans.
Firstly, these proposals are clearly designed as a cost saving exercise and I do not believe that they will result in an improved service for passengers.
I accept that the railway network is suffering from a number of financial challenges, not least in the aftermath of Covid, but I do not believe that cutting ticket office staff in the way proposed is the best way to address these issues. So, in short, I think the whole approach is misguided.
Secondly, as I understand it, most stations would be reduced to one member of staff, operating on the platform, to provide advice and assistance to customers (but in most cases only until 4:00 pm in the afternoon).
Each of my three stations gets extremely busy during the morning and evening peak and I can foresee a situation in which that one member of staff rapidly becomes overwhelmed by the number of enquiries they are being asked to deal with.
You could foresee a situation on a busy morning where a very long queue would rapidly form behind this increasingly harassed individual. Having now dealt with Abellio Greater Anglia for many years, I have no confidence whatsoever that this person would then not simply be gotten rid of several years later, in a further round of ‘efficiencies.’
Moreover, there have been issues with the reliability of ticket machines at Essex stations for some time.
Although none of them are in my constituency, I am well aware of persistent media reports about the constant unreliability of the series of new ticket machines introduced by C2C on the Southend to Fenchurch Street line in recent years. Some of my fellow Essex Parliamentary colleagues have raised this a number of times in the House of Commons and the media, in view of the evident frustration of their constituents.
For my own part, when I recently went to Rayleigh Station on Monday morning, having purchased my ticket at the ticket office in the normal way, I noticed that the ticket machine on the platform appeared to be out of order. Again, this does not build confidence in the proposals – in fact quite the reverse.
Thirdly, I am also very concerned about the challenges that these proposals would create for passengers with additional needs, especially those who are visually impaired or have mobility issues.
At present, those people would go to a ticket office to seek assistance but, under the proposed new arrangements, that can be made much more difficult, particularly in the scenario I have described above.
I understand that all three of my stations are still quite busy in the morning and evening peak.
According to someone who works in the industry, in Essex “stations like Billericay, Rayleigh and Wickford are still selling over 500 tickets per shift at weekends”. If ticket offices are to be retained at Chelmsford, I do not see why this should not also apply to Rayleigh and Wickford (and indeed Hockley too).
Finally, it is interesting to note that Abellio Greater Anglia has very recently submitted its planning application for the refurbishment of Wickford Station. Notably, within their planning proposals, it states that the new station should have two counters from which staff can sell tickets, something I welcome.
I will finish with what I said to the Rail Minister, Huw Merriman MP, whilst summarising my argument against ticket office closure in the recent debate in Westminster, as follows: “In all seriousness, I offer him and the Government some genuine advice: look around.
“The proposals are completely unloved. They are not popular even among Conservative Back Benchers – quite, quite the opposite.
“I urge the Minister to accept that a mistake has been made. It may not have been his mistake, but I say to him: take the hint, drop it, get rid of it and retreat gracefully. Do not press forward with this.
“The House of Commons does not want it and nor do our constituents.”
Picture: Westminster Report Greater Anglia
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