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We *should* close all of the train ticket offices
Plans have been announced to close nearly all of the 1007 remaining train station ticket offices on the national rail network, and almost everyone – and I mean everyone – is mad about it.
Passengers, disability groups, mayors, councillors, MPs and celebrities have been reacting with the sort of furious hostility that is usually reserved only for when there is an attempt to build houses.
For example, “Ticket offices at railway stations are one of those things that remind of what society should actually be,” wrote extremely tall celebrity Richard Osman1 in a viral tweet, “Real jobs and real interactions, and community can sometimes be placed above shareholder dividends. It’s a choice we can make.”
You can also pick pretty much any Labour MP or candidate at random, and find them kicking off about it too. And to be fair, it is an undeniably great issue to campaign on.
Like a local hospital closing, it is something that people feel an attachment to. There’s an intuitive sense of loss, and it is much easier to imagine something being taken away than a hypothetical replacement being better.
Even some Tories are complaining too, and they can get away with it because the closures are a decision that is being (partially/mostly2) driven by the Train Operating Companies rather than the government directly. So even they can deliver leaflets explaining how they’re going to fight to save the ticket offices, and juice their supporter mailing lists too.
But here’s the reason why you clicked: I think knee-jerk calls to save the ticket offices are wrong. On the actual substance of the issue closing the ticket offices is something we should want to happen, because there is a better, more progressive, more O’Malleyist3 approach we as a nation can take.
So I’m going to make everyone mad and explain why we need to close the ticket offices.
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A well-oiled machine
A few weeks ago, I wrote a big essay arguing that autonomous buses are good idea. It was a long piece, but the crux of it came down to a point about efficiency and scale.
Simply put, if we can run buses without the need for a driver, then it makes for a massive cost-saving. This means we can run buses more cheaply without reducing the quality of the service. And this is a good thing because if buses are cheaper to run it means we can run more of them. It becomes more economical to run services more regularly, or on a wider range of routes, or even later at night.
And the same logic can equally apply to the railways.
If we can reduce the operating costs of running the railways, we can make it better in similar ways – either by improving existing services, expanding the network or cutting ticket prices. Win/win/win.
Given this frame, it is very easy to see the logic in why the ticket offices are being targeted for closure: They require a huge amount of human labour to operate, for relatively marginal gains, as today just 12% are sold to people speaking to a human in a ticket office.
So there’s a compelling case for closure. If railways were invented today, of course we wouldn’t have ticket offices, we’d obviously do something clever with mobile ticketing instead4. Ticket offices are essentially a vestigial hangover from an earlier technological era.
Off the rails
Obviously when I tweeted the above opinion, it didn’t end well for me. I should have known this the moment that I got a message from the producer of Jeremy Vine’s radio show asking me to go on the air and defend it5.
The reality is, of course, more complicated than just selling tickets, because ticket offices have numerous ancillary functions.
For example, Transport For All is running a campaign opposing the closures, because of the perceived adverse impact on people with disabilities. Check out this pretty depressing video from Katie Pennick to see how annoying train travel is for wheelchair users who need assistance. And related to this there are conceivably safety concerns, particularly for women, if there are fewer humans around in stations.
Then there is the complexity argument. Even in a world where only 12% of ticket sales happen at physical ticket offices, the closures will obviously disproportionately impact the most weird and most byzantine ticketing issues. Many opponents of the closures on Twitter posted tales of how a ticket machine failed to offer the cheapest ticket options, and how it was only when speaking to a human that they were able to obtain the tickets they need.
And finally there’s the Richard Osman misty-eyed nostalgia objection, that ticket offices remind us “what society should actually be”6. If you want to be generous, we can describe this as an appeal to the role stations play as central nodes in communities, as they are sometimes more than just a place we go to, er, catch a train.
These are, of course, all valid criticisms and potentially bad downstream consequences of closing the ticket offices. But I don’t think this necessarily makes the case for keeping them open.
For example, take ticket complexity of the sort that sometimes requires human assistance. This strikes me as more of a software problem. If ticket machines aren’t offering the right answers, or are not optimising for the cheapest possible tickets, or are hard for non-tech-savvy, elderly people to use, then this is something that can be fixed. Similarly, the tickets that are available are not set in stone, and the system could conceivably be simplified7.
