/ Travel & Leisure

Could you manage without staff at your train station?

Train ticket office

Train ticket offices have hit the headlines again, with rumoured Tube ticket office closures in London. When you’re travelling by train would you like to see staff in ticket offices or out on platforms?

The last time we debated train ticket office closures here on Which? Conversation, the opinion was split, with Mark telling us:

‘It’s very rare that I queue up to talk to the ticket office, and if I do, it’s only because one of the machines isn’t working.’

And yet David Lewis said he sees great value in ticket offices:

‘Closing train ticket offices would be a major blow for myself as a wheelchair user. I frequently use the train and cannot get on without assistance. I cannot reach the ticket machines to buy a ticket and furthermore I have been told the lift will not be switched on when the ticket office is closed.’

Staff-free train stations

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I presume no-one really wants an entirely staff-free railway.

London’s Docklands Light Railway comes close to being staff-free, but it has a relatively simple Oyster ticketing system and a mainly self-contained network. There are also often staff members on the trains despite there not being a need for drivers.

However, once you’re into the interconnected complexities of the rest of London’s transport network, including the mainline rail stations, then there are certainly plenty of issues to be faced. More and more people are travelling by train, the self-service ticket machines aren’t always up to scratch, there’s a complex and opaque fares system, and we’ve found poor advice from train ticket offices.

Although some of these issues may be improved with more manned ticket offices, would you prefer it if staff were out and about on platforms where passengers are? That is, to sell tickets, give advice, reassure and so on. Would that make a difference to how you feel about public transport, and how likely you would be to use it?

The question of whether staff should be on platforms rather than in offices reminds me of this passage from Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island (1995):

‘For reasons that elude rational explanation, British Rail always puts the destinations on the front of the train, which would be awfully handy if passengers were waiting on the tracks, but not perhaps ideal for those boarding it from the side.’

Train companies have since moved destinations to the side of trains where passengers can see them. The question is whether passengers would prefer staff to be on platforms where they could see them? Or does it not matter where they are, as long as there are staff to help you?

Could you manage without manned train ticket offices?

No - I need to access a train ticket office (57%, 335 Votes)

Maybe - I wouldn't mind if staff were deployed elsewhere eg on platforms (30%, 175 Votes)

Yes - I'm happy with just self-service ticket machines (13%, 77 Votes)

Total Voters: 587

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I have a reasonable amount of money in the form of National Rail vouchers received as compensation for late or cancelled trains.
The only way I can redeem these is by buying tickets at a Station Ticket Office , besides the cost and inconvenience of a 50 mile trip to do this at our local mainline station I can never be sure if the Ticket Office will be open or not.
So I would like to see Ticket Offices with guaranteed opening hours and a way of redeeming Ticket Vouchers online ( where the tickets are sometimes cheaper).

My local station in West Yorkshire has been unstaffed for years. Pasengers are expected to buy their tickets on the train the conductors often do not come round. Sometimes the trains are too crowded, other times they just don’t bother. I am only able to pay on about half my journeys. Even if there is an open ticket office at my arrival station I may be told that they cannot sell me a ticket because I use a West Yorkshire Metro Card.
On complaing about not being able to pay, excuses have included that the conductor’s ticket machine battery must have been flat (after 6 ‘free’ journeys) and that the conductor must have been on his break!

I work on the railways.

It will not make any difference to the cost of your train ticket if the workers at the coal face are removed, just some backslapping from management on their costs being reduced.

Even from a safety point of view, there should always be staff at stations,either in a ticket office or on platforms,or,where practical, both.

Another example of staff and management being recruited straight from university or with loads of degrees and paper qualifications,but no experience and, in some cases, no common sense or decency towards those who are paying their salaries.

Although this is not unique to the railway!!

I can’t imagine how train operators will get around some of the problems mentioned if they get rid of staff. The issue of wheelchair access and assistance onto trains is a real worry, as well as the fact that some stations (my local station, for instance!) only have one or two ticket machines, which break very frequently. They’d need to spend a huge amount of money to make sure that there was appropriate service for people who don’t need station staff before they think about getting rid of staff altogether. And, as Ian Conway says, even then there remain issues of safety.

I’d like to get a better picture of how they think this will improve life for commuters – do they have any cost calculations on how much cheaper tickets would be? Perhaps I’m being cynical but, like Ian, I can’t see it making a difference to ticket costs. The DLR isn’t cheaper than other trains on the Underground, despite being driverless.

PaulTW says:
14 August 2013

It is a far cry from when I was a lad 🙂

Our local station was fully staffed. There was a station manager who lived in a tied house. There was a ticket office that was fully manned along with two station porters.

The station was kept immaculate with flower boxes and two waiting rooms with en suite facilities for ladies and an outside gents toilet. All were kept very clean.

Moving forward in time some 30 years, the station is now unmanned. All the old buildings are boarded up and there are no toilet or waiting facilities at all.

I suppose at the very least one is still able to catch a train from there which is fundamentally what one does at a station. The whole lifeblood has gone and the overall travel experience is bereft of the fun and enjoyment that it used to be.

I live in a village having ‘Station End’ about a mile from the centre, and evidence of the railway, lost about the time of Beeching, is still there. So are the older residents memories – none of which recall seeing more passengers than staff on that station in the late fifties.
We cannot have Utopia unless economic factors permit, I am afraid.
BUT I still oppose closing the underground’s ticket offices – not all of us live in London and have Oyster cards – something I know virtually nothing about.

