The ticket office has been part of the Railway since the start. But now 7 in 8 people buy their ticket in other ways – online, from ticket vending machines – or use Pay as You Go (PAYG). Those 1 in 8 passengers though still need to be looked after properly - Railfuture strongly believes that in-person ticket selling continues to be essential. That doesn't have to be from behind a ticket office window though. Ticket Office staff should be redeployed to other areas of the station and take on a wider role assisting passengers - as well as continuing to sell tickets. Effort is also needed to improve and extend online selling, TVM functionality and coverage and to Pay as You Go. We believe this needs to happen before there are wholescale closures of ticket offices. Image by author.
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We’ve been told that paper tickets cost the Rail Industry more than £0.5bn per annum (note 2) - a figure we suspect includes noticeable costs that are away from ticket offices such as for running Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) including printing tickets bought online. Andrew Haines, Chief Executive at Network Rail and at the Great British Railways Transition Team recently commented “Rail reform must reduce costs by £1.5bn a year, modernise working practices and remove perverse incentives that drive cost and complexity and wasteful duplication” (note 3).
Whilst modernising ticketing and saving money is a worthy & essential goal – and should be a benefit for many passengers (but must not leave some worse off), we do not believe the reduction in ticket offices (and hours of opening for many of those that remain) should leave to significant staff reductions. Instead, those staff should be re-deployed on stations to help passengers – with advice, solutions to disruption and practical support – eg assistance boarding trains. And that includes still selling tickets for some of their time. An underutilised ticket office clerk will be of more use to passengers if they take on more responsibilities - but they should still sell tickets. That way, revenue will grow as passengers will feel more confident in their travel because there are staff there to help them if needed.
For now, the Railway Ticket Office still serves a vital function:
- Some intending travellers don’t have a choice as they aren’t computer users (and Ticket Vending Machines [TVMs] are computers) or perhaps they don’t have a bankcard (and most TVMs are Card only).
- The National Rail ticketing system is often so complex that travellers only feel they can buy the right ticket once they have taken advice from a Ticket Office staff member.
We think there three key elements to future change:
- Ticket offices may no longer be needed at most stations, but multi skilled staff that can (and do) sell tickets are. The closure of ticket offices is not a way to save a lot of money – it’s a way to improve service throughout a station by having more staff to help in every other way (passenger assistance, information and guidance etc etc). At some stations (eg Gatwick Airport), we think there will be a need for dedicated ticket sellers for the foreseeable future.
- Online ticket selling needs to get much better, and PAYG both better and more widely available before ticket offices are closed wholescale, so that they become the preferred choice for even more people (and for all types of journey – many fare and other choices, not just simple ones). Better means easier to use, ticket collection at stations required less, available for more routes etc. And on-station ticket selling (away from the ticket office) needs to be able to sell the full range of tickets as well.
Appendix A includes a sample programme of works.
Making it easier to buy the right ticket: Mitigating the complexity
Accept Split Tickets exist ‘officially’
Start to sell journeys and choices rather than just tickets
Simple simplification “now”
A single Railcard
Sell all tickets online
Make PAYG and other e-ticketing a better choice more of the time
Pay as You Go
TfL ticket integration for e-tickets – and PAYG
The showing your ticket promise
Some immediate reductions in ticket office hours
Support & Reassurance for travellers
Appendix A – A sample programme of works
There are also options like Merseyrail’s MtoGo (note 4) (a “station ticket office, combined with a convenience store”) – and if ticket selling is to be easier it will be possible to allow businesses present on (or near to) a station such as coffee shops to sell tickets as an extra facility.
Finally, we believe that are a few stations where dedicated ticket sellers are always going to be needed throughout most of the day. Major airports are a key example, where there are many passengers new to the UK Railway; other stations will benefit from having dedicated ticket sellers for smaller parts of the day, perhaps acting as TVM Concierges to both directly operate the TVM and guide passengers in their own use.
The exact arrangement at each station needs to be determined on a case by case basis, taking into account factors such as passenger numbers, regularity of use, range of typical destinations – and the layout of the station – at some the ticket office may well be a natural focal point, so an ‘office’ remains (possibly with the window removed); at another, the gateline might get a table, computer screen and chair, and at others a new welcome point might be constructed (as already exists at Birmingham International (note 5).