I mean, I’m just spitballing here, but what if ticket machines were as slick to use as an iPad, instead of sluggish and frustrating? Imagine if you could press big red physical button on the machine marked “help”, which would connect you to a video call with a human assistant in a call centre.8 They could then issue commands direct to the machine, and tell it to print the tickets you need, or otherwise offer assistance.9
And what of accessibility concerns? Instead of requiring a human to remain effectively chained behind a desk waiting for customers, you can imagine how stations could have a clearly marked, designated waiting area for people with accessibility needs. Hell, you could even apply some clever technology here: A button that could send a haptic alert to station staff wearing a smart watch. Or if you want to go crazy, apply some intelligence to CCTV cameras to monitor dwell times in the designated waiting area, which after a fixed period would send an alert to assist10.
Similarly, on safety, under this imagined new model of operating, it isn’t like stations would be completely unstaffed. Instead, there would still be staff around the station, and even in semi-fixed positions like managing ticket gatelines. So safety concerns could perhaps be mitigated making staff more visible around the station, or deploying other means of reassurance, like more lighting, or blanketing stations with even more CCTV11.
My point is that whether or not my ideas above are the right ones, none of these sorts of improvements require us to invent new technologies or rewrite the laws of physics. We already have the technology today to run the railways more efficiently. All it requires is imagination and a little political will to deploy it.
And as for Osman’s “community” point, which doesn’t have a technological solution, to the extent that it is actually true (I am a little sceptical12), I’m not convinced it is the “person sat behind a desk” that makes the community. However tickets are sold, stations will still be centralising locations where people meet, and will still require friendly staff to function. So there will probably still be a friendly station-master for Mr Osman to tip his hat and wave hello to in the morning.
Mind the gap
And now here’s the twist: I know this isn’t a particularly crazy argument to make. How? Because the ticket office debate has already played out once before. In London. Back in 2015, Transport for London closed ticket offices at 256 Tube stations, and the consequences have been… broadly fine.
You don’t have to take my word for it. London TravelWatch is a slightly weird publicly-funded body that acts as basically a transport watchdog and advocate for passengers, with a particular focus on accessibility issues. In 2016 it produced a long report examining the actual, real world impact of closing ticket offices.
It concluded that if its recommendations were accepted, that “London Underground can effectively meet passenger needs without the need for a comprehensive network of ticket offices.”
So what were the problems? Essentially, the same as I identify above: Things like reduced staff visibility if they are not fixed to one point in the station, crappy ticket machines, and it being slightly harder for people with accessibility needs to flag down a member of staff.
But it also landed on a number of recommendations like the ones I imagine above: It proposes that stations should have a clearly designated area where people can wait for assistance13, and that ticket machines should be less shit.
There is, of course, one final objection to argument above: The political one. How could I be so stupidly naive? Sure it’d be nice to live in a world where we can do all of the above, and use technology to make the railways operate more efficiently.
But, well, its never going to happen, is it?
Here in the real world, we know the British government is useless and cannot deliver. There’s a reason why Chris Grayling’s name became a punchline when he was Transport Secretary. And everyone knows any savings from closing ticket offices will just be siphoned off to shareholders.
Frankly, I find these complaints depressing. I think they are more of a failure of imagination for how things could be done better. And they represent a real “Cheems mindset”, to use a phrase coined by Jeremy Driver, which is used to describe basically a particular type of “can’t do” attitude.
“Cheems mindset is the reflexive belief that barriers to policy outcomes are natural laws that we should not waste our time considering how to overcome,” writes Driver, who describes an example of the Cheems mindset as being “automatically dismissing an idea on the basis that it cannot be done, or would be hard to do.”
And this is all of the complaints above, in a nutshell. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
If you look hard enough and you can find examples across government of policies being delivered, services being improved and change being managed effectively.
For example, the passport renewal system has gone from melting down to turning around passports within five days. And since it was established in 2011, the Government Digital Service has chipped away at improving many of the major digital services. And then, of course, there’s the astonishing successes of the vaccination campaign, both the procurement of the drugs, and how an entire distribution system was spun up to jab millions of people at record speed.
This is all to say, it’s possible to actually do shit. And I think it would serve us all a bit better if we could be a little bit more optimistic about what government and the humans who work in it can achieve.
I don’t mean this in a sixth-form, lets-rewire-society sort-of way. I’m not calling for revolutionary socialism. That’s obviously unworkable, and depending on your perspective, perhaps undesirable too. But hell, if we can’t tweak how railway stations work, what hope do we have for, say, finishing HS2 or transforming the energy system before it is too late?
Fundamentally on a conceptual level, reducing the cost of operating the railways is a good idea. The goal doesn’t even need to be to save money at the end of the process14 – it could simply be to make train travel work better. But if we can reduce the cost of travel it is good, not Tory. And we should do it.
And sure, change can be hard. Obviously my O’Malleyist “just build it” attitude is reductive because the whole reason we have politics is because some problems are just hard, and changing anything involves fighting with entrenched politicians, staff, unions, and customers who hate change. But this isn’t a reason to give up at the first hurdle and assume a problem is too difficult - we should at least try15.
