Whilst we are building the cyberspace with gusto, our built world is starting to look a bit unloved in places.
On Saturday 8th July the Friends group that I chair had an emergency meet up with several of our regulars unable to attend. Normally we meet up every 6 weeks or so, on a week night in the pub and discuss unsolved mysteries at the train station and how we can make the space a better space for the community. But this was an emergency short notice meeting with only one agenda item. The government have announced mass closure of ticket offices and invited community rail and the general public to have their say during a short consultation period.
We all read the proposals about the ticket office closures and how a new Journey Maker job will be introduced to negate the impact of ticket officer job losses and get Ticket officers out on platforms. We agreed our role was to amplify that the consultations were open encourage people to have their say before the original deadline of the 26th July 2023.
Before the end of the weekend, our posse had news on our website, posters up at the station and were assessing where we all stood on the proposals.
As the weeks progressed we iterated a group response and we encouraged individual responses. My personal case study is below - in the interest of transparency and authenticity, this is what I submitted on the cut off the original day. I have added a couple of commas and conjunctions just to break up some of the long sentences as it had not been proofread but i am assured it is written from the heart and that comes across.
Someone started a parliamentary petition. If the signatories reach 100,000 this subject will have to get debated in the houses of parliament. Please add your name to some much needed debate:
A case study from Jenny Barnes - my experience as a volunteer friend of rail since 2016.
I have been a loyal rail user since I first had some freedom to travel, I was age 13, the route was Wilmslow to Stockport and later Manchester and back. Since then I have used the rail to explore every country I have visited and I use the train wherever possible as train travel helps me with my personal and business commitment to keeping my carbon footprint low. Now my children use the train services daily to commute to school as the nearest state high school to our house is just too far to walk to and roads are far too congested with parked cars for cycling to be safe.
The future of rail is very important to me, and my family and we appreciate good customer service and the cost of creating decent spaces on the trains and stations.
I became aware of the friends of Handforth not long after I first stepped onto Handforth station. Before then I had never heard of such a community rail organization. If you have ever visited Handforth it is quite extraordinary. This space is well-cared for by volunteers in addition to the station staff. There are remarkable artworks and branded / heritage signage and award-winning gardens that make this a special space.
But it is a very inaccessible space. There are 30 plus steps that make it impossible to reach or escape if you are a wheelchair user or like me you had two small children and wanted to navigate the steps with a pram.
11 years ago I replied to an advert in a local park - can you volunteer your time to help your local community? I wrote a letter that stated how much I loved the station and that I would like to help the parks be of a better standard and before I had left my first ever public meeting, I’d been co-opted a parish councillor. As a parish councillor I got to know how local government and the friends’ groups worked, I also got to know a lot of people in the community of Handforth as a result. The FOHS were campaigning for what was the second longest running issue that the residents of Handforth had a gripe with. Access for all at the train station. The first long-standing issue was parking. In 2019 we were awarded government funding under control period 6 to get lifts installed. The lifts are due (hopefully) in 2024. I am making this point because things take time and so do information systems. The technology that we now rely on to communicate and travel with and buy tickets with is relatively new and we are still working to get it right, which is why it is so important that I share my personal observations over time.
In 2016 after moving in next door to a very active member of the friend’s group, the founder and now president of our group Mike Bishop, I joined the FOHS work parties to help them tweet about their activities and debunk some myths about how the rail industry and community rail works. I took up more and more voluntary responsibility, from just sending tweets to helping apply for awards that helped fund our gardening and artwork projects, I took on the responsibility as art co-ordinator to keep our many posters cabinet as interesting as I could as a key holder. I now chair the group. Consequently, I have spent a lot of time at the station not just as a customer and passenger but as a human observing behaviour there and have knowledge of what our friends groups see and experience. I have spent many hours with our ticket officer discussing what happens at our stations. I do not measure the hours spent on the CRP system for measuring it because technologically it’s hard work not easy to engage with. Nor do my group. I’m afraid we spend much longer than we get credit for at the station and working on station related projects and have a lot more understanding of consumer and passenger behaviour at the stations than people give us credit for.
The proposal to close ticket offices to move customer services out onto the broader spaces and from behind the window concerns me as to how out of touch this plan is with consumer and passenger desires. People want to know where to go to be signposted around the station and having a moving person is not going to help people get familiar with the station. The number of people who arrive anxious about which platform to use and how to get a ticket is astonishing. Despite the signs and machines people will always ask a human. We often get questions because of the low staffing hours at our station but there are a whole group of people who expect the ticket office to be open because it is like deeply ingrained community knowledge, just like you know when the shops are open or which dates the hairdressers are shut.
A ticket machine for quick payment suits me but there are two things that don’t work for me. The frequency with which our solo ticket machine is out of order. And how the user interaction with this machine is a fraught experience for many who just don’t think the user interface is as simple as the designers think it is. This is not the apple store where your customers are people adopting personal technology. This is a service for everyone, and the demographics of the users include people who just have not got the capacity for the cognitive load of self service at that moment in time when they need a ticket. They might be infrequent rail users who need to visit a sick loved one and just don’t have the head space to work out how to plan a one-off journey in an exposed machine. People are regularly flummoxed by the pressure of a queue forming behind them whilst they read and interpret all the options. The ticket officers will testify to how aggressive this technology can make people when it does not behave as it should. After years of the ticket office having systems that will not allow staff the same access as online consumers of Trainline brokers, the value of satisfying customers has been eroded. And when they cannot assist customers who visit the offices to sort out their online tickets, staff are often glad of the window as protection from the abuse they get. This has eroded our expectations of the ticket officer, especially when the ticket officer cannot help them find the best priced ticket from their systems.
