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Tragic death of the ticket office: the inhuman, isolating change that could ruin train travel

It’s a lovely September Monday morning in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Schools have gone back, the summer language students have left, most of the DFLs (down from Londons, the second-home weekenders) have returned to the city. Soon the restless house martins will be off, too. The island is slipping gently into quiet mode.

But the ticket office at Ryde Esplanade railway station is busy. Two women with a little black dog are talking to the man at the counter; another woman waits in line. Throughout the morning, there is a steady stream of customers, sometimes forming a queue at the ticket office. That is the shiny, new ticket office, opened this year as part of a £10m upgrade to the town’s seafront transport interchange. There is a ticket machine in the station, too, but no one uses it while I am there.

Guess what, though? They are planning to close the ticket office, along with almost every other station ticket office in England – nearly 1,000 of them. The train operators – under pressure from the government – are saying it is part of necessary modernisation, because most tickets are sold digitally or at station vending machines.

Ryde Esplanade train station, where the newly refurbished ticket office is expected to close as part of nationwide ticket office closures.
Ryde Esplanade train station, where the newly refurbished ticket office is expected to close as part of nationwide ticket office closures. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

“In developing our proposal to modernise and update our stations, we have focused on delivering improvements for our customers,” says Claire Mann, the managing director of South Western Railway (SWR), which runs Ryde Esplanade station. Nothing to do with reducing staff numbers at stations to save money, then. The train operators say that ticket office staff can be retrained and moved to a new, multiskilled role, while SWR “can offer a customer service that aligns with what customers actually want and need, in line with their expectations from modern retailing”.

None of the customers I meet today say that closing the ticket office is what they want or need, or that it is in line with their retailing expectations. On the contrary, they call the decision “disgusting”, “ridiculous”, “gutting”, “inhuman”, “isolating”, “diabolical”, “ageist”, “ableist” and “heartbreaking”.

One of the two women with the dog, island resident Adelaide Edwards, 58, is buying a ticket to Bristol to see her daughter on Wednesday. Her friend Rachael Sothcott, 49, is along for the walk and the company – they had a swim in the sea on the way. Edwards likes to get her tickets at the office because they find her the best deal: “Last time, I saved myself £14. He did it all for me, gave me several tickets; I didn’t realise you could do that. He does the searching. It’s quicker and cheaper,” she says.

Portrait of Adelaide Edwards (left), her dog Willow, and Rachael Sothcott at Ryde Esplanade train station.
‘I don’t understand why they’re closing it; so many people use it.’ Rachael Sothcott, right, with Adelaide Edwards outside Ryde Esplanade train station. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Sothcott adds: “And it’s nice to talk to someone. I like a human, instead of giving myself a headache online, where it probably takes the best part of a day. I don’t understand why they’re closing it; so many people use it.”

“I know we’ve only got a little railway line, but we buy tickets for the whole of England, Scotland and Wales there,” says Edwards. “If the machine is broken, you won’t be able to get tickets; you won’t be able to get off the island.”

They are both disgusted. Much of the country feels similarly: a consultation about the closures was extended after outcry from passengers and received more than 680,000 responses, which are being reviewed by the watchdogs Transport Focus and London TravelWatch.

Next in line, Christine Miller, 78, has also come to the station before her journey, to Gatwick. “I don’t need it yet, but I thought I’d ask while they’re still here – they’re fantastic,” she says. Miller is livid about the closure: “Words do not convey what I would like to say.”

Yvonne Williams, a retired teacher, also gives top marks to the office and its staff: “You can discuss your route, they’ll look at a number of alternatives, explain why some are more expensive, so you know which to avoid; it’s done quickly over the counter in a very friendly and extremely helpful way. We have a large number of elderly people here. That’s not to stereotype people over 60 – many of us use computers and phones quite happily.”

It could be any one of the 974 stations whose ticket offices are for the chop. I picked Ryde partly because of the demographic, but also because of the absurdity of it having only just opened. I came DFL on the train, from Waterloo. “Alert,” the SWR app said. “No fares available for this journey.” I could have tried a different app, or bought a ticket at a machine, but I thought that, given the nature of the assignment, and while they still exist, I would use the ticket office.

The man at the ticket office sold me a day return to Ryde Esplanade for £77, including the crossing, although he wasn’t sure whether that was for the hovercraft or the catamaran. For that information, I went to the Rail Information Centre. “I have a ticket to Ryde,” I told the woman. “That’s a song,” she said, straight off, before telling me my train linked up with the catamaran and to follow the signs at Portsmouth Harbour station. I think she had been waiting for the moment.

Customers purchase tickets inside the new ticket office at Ryde Esplanade train station.
Customers purchase tickets inside the £10m ticket office at Ryde Esplanade train station. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

For Lisa Hollyhead, it’s about more than smiles and song references. Hollyhead, who is sight impaired, is CEO of Sight for Wight, a charity for visually impaired islanders that has 783 members. The rail companies have said that, when the ticket offices are closed, there will still be staff around to help passengers. “I believe the plan is to have a person on the platform,” Hollyhead says. But that’s not much use to her or her members. If they can’t get a ticket from the machine, because it’s not accessible (“At the moment, they’re not,” says Hollyhead), how do they get through the barrier to the person on the platform?

Hollyhead commutes to the island from Petersfield in Hampshire, a route that gets very busy in the morning: “With 150 commuters on the platform, how are you going to find one person? You’re going to have to keep asking and bumping into people.”

