[House of Commons photographer]
Plans by train companies to close hundreds of station ticket offices across England – including the one here at Bath Spa and across Somerset – have been highlighted by Bath MP, Wera Hobhouse.
During a parliamentary debate on the subject, she highlighted the impact this would have on residents and visitors, particularly in Bath which is a unique, World Heritage City with two UNESCO accolades and attracts a large number of tourists who may find it difficult to navigate the ticketing machines.
Mrs Hobhouse also questioned the government’s commitment to public transport, given the increase in rail fares and frequent delays and cancellations. In response, Huw Merriman, Minister for Rail, argued that closing ticket offices would lead to staff being present at stations instead, which he claimed would attract more people to rail.
However, this effectively means that visitors to Bath will be left to navigate the ticketing machines and apps which is likely to lead to a negative experience for passengers, especially for those who wish to pay in cash and have accessibility issues.
Mrs Hobhouse, who is also Liberal Democrat Transport Spokesperson, said:
“The government is prioritising cost-cutting measures over positive rail user experiences. They have form in this area, pushing up rail fares and now this short-sighted plan to close ticket offices.
“Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage city, and we are proud to see so many visitors traveling from around the world to visit our beautiful community. However, for foreign visitors, it can be particularly confusing to use an app or ticketing machine that is unfamiliar to them.
“We also need to consider sustainable travel. With these measures in place, why should people traveling to and from our city feel more confident in using public transport? Its more frequent use is vital to driving down transport emissions.”
- The full exchange between Wera and the Minister is below.
- Wera Hobhouse: The Government has overseen the largest increase in rail fees. My Bath Constituents must deal with frequent delays and cancellations. Now people in Bath and across Somerset are facing losing their ticket offices. But also, Bath is a World Heritage site with large visitor numbers, and foreign visitors particularly find it bewildering to get to option and ticketing machines that depend on the ticket office.
So at a time when it is more important than ever to attract people onto public transport. Can the Minister explain why my constituents and indeed the many visitors to pass would otherwise come by coach, why they should feel confident that train journeys are more reliable, they are cheaper, and they are more attractive than driving?
Huw Merriman: Well, Mr. Speaker, it’s precisely because we want to give that better experience, which is a customer experience, so that more passengers are seeing more people at the stations to be able to help them with information, make them feel more secure and welcome, and help them purchase a ticket and do so in a manner those passengers are used to transacting across the space. So I very much hope that the honorable lady will see a better staff experience as a result and therefore attract even more people onto rail.
West of England Mayor Dan Norris has also urged a government minister to be “flexible and pragmatic” as he raised deep concerns over rapid plans to close rail ticket offices across the West of England.
In a face to face meeting with Huw Merriman, the Government Minister for Transport with responsibility for railways, the Mayor explained how residents had contacted him up in arms about the plans.
Last week, a 21-day consultation was announced into ticket office closures, with the proposals apparently pushed by ministers.
The affected ticket offices include those at Filton Abbey Wood, Bristol Temple Meads, Bath Spa, Bristol Parkway, Yate, Oldfield Park and Keynsham where an estimated 600,000 paper
tickets were sold last year.
The Mayor says the new plans will make life hard for everyone, especially those without smart phones as well as disabled locals.
In a ‘frank’ and ‘candid’ discussion, he asked the minister to show more flexibility. The Mayor who is encouraging everyone to get involved in the consultation suggested to the minister that railway workers should be allowed to continue to sell tickets from a ticket office where appropriate – such as when there is a queue for a ticket machine.
He said: “I told the minister just how concerned I am at the apparent railroading through of these proposals. Many people in the West of England value the advice provided by staff in ticket offices. After all, it’s not always simple knowing what’s best value – or the difference between peak and off peak times, or why an advance single or a super off peak may be the way to go for a particular journey. Tickets are tricky! “I told the minister it makes much more sense for the railway worker to use their discretion and sell tickets to passengers who would find that helpful. Maybe because they find it challenging to buy a ticket from a machine, or if there are issues with the ticket machines, or simply because there is a queue.”“We need to do everything we can to encourage people onto our railways. Not put up barriers. That’s vital if we are going to try to meet our ambitious net zero targets. ”
Local disability groups have raised concerns about the plan. Research by the Royal National Institute of Blind People has found that only 3% of people with sight loss said they could use a ticket vending machine without problems and 58% said it was impossible.