So, went to the Accelerate: Rail 2022 conference last week, which got me musing about the expected rail ticket office closures (see, eg, the BBC).

GBR speakers at the Conference emphasised the importance of getting the 50% of the UK population that never travels by train to start using the railway and also about how it needed to be an inclusive railway.  And I thought to myself “Ticket Office closures”, “Left Hand” & “Right Hand” – “are they talking to one another?” – “quite possibly not…”.

My train of thought was about role of the ticket office in choosing and purchasing the right ticket at this moment in time.  If the railway wants to attract the new to the railway passenger and be as inclusive as possible, then the purchase from a person choice continues to be an important one.  We have a hideously complex ticketing system on the railway with enormous variability in price – as I type this, an adult Londoner wanting to go to Manchester (and back) this weekend could pay prices between £64.70 and £510.  And, whilst many of us are happy – or even prefer – buying online, that isn’t always isn’t true, and there are some aspects of inclusivity that fail the “online is easy” and “Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) are easy” – they include many (but definitely not all) elderly, those with dexterity challenges (who hasn’t struggled with a TVM where the touch screen is seemingly uninterested in our finger presses, or a message disappears below the bottom of the screen) and those of us who either do not possess a bank card, or don’t have the funds available (and many TVMs are card only).

Yes, we know that digital channels are a growth area, and very much on the positive side of that, Oliver Owens from GWR made the point at the conference about how GWR had effectively sped up the London to Reading Journey on Friday evenings by 5 minutes – not by infrastructure investment, nor by running the trains faster – but simply because a lot fewer people needed to either go to the Ticket Office to buy, or to a TVM, to collect their ticket (5 years ago, the Friday evening queues were a nightmare).

The individual behind a ticket office window currently has a number of unique characteristics: 

  1. They can be the friendly face to explain fares to customers new to the railway (or for regulars, making a very occasional journey) the fearsomely complex fares system and what type of ticket is best for their intended journey.  At a time when Penalty Fares are about to increase, there will be a natural concern that the right rail ticket is about to be purchased.
  2. They sell tickets to those that are uncomfortable with technology (and although any journey can be bought from any rail retailer [in broad terms], in practice, nervous purchasers need to get to grips with many different rail retailer websites).
  3. They may be the only option for someone wanting to pay cash.
  4. They are the only way to buy some types of ticket – eg some Rail Rovers.
  5. They can help travellers out and about who do not have Smartphones and therefore cannot self-serve on needs such as new / changed seat reservations.

There’s no point in being a King Canute – believing that the ticket office window needs to continue, locations and hours unchanged in perpetuity – that is neither sensible nor realistic – almost irrespective of the cost pressures the UK railway faces – reduced demand (as a portion of sales) makes change sensible. And nor is this an objection to Digital first – it is about not being “Digital only” and linked exclusion concerns.

So, what might be done about it?


  1. In good part, this is about sequencing: for instance, GBR is due to launch a single website to buy rail tickets online.  That website needs to sell every ticket type and be highly usable – with new and innovative ways to sell tickets; there could be two routes – one for the regular buyer, similar to now, and one for the occasional buyer that would start by asking questions like “Is Price or time of travel more important? “Do you want flexibility in your travel times?” and then recommend tickets based on this (and then top it up with comments like “Or for an extra £x.xx you can return any time after y pm”).  Get this working properly first.
  2. Prepare an incremental revenue business case.  We hear that the cut off for ticket office opening is 12 ticket sales an hour.  Selling 12 £4 tickets per hour, 8 of which will switch to online, a TVM or PAYG, then that makes sense – but selling 12 £25 tickets per hour, half of which will be lost to the railway because intending travellers are too fearful to use the other channels is not a winner – the railway is down £150 per hour.  This is linked to fares and ticketing simplification as well – a fares and ticketing system that is easier to understand and doesn’t have the level of cliff edge pricing we have at present, and where there are (eg) seemingly endless definitions of what is ’Off-Peak’ would get more online purchasing and encourage options such as Pay as You Go.
  3. Recognise that having staff on stations is a strong encouragement to many to decide to travel by rail – the help they can provide on fares and tickets; whether or not they are in a ticket office (“GroupSave will be best for you”), with information and reassurance (“Yes, platform 4 in 7 minutes time”) or the more practical (“Let me get that Boarding Ramp out”) are all essential in getting that 50% to travel and for the railway to be inclusive.  Their presence is often essential as well if facilities such as Waiting Rooms and Toilets are to be open.  Any decision that a station is, at times, to go from one member of staff to no members of staff is something that needs to be avoided in view of the support staff provide.  In the same vein, going from two (or more) to one staff member only can be problematic as they cannot be in two places at once and their need to cover essential tasks such as train despatch and boarding assistance can mean little or no time to be “helpful” (which is the bit that encourages more train use).
  4. So, try out ideas like a formal TVM concierge (which would be a focused role at peak times at the busiest stations), with a promise to be present to guide intending buyers.  It’s already there informally – I’ve always been struck how, at my local station, an intending traveller turned up to realise that the ticket office was unexpectedly closed – and was frustrated – but then one of the Gateline staff popped over and cheerfully used the TVM themselves to set up the wanted ticket purchase – and the traveller went away, both happy and with ticket in their hand.
  5. Have hours or times at the station where there is a promise that station staff will be available to sell tickets using portable equipment.  That could well only be for part of the time when the station is staffed – when there is more than one staff member on duty, so the other can deal with boarding assistance, train despatch etc.   And in the case of less frequent services it might deliberately not be around train departure times, as that is the portion of their day they have other responsibilities.
  6. Give some serious thought to what it is that purchasers who are looking for an in-person purchase want – what portion of them want to turn up, buy and then travel immediately versus go to the station ahead of time? (My example above was for travel tomorrow).  I’m not convinced that options like conventional TVMs where you can press a button and speak to someone on a video screen are necessarily what they want – it is the immediate direct human conversation they want.  But might they be OK with a fully remote session – they have just a TV screen, a camera, and a card machine in front of them – no buttons to press, just speak.
  7. Consider possibilities like using travel agents as sales points again – or indeed any shop or business that has suitably qualified staff (which I hear Transport for Wales are contemplating).  Might an independent Coffee Stall operator on the Platform also sell Rail tickets at quieter times?
  8. Reduce the need to have the “orange striped ticket” when travelling – for instance one is still needed for every cross London journey.  Looping back to the comment on Paddington and no need to allow for ticket collection / purchase at the start of the journey, it is another incentive to tackle a first web-based ticket purchase.  We know that there is no easy and cheap way for TfL to support tickets on QR codes, so might the railway also offer the option of cross London tickets at a lower price that do not include the Underground?  Yes, I’d have an extra payment ‘event’, but against that I wouldn’t need to allow time to collect my ticket (or even make a special trip...).

So to sum up: take a narrow perspective and ticket office closures and reduced hours get appealing – plenty of alternative purchase channels, and costs to be saved.  Take a wider view and focus on revenue implications and quite possibly there is a case for a slower, and delayed ramp down – and for keeping all the staff at the station – above all, let’s have a business case for ticket offices that both takes the widest view and sets out how ticket office changes are to be interlinked with wider changes such as the new GBR website.