- Myriad ticket restriction definitions – eg Harpenden station (Thameslink / Midland Mainline) has 4 off-peak choices for London; 8 miles away at Hemel Hempstead (London Northwestern / West Coast Mainline) there are 3 off-peak tickets, but apart from not being valid in the morning peak, they have little in common.
- Split Ticketing isn’t provided by TOC owned websites. The author's own experience is that Split Tickets can offer value in a surprisingly high portion of journeys. Excluding trips into London from the local station (22 miles), a subjective impression by the author of recent journeys is that around 50% offered the chance for a saving.
Start to sell journeys and choices rather than just tickets Don’t start by selling tickets – start with the choice by price available to the traveller – mitigating the complexity so that travellers don’t need to understand what a Thameslink “Super Off-Peak” fare is (which is significantly different to the London Northwestern one with the same name). For longer distance journeys where Advance fares are available, then it may be a two stage process – a set of broad options first that explore which of price, flexibility and exact time of travel is more important, then into more detail.
This is also a good target for the planned single national website. And once that software is available online, deploy it to Ticket Vending Machines, albeit with an evolution to sell the most common journeys for that machine as the ‘home screen’ (but then again, that shouldn’t be new – it’s actually a very useful feature for a website – sign in, and the first thing it does is offer another sale of the last few tickets you bought). It may work less well on older machines with smaller screens, so some investment may be required.
Two key requirements are to:
- Move to a single model – from the author’s local station, there are currently two – use a Bank Card, and the journey is priced (and charged) by TfL’s infrastructure (on behalf of GTR); or use GTR’s Key Smartcard, and their own infrastructure prices and charges. And dependent on the circumstances, the one offering best value varies (note 11).
- To provide it for journeys that involve more than one TOC.
- Find a way for TfL to accept e-tickets for longer distance journeys where PDF and App /Wallet tickets are now prevalent. An initial step might be to offer such journeys on Railway Smartcards such as GTR’s Key Card, or to offer the journey at reduced price that excludes the cross London element other than by Thameslink and/or the Elizabeth line.
- Provide a PAYG ‘world’ that offers integrated pricing along the lines of the London Travelcard for journeys on both National Rail and TfL.
The exceptions to this would be tickets where detailed tracking information is needed, such as Pay as You Go and Season tickets, where smartcards, smartphones or bank cards may well be a pre-requisite.
Therefore, whilst we see the provision of ticket buying at ticket offices to be a reducing requirement, we do not see this as a big opportunity for cost saving. Rather, it is a revenue growth opportunity by (1) providing better way for most to buy tickets and (2) making the railway a more pleasant option for travel.
- https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/secret-plan-to-close-all-railway-ticket-offices-as-strikes-grip-britain-7wcccnt3x Sunday 19 June 2022 (“In a speech on Thursday, Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said that one in eight tickets was still sold over the counter”).
- https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/great-british-railways-williams-shapps-plan-for-rail - DfT unpublished analysis.
- Rail Magazine 970 https://www.railmagazine.com/.
- The ticket office here has been closed, replaced by a Welcome desk and latest generation TVMs. But the TVMs aren’t logical – even for flexible tickets, they expect a pair of journeys to be chosen.
- Many operator only fares – such as the London Northwestern fares between the West Midlands and London reflect differential service types and we do not envisage these will be abolished.
- https://www.bigmarker.com/bauer-media/A-RAIL-Webinar-Creating-a-Better-Railway-Passenger-experience-fares-ticketing from 21:00
- https://www.bahn.com/en/offers/bahncard & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BahnCard
- Any ticket to be purchased with a Rail Warrant (often used for vulnerable people, the Armed Forces) – see https://www.atocrailwarrants.org/the-rail-warrant-account. Also limitations by ticket type Eg East Midlands 7 Day Rover – only from Ticket Offices – https://www.nationalrail.co.uk/times_fares/prdbb6cfc35ce7410161c045cfc69855.aspx
- Other than for period returns – ie return the following day or later.
- Travel in in the morning peak and return later as a Railcard holder, the best option is TfL inbound, GTR outbound. Travel off-peak with a Railcard and GTR’s offering is usually cheaper.
- Thameslink (north of the Thames) and Great Northern offer 2 off-peak tickets – return anytime and return outside the evening peak. With PAYG, the charge made reflects the actual journey, whereas on paper tickets, a traveller who could be returning in the evening peak has to buy the more expensive ticket irrespective of their actual return journey time.
- Eg many Thameslink journeys are only available on paper as there is the possibility the passenger will route via London Underground.