I would find it very inconvenient if there the ticket office at our local station was closed permanently. We sometimes return to a different station on the same line from where we started and it is economical to be able to buy a return ticket that shows the starting point and return destination as the furthermost station and – so far as I am aware – this can only be done at a ticket office. If booking on-line or using machines you can only get tickets for this sort of journey as two singles at a higher aggregate cost. Booking on-line is not always convennient either because we do not always know the date of departure much in advance let alone the time of the train we will take – we can get untimed tickets at the station whereas on line I think you need to select a specific train for the outward journey, and for advance tickets you have to specify the actual train for both legs of the journey. Moreover, we don’t want to be told which seats we must sit in – sometimes we might want to use the “quiet” coach, other times be near the buffet, or be at the front of the train for a sprint to the only taxi waiting at our arrival station! The ticket clerks usually give accurate information and are very helpful in working out the best tickets for our requirements. Plus, they can tell us any peak-period time restrictions for the return journey which seem to differ so much between train operators and routes: no machine will do that. The clerks can also explain the mysterious “any permitted route” condition on the tickets and when a break of journey is allowed. It seems to me that if at least two ticket machines were provided on each platform at every station [in order to ensure at least one was in working order] it will require as many staff in cleaning, servicing, topping up the ticket stock and printer ink, taking out the money, and managing/administering the system, as would be needed to keep the ticket offices open, but – crucially – none of those employees would be able to assist passengers or deal with an emergency. After Transport for London took over some ex-National Rail routes around the periphery of London and upgraded the stations, ensuring that there was a member of staff on duty during all times when train services were operating, passenger numbers grew enormously, so much so that the trains are now overcrowded at peak times. De-staffing the stations would be madness.

“Train Station?” Where you say “can I get” a ticket, I expect.

I notice it only appears in the original article. Please can we have “railway station” or just “station” if the context is obvious.

bucephaloid says:
16 August 2013

Nick, I thought it was only me! Two of the most annoying and pointless missuses of the language, and you’ve put them in one senence!

What do you think about the rail fare announcements – up 4.1%: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23677173 Justified?

Joel Kosminsky says:
16 August 2013

Cutting people is in the franchise agreements, always carefully worded as introduction of newer technologies. Only the McNulty Report had the nerve to use plain language, which the present government still finds too hard.

Cutting people is cheap and that’s all the franchises own – everything else is leased. Cutting people will continue until policy changes, and that can only come from passengers and taxpayers who subsidise the railway, make this clear to their MPs.

Yes, I’m biased, as a retired transport worker. I’ve seen the quality of service reduce as the technology got better. We can now measure everything to three decimal places, such as a ‘happiness index’.

We need people, not just on the railways but in all walks of life; I’m lucky enough to be able-bodied (now) and not have (yet) any learning issues. One day I will need people a lot more than now, so it’s ‘my’ role to ensure that people are there for everyone. It’s your role too.

Steve says:
16 August 2013

With the current over-complex fare structures, there is a need for staffed ticket offices as not all tickets are available from machines or on-line. Remember that the train companies have an obligation to offer the cheapest possible fare. What we do not need is the unions inflaming the situation with strike threats instead of working together with the train companies to arrive at a constructive solution.

this issue relates to London Underground stations only. at present if you have a delay of 16+ minutes you can claim a refund (which is only the oyster cost of that journey) which is paid in the form of a voucher. although you can top up your oyster card for pay as you go or season tickets at newsagents and ticket machines, the only place you can redeem a voucher is at a ticket office. So it would seem that either refunds will have to be paid electronically (as they should be anyway in this day & age) or vouchers become redeemable at any outlet that sells tickets. I don’t see any mention of this so i can only assume that in fact the removal of ticket offices will mean that we will no longer be able to either claim refunds or just not be able to redeem them – one way to get round the cost of having to pay for delays!!
just don’t get me started on national rail refunds – as an oyster card user for my season ticket (that covers national rail by the way) I am not able to claim for delays on mainline train journeys with southwest trains as they only refund if you bought your (old fashioned, paper) ticket from one of their stations (& they don’t do oyster). catch 22!

Judith says:
18 August 2013

I think there should be some staff at stations as I, personally, avoid certain stages at night as they seem so isolated without any staff. Also, how do you get a ticket if you have a railcard without having to pay the normal price? Perhaps there is a way, I’d be pleased to know, as I usually buy tickets with my railcard through one of the ticket offices as I didn’t think it was possible any other way, apart from online which I tend to do for long journeys that I have planned well in advance.

Alan says:
20 August 2013

I travel often on Northern Rail services. You can use your Railcard on the train if the station ticket office where you get on is not open (or there isn’t one).

I use the London Underground from time to time and manage fine without having assistance. National Railways is a different matter. I don’t have a clue about the ticket required or the route I am allowed to use with a ticket. Just as well I have used National Rail just once in the past 10 years and that was a journey with one train operator so I did not risk a fine for using the wrong route.

I thought all stations had to have a certain manning level for health and safety reasons. After all fires and accidents can happen anywhere and who will assist passengers in such an event.

Closing ticket offices on LU stations doesn’t worry me particularly. Having un-staffed stations is a completely different matter. CCTV cameras do little to prevent crime, they just provide a false sense of security. Aside from the security angle, people often need some sort of practical assistance, for example using the wide gates for suitcases or pushchairs.

Claudio says:
19 August 2013

We need staff covering BOTH ticket offices AND platforms!

What really annoys me, is not stations where you have to use a machine to buy your ticket, but stations where there are neither staffed ticket offices nor ticket machines, so you have to go and seek out the conductor on the train after boarding in order to purchase a ticket. This is the case for several stations on the Exmouth to Exeter train line, and it really is a pain, especially if you have luggage.