But I genuinely don’t think that making better ticket machines or deploying existing technology to improve stations should be beyond the capabilities of a sufficiently motivated government to solve. If we’re politically ‘progressive’, then we should choose to embrace ‘progress’.
And if we can’t actually do it, then I think that the government probably should be more careful about closing ticket offices16 . But it should also be more depressed, as if we can’t do this, then we’ve got even bigger problems.
So don’t give in to the Cheems mindset. We can build stuff. We can make public services work better. We don’t have to write-off change as bad by default. As Richard Osman says, it’s a choice we can make.
Phew! You made it to the end. Rewards yourself for reading 2000 words about trains by reading this spicy defence of Elon Musk and JK Rowling instead. And don’t forget to subscribe to get more takes like this direct into your inbox:
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I went on Pointless in the early days, before Osman was well known for his height, and I still remember the shock of shaking his hand with me, a roughly average sized man standing on a podium several feet high, and us both appearing to be about level.
Rail nerds can argue about this in the comments as, to the extent I understand it, you get into byzantine debates about subsidies, contracts and other minutiae.
I realise that every time I use the word “O’Malleyist” it becomes slightly less ironic and it scares me too.
Imagine if when introducing rental e-scooters to London, the likes of Lime and Bird were forced to let scooters through ticket offices. Obviously you can’t imagine that, because it would be absurd.
I didn’t go on in the end, only partially out of fear of being absolutely dismantled by Vine or worse, pursued down the street by him on his bike, with his GoPro capturing everything.
Society should actually be a short exchange you have while slightly stressed, about the complexity of train ticketing, followed by your parting with the best part of £100 for buying a ticket on the day of the travel.
This is likely to happen anyway if GB Railways is ever actually created.
Something I think that people under-appreciate is that though technology is broadly considered something that it is hard for old or elderly people to understand, the natural direction of travel for tech is getting easier. When we get old, I think it is unlikely that we will face the same digital divide the older generation does today, because of things like voice assistants that use natural language processing and AI to interpret commands. That’s miles easier to learn, even for old person, than how to use a desktop PC with a mouse and keyboard. And for all of the concerns, there is also the reality that the numbers of people who can’t cope with, for example, a touchscreen ticket machine, will be diminishing as truly elderly people, er, age out. 73% of people aged 55-64 years old use a mobile phone today, and most people in their 80s and 90s will realistically not be solo travelling on the rail network anyway.
“Why not just have a real human in the station instead of a call centre?,” you prepare to snark in the comments. Centralising this function still creates efficiency gains, and it even means that more human customer service could be expanded to currently unmanned stations, which typically only have a “help point” button that makes a (voice only) call anyway. Also (you can tell I’ve been thinking about this), you could design the software in such a way that when the customer service agent walks the customer through their ticket purchase, it shows the agent clicking around the system to user, to teach them how to do it themselves in the future. Plus, make sure there’s a camera on the machine facing the customer, so the agent can read facial expressions and body language. (Not to mention the potential to use AI here too.)
Or dare I even suggest that it isn’t beyond the capabilities of humans to build station platforms at such a height that makes level boarding possible?
I bet there’s some clever psychological interventions that are possible too, such as having a screen showing a CCTV feed when people enter stations… and then drawing a rectangle around each of the faces on the screen to scare any potential baddies into thinking they’re now on a facial recognition database.
Large stations are obviously big, faceless operations. Stations for the smallest towns and villages are usually unmanned already. So Osman is gesturing at a very specific type of station – more Sodor and less Slough. I think there’s a stronger case for local shops, community centres and pubs fulfilling this sort of “social infrastructure” role.
One interesting thing it points out is that TfL uniforms weren’t bright enough to make staff stand out. So I hope that TfL has dished out some more hi-vis gear since.
One thing I don’t have the time to go into is how for all of the worries about ticket office closures being about profits. it is likely that in the next few years the railways are going to fundamentally transform anyway. If the bill ever passes, the government (and surely also the Labour Party) is going to create Great British Railways, which will take the railways back into quasi-public ownership, using private companies on more of a concession-based model, like the London Overground. So, to the extent that I understand this very complicated shake-up, it seems like profits going back into the railways is on the cards anyway.
Simplifying train tickets would almost by definition be controversial, as any changes to how tickets are currently balanced will create winners and losers. And changing the way stations are operated will involve challenges with technology, costs, and fights with the unions.
That’s right, I just tricked you into reading 2000 words on train ticketing and trade-offs, with a shock headline, but I’m actually making a completely reasonable point after all.