She knows where the ticket office is, she knows the staff, she knows they will help her. “For someone like me, I will be financially worse off, I will be much more stressed and it will end up adding more time to my journey,” she says. She also knows she doesn’t have much choice about her mode of transport. “I can’t go by car, I can’t drive. My only choice is to go by train.”

With Hollyhead today is Jan Brookes, the CEO of Isle Access, another charity that campaigns to make the island more accessible for people with disabilities. “The decision has been made by non-disabled people without thinking about it. For me, it’s just the continued lack of regard for disabled people by the government.” Brookes says it will affect young people, too: “Anyone with a learning disability, or neurodiverse conditions, they need that physical support and assistance.”

To prove Brookes’s point, here is Tim Taylor, with his mum, Helen, and his brother, Chris, over from Portsmouth for the day. Tim is autistic and relies on support. He doesn’t get on with ticket machines and gets very anxious when it comes to making contactless payments, says Helen. “It’s going to affect us immensely, as it will for any family with special needs. Tim likes to go out and about. We try to use public transport as much as possible. You are trying to get them into society, to mix and be part of the community and to be able to access that community. This is not helping.”

Helen Taylor and her sons Chris Taylor (left) and Tim Taylor (right).
Helen Taylor and her sons Chris Taylor (left) and Tim Taylor (right). Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

They come to the Isle of Wight from farther afield than Portsmouth. Karen Kozielski is over from Melbourne, Australia. She left the UK 30 years ago, in her 20s, and has come back for a wedding anniversary. “When they take away the facilities and put everything online, it’s massively confusing, even for someone with a PhD,” she says.

Tourism is vital to the island’s economy, says the councillor and former Ryde mayor Michael Lilley: “We need to ensure all visitors get all the help they need. That’s part of our USP. our welcome. If you have a closed ticket office at the gateway to the bay area, that’s not the welcome we want to give. It’s damaging our economy and it contradicts the £36m the government has wasted in making the Isle of Wight more accessible.”

He also points to demographics – about 35% of residents and visitors are over 65 – and the importance of disabled access. He mentions the unique nature of this station, too: “Each ticket office has its own peculiarities, which local staff understand; you can’t have one national size fits all. Ryde’s ticket office links our railway line on the island to the mainland with an extra complication, that you have to go through a private operator – Wightlink or Hovertravel. It’s difficult to work out the journey online. I’m 66, my wife is 65, we have railcards; when we go to the mainland to visit family, we go to the ticket office. You need that face-to-face to work out the best rates. It can be very expensive to get off the island.”

Lilley says closing the ticket office will make the island even more cut off than it is already. Rail workers have been threatened with disciplinary action just for wearing stickers supporting the campaign against the closures; talking to the media wouldn’t go down well. But it’s important to hear from the other side of the glass, so I speak by phone to another ticket office worker; we will call her Tanita. She is somewhere on the mainland, in a medium-sized station where she has worked for more than 20 years.

“I’m gutted,” she says. “It’s a job I really love. You get to know your regular customers, hear their stories, like old ladies going on holiday. I might be the only person they see that week. That contact is important for them.”

She says the machines often don’t work, they are not easy to use and they don’t give advice. “If I see two passengers travelling together to the same place, I will tell them it is cheaper to get a combined ticket if they’re coming back between these times. If they go to the machine, they won’t get that advice.” When there is a disruption – which there have been a lot of recently – she and her colleagues are there to advise of alternative routes and options, she says: “They want people to use public transport, but this is going to exclude so many people. It seems they really don’t care.”

Tanita has heard there will be 2,000 job cuts from the closure of ticket offices. “It will put huge pressure on the staff that are left,” she says. “They’re going to have to dispatch trains, give ticket advice, sort the machines out.” She hasn’t been told what there will be for her. “I don’t know where my future lies. I want to stay on the railways.”

Now we are in Shanklin, a pretty Victorian station at the other end of the island line. The ticket office is closed; it’s only open on weekday mornings. There is a machine; card payment only.

I meet a couple who are enjoying a late summer break on the island. Margaret and Bryan Humphreys are both 83. Margaret has macular degeneration and can’t see well enough to use the machines, especially if they are in sunlight, which this one is. Their local station, Blackwater in Hampshire, only has a machine, so they travelled to Farnborough before their journey today, because Farnborough has a ticket office. Due for closure, of course.

Terence Lewis, 76 – a former airman and bus driver, for ever a hippy – is on the same train as us, going back to Ryde Pier, to hang out. “It doesn’t matter if a station is out in the country and gets two trains a day; there should be someone there to help the public,” he says. “It’s common sense, but this government doesn’t know the meaning of common sense.”

Lisa Hollyhead, CEO of the Sight for Wight charity, outside Ryde Hoverport.
I will be financially worse off, more stressed and it will add more time to my journey …’ Lisa Hollyhead, CEO of the Sight for Wight charity. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

As for the apps: “Oh, what a load of old rubbish – who cares about that? Ninety per cent of people over 40 aren’t interested in buying their tickets that way.” These are Lewis’s figures; the government ones say that just 12% of tickets are bought at a ticket office. But the people buying these tickets are still people, including Margaret and Bryan, Lewis, Edwards and Sothcott – and everybody else I’ve met today. All of them have good reasons for using ticket offices and will be negatively affected by their closure.

Lewis has a bleak warning: “A lot of older people, who haven’t got the strength of mind to try to overcome it, are going to get cut off from the world because of this. They’ll go downhill fast. It’s going to kill them.”


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