Train passengers in Manchester have vented their anger after reports ticket offices at hundreds of railway stations across the country could soon be closed.
The Department for Transport insisted to the Manchester Evening News that 'no final decision has been taken' despite reports closures could come into force as early as next month, when passengers would be forced to buy all tickets online or from machines.
Rail unions, too, have referenced the closure of nearly 1,000 ticket offices in a move they said would 'further de-staff the rail network' and lead to countless job losses, which they said they would fight.
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One rail user told the M.E.N. he was told the ticket offices at Manchester Piccadilly would close 'at the end of October' by a member of station staff. He said: "Having recently tried to book tickets to London which proved futile because of the industrial action, I discovered that it is proposed to shut the ticket office at the station at the end of October.
"The service is bad enough, but this would be disastrous. People need face to face contact and the train companies forcing us to use the website is wrong, as I have found out. You cannot get any answers if there is a problem. A hope that a rethink is taken though I fear that it may be too late for that."
The M.E.N., however, understands that a period of consultation would need to be carried out before the closure of any ticket office, meaning the October date appears unlikely.
Any closures have also been vehemently criticised by disability groups and charities including Age Concern.
The move is intended to save £500 million per year and was initially announced in June, with previous transport secretary, Grant Shapps, calling it 'sensible' to move staff away from ticket offices. Ticket offices at stations including Manchester Piccadilly, Stockport and Wigan are said by rail unions to be at risk, as well as those serving Northern services, including Manchester Victoria and Oxford Road and smaller town stations.
Transport bosses argue that despite the onset of the internet, the number of ticket offices remains broadly the same as a decade ago. Last year, only 1 in 8 ticket transactions were made at station offices, down from 1 in 3 ten years ago, claimed the DfT. Online and contactless payments now account for more than a third of all sales, added transport bosses.
But the M.E.N. found ticket offices remain relevant and important to many passengers in a snapshot survey at Manchester Piccadilly.
Sisters Margaret, from Somerset, and Elizabeth, visiting from Australia, said they 'wouldn't have known where to start' without being able to use the ticket office at Piccadilly. "She [the ticket officer] was very helpful. But even if she hadn't been I'd still rather talk to someone in person," Margaret said.
"If a machine goes wrong and it takes your money or your card or whatever, you've got to go and find somebody, and what if you can't find somebody because they've taken all the people away?"
She said she was also concerned about people who might not be able to use a machine easily. "Not everybody can use a machine, for older people it's more confusing," she added. "You don't think as quickly, perhaps you can't read the screen if your eyesight isn't brilliant.
"I wouldn't know where to start because I looked it all up, and I asked at my local train station about rail cards, and how you get one, and whether you can buy one at a ticket office. You can do it online, but my computer is dead at the moment, so I couldn't.
"And I can't buy one for my sister because they want proof of age. Now how do you give proof of age to a machine? I'm not going to put my passport in a machine.
"You know when you go abroad, you have to read the coins, don't you. You feel like such a twit. By the time you've done that with a machine, it has timed you out. So we say keep it open!"
Passenger China, 23, said she preferred to book tickets in person and would usually use the ticket desk. She told the M.E.N. she had been fined before for not buying a ticket when her phone died and the ticket office was shut.
"I think it will impact a lot of people," she said. "I think if you're paying all that money you should get some service, instead of expecting us to do everything online."
"We don't like using the machine ones. We would rather there was somebody on the desk to speak to, " said another passenger.
"It was great having someone in person for me," added another commuter. "It would bother me, but I'm not from here, so I'll probably never use the service again. But it would bother me. You can't ask a machine a question! And it's a big station, you get lots of tourists coming through here."
Katrina Webster, who has been visiting Manchester from Scotland with her husband, Sandy, said she imagined it would have a 'huge impact' at a large station like Manchester Piccadilly.
"We were just saying, it's a really busy station," she said. "Not everybody can book online. We booked our tickets for this trip online, but when I'm by myself, I find it hard to use the machines.
"There are some times when you book something and you think, oh that doesn't look right. It's helpful to talk to someone then," Sandy added. Deborah, 65, from Gatley, said she was happy booking services online but recognised it would cause problems and difficulties for others. "Some places have an electronic help point, but you do just think, how is that going to work?" she said.
A Department for Transport spokesperson 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 Rail Delivery Group spokesperson said: "No final decision has been taken on ticket offices. We are looking at how we can move some staff from behind the glass windows to provide face-to-face assistance elsewhere on the station so they can be closer to customers.
"The reality is that ticket offices have seen a significant decline in passenger use over the last decade as passengers embrace digital technology. Sales from ticket offices have reduced from 82% to just 13% in 2022, and one factor is likely to be due to the rise in smartphones. The changes being proposed 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.”
"We are having constructive talks with the trades unions to discuss the need for reform but we don’t provide a commentary on how the talks are progressing."
The rail union RMT held a day of action over the issue last month.
General secretary Mick Lynch said: "As well as thousands of job losses this will obviously create accessibility problems for the elderly, people with disabilities and overseas visitors who may not have English as their first language. Without ticket offices and on station support, huge swathes of passengers could be excluded from the railways altogether.
"The planned closures are part of a wider industry attack on jobs and services at a time when the private rail industry is taking in excess of £500m in profits annually and many rail bosses have £1 million plus pay packets."
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