As the biggest rail strike in four decades began, the general secretary of the RMT union attacked what he says are the government’s plans for the railway.
Mick Lynch claims ministers plan to shut every ticket office in Britain and remove guards from trains.
The rail union boss said: “We cannot go back to having guard-less trains, as [former transport secretary] Grant Shapps called it.
“We cannot accept the closure of all the ticket offices in Britain. That’s what’s on the table. No ticket office will exist on the national railway network if Grant Shapps’ plan goes forward.”
The Department for Transport has insisted, “No final decision has been taken on ticket offices.”
Mr Lynch was speaking on a picket line at London Euston station, which is closed because of industrial action by four unions.
Train drivers belonging to the Aslef union, and members of the TSSA and Unite, have coordinated stoppages that the RMT said would “bring the railway to an effective standstill”.
In fact, around one train in nine is running – mainly on intercity links between London and cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Bristol and Southampton.
The general secretary said: “Companies will try and run a skeleton service but it won’t be anything that the public can rely on, as far as we can see.”
Union bosses have met the new transport secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, in what Mr Lynch called “a good meeting, positive”.
Ms Trevelyan told the Evening Standard: “Hopefully, my view of the world and the ability to bring everyone together is something that will get everyone to agree that we can find a landing zone that we can all live with.”
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, said: “No final decision has been taken on ticket offices.
“We are looking at how we can move staff from behind glass windows in ticket offices to provide face-to-face assistance elsewhere on the station where they are closer to customers and better placed to help them.
“Today, just 13 per cent of tickets are currently bought using a ticket office – that number is continuing to decline. When the industry was privatised, 82 per cent of tickets were bought at a ticket office – today technology has moved on significantly and less than one in eight tickets are now bought at a ticket office.
“Staff will always provide face-to-face services on the railways, which can be crucial for those who need additional support and cannot, or do not want to use contactless or mobile tickets. The reality is that ticket offices have seen a significant decline in passenger use over the last decade.
“The changes would greatly improve our ability to make staff available at the right place and right time to help customers in a variety of ways, rather than being restricted to just selling tickets. Staffing levels will continue to take into account the safety and security of customers and staff.”
The RMT general secretary said he will also be looking for substantial pay rises.
“We’re not at [the point of addressing] pay at the moment,” Mr Lynch said. “You don’t get a pay rise if you haven’t got a job, it’s as simple as that. And if you’re working 24-7, working round-the-clock, the conditions are vitally important.
“When we work that out we’ll move on to what the pay deal is. We all know inflation is very high. These members here from more than one company have not had a pay deal for three years. And what’s been offered to Network Rail won’t solve that. That’s 8 per cent over three years.
“Who knows what inflation is? We’ll get a figure in a few weeks’ time, but it’s going to be in the teens, it could go higher. So there’s a lot of work to be done on pay, but we’re not even at the point of discussing it yet.”
Compared with before the coronavirus pandemic, revenue from train tickets is down about 20 per cent – roughly £2bn annually.
Tim Shoveller, the lead negotiator for Network Rail, told Times Radio: “The railway is running a massive financial loss.”
He said Saturday’s industrial action “serves only to ensure our staff forgo even more of their pay unnecessarily, as well as causing even more disruption for our passengers and further damaging the railway’s recovery from the pandemic”.
The prime minister has told The Sun, “We will keep an iron grip on the national finances,” while a Liz Truss ally – levelling up secretary Simon Clarke – said Whitehall departments would have to “trim the fat”.
The Department for Transport said: “No final decision has been taken on ticket offices. Station staff are vital for passengers’ safety and passengers will always benefit from face-to-face assistance at train stations.
“The reality is ticket offices have seen a significant decline in use over the last decade, and by making station staff more adaptable we will have a better railway for passengers and taxpayers.”
A year ago, Ms Trevelyan campaigned against proposed cuts in ticket office hours at the station serving her Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency.
She told constituents she had written to LNER, the state-run train operator, and said: “I hope they will listen to the concerns raised with them by passengers, and think of ways in which we can ensure those who wish to buy a ticket from a person at a station are able to do so.”