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Government U-turns on rail ticket office closure plans

Ministers have U-turned on plans to close hundreds of rail ticket offices. The Department for Transport (DfT) made the announcement as the passenger watchdog, Transport Focus, said it was “objecting to all of the current proposals to close ticket offices”.

The plans by train operators to close the vast majority of rail ticket offices were revealed in July. The government, which bankrolls the leading rail firms, had directed them to come up with proposals to cut costs. They did so, but immediately triggered a huge backlash from passenger groups, campaigners for disabled people and trade unions.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said this morning: “The consultation on ticket offices has now ended, with the government making clear to the rail industry throughout the process that any resulting proposals must meet a high threshold of serving passengers.

“We have engaged with accessibility groups throughout this process and listened carefully to passengers as well as my colleagues in parliament. The proposals that have resulted from this process do not meet the high thresholds set by ministers, and so the government has asked train operators to withdraw their proposals.

“We will continue our work to reform our railways with the expansion of contactless pay-as-you-go ticketing, making stations more accessible through our Access for All programme and £350m funding through our Network North plan to improve accessibility at up to 100 stations.”

Transport Focus, and its counterpart in the capital, London TravelWatch, received three-quarters of a million responses – from both individuals and organisations – to the consultation.

The chief executive of Transport Focus, Anthony Smith, said: “Following analysis of the 750,000 responses to the consultation and in-depth discussions with train companies, Transport Focus is objecting to the proposals to close ticket offices.

“Significant amendments and changes have been secured by the watchdog – for example, reverting to existing times when staff will be on hand at many stations. Some train companies were closer than others in meeting our criteria.

“However, serious overall concerns remain about how potentially useful innovations, such as ‘welcome points’, would work in practice. We also have questions about how the impact of these changes would be measured and how future consultation on staffing levels will work.

“Some train companies were unable to convince us about their ability to sell a full range of tickets, handle cash payments and avoid excessive queues at ticket machines.”

Had the government not abandoned the plan, proposals for closure would have been sent to Mr Harper, the transport secretary, for a decision.

Some train operators are privately furious about being ordered to provide radical solutions to the extreme financial pressure facing the railways – but then being blamed after the travelling public objected vehemently. “We’ve been thrown under the train,” one insider said.

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