Our ticket officer is regularly on the platform and not behind the window. Over the years I have gotten to know our ticket officer and his long-suffering fan ship of Newcastle United. When we discuss the vandalism at the station and how the CCTV does not deter littering, and people pulling up the flowers, we discuss all kinds of activity that happens at the station. Not just the lonely souls that while away their days who he moves into safer spaces, but also how human faeces are not unheard of and some of the tasks he must do to make the station a pleasant place for customers. I am glad that he also has an office that is warm and kind and home to his resources after tending to the wider space. When I need a sellotape or paperclip, our lovely ticket officer can oblige from his personal stores, not anything supplied by the rail operators on their mission to cut costs. What are the broader range of responsibilities that does not justify a stationery and stationary office which is clearly signposted and serves as a safe space for the journey makers of the future.
I hope that the decision-makers recognize the ticket office as an important space, for assisting familiarity and routine for passengers and staff. Unfortunately there will not be much saving in closing the ticket office at Handforth because the office is already in neglect form the Network rail and Northern. The shell is crumbling, the roof leaks and the newly applied paint has gone over rust so despite the best efforts of our volunteers the ticket office needs more than saving from closure, its need investment and doing this with the lifts build would surely be the optimum time.
I would also like to note that these consultations that arrive with limited time to comment are not as welcome to the time starved consumers who like me are impacted by rail strikes and don’t have time to be feeding into constant consultations. The churn of staff in Northern is impacting the knowledge of your industry and using this new job and reducing ticket office spaces to nudge passengers to adopt technology is misguided about the role of customer service in physical travel. Those that can adopt technology are remote working and buying best priced tickets from the comfort of their homes and don’t need a journey maker on a wet and windy platform to assist them with their journey and more than the ticket officers do now. The railways and the stations need to be managed by people who are respected and rewarded.
Removing the shelter of the ticket offices is not an investment in the future.
Our Friends Group created a link on our website and invited people to help us understand their feelings towards the proposals. These are the responses:
· All the implications of the closure outlined on this FoHS website provide strong reasons to object to this ill-thought out and rushed closure plan.
The plain obvious truth is that the sophistication and reliability of the technology currently used by Northern is just not up to the task it would have to perform.
The plan particularly fails to provide for the vital special needs of the disadvantaged among our community, just at the time that they are finally being provided the legally mandated step-free access to the station after all these years.
In short, it is far too premature to be proposing implementing this closure at Handforth. The security and ticketing systems as a whole needs first to be upgraded so that both online and ticketing machine users will easily be able to identify and purchase the most economically advantageous ticket for their intended journey.
If this sequencing imperative is ignored, it will cause great distress to our elderly and disadvantaged community members, and force many to have to either abandon their travel altogether or onto the environmentally unsound and overcrowded roads.
The government needs to wake up and understand that the UK rail system is a vital facilitator for future economic growth and well-being. As such it should not be seen at all as a profit making business in itself, but rather as a public service catalyst for a new dawn on life ahead across Britain
· This is a step backwards.
I do not believe that this change will make the service better, just cheaper for the rail company so they can make more money for their executives and shareholders!
If the ticket office person is to be available for assistance on the track side, why can’t they sell tickets to vulnerable customers?
· I am concerned for other users who may find these changes negatively impact their freedom to travel.
Personally I travel on the first train every day so when there are issues with platform notice boards being down or other issues there is no one there anyway.
If the station is open it should be staffed.
· Unhelpful and discrimination against those elderly people who prefer to pay in cash.
· I prefer the human interaction, if you have questions there’s no information, so someone to ask questions is important and the fact that the hours with someone there to clarify any questions you might have is going to reduce even further it’s disgusting.
· My main concerns about the closure would be:
Unreliability of ticket machine especially the touch screen not always working, and the fact that there is currently only one.
Lack of disabled access.
Discouraging train travel from users that need human interaction and support.
Reduced hours of ticket office staff and threat to their jobs.
Reduced hours when the station is manned.
In general I’m not opposed to automation and recognise that we need to move with the times. In a country where the trains are reliable and the ticket system is compromise (e.g. you just pay for a days travel) I might feel different, unfortunately we aren’t in that situation.
· This would have a devastating effect on passengers who can't use the ticket machine, which doesn't always work anyway, or who need a bit of help or advice. It would halve the hours for our current station master, probably a prelude to laying off staff altogether. CCTV has proved useless in the past and is a poor substitute for a uniformed presence which deters vandalism and suicides. This plan is demoralising for the Friends of the Station who have worked so hard to make the station interesting and welcoming. What will happen to the building? We were looking forward to our new lifts, not a downgrade!
· Not sure on the merits of the timing for the journey makers hours.
I think it’s a great shame to lose the people element as it’s a big part of the community. I understand most people can buy tickets online â€¦.
Biggest fear is the access issues around the station for those with mobility issues and elderly. Surely they need the support of on site staff at the right times.
Finally there are a large contingent of school pupils who use the station. Would be good for them also to have support available.
· The heaviest use of the ticket office is surely earlier than 9.30am? I find the new machines (and indeed, on line systems) are not as effective at finding the best deal, or working as a real person- and then there is the importance of having a real person at the station more of the time to check things, tell people of the platforms what is happening, discourage suicides, and be an ambassador for the railways. I don't think that can be done without having a proper waiting room and disabled access.
· Please keep the ticket office open as this is sometimes the last resort last minute or a backup if the ticket machine was to fail. There should be some redundancy in the system to provide support in case of failure or when people’s phones run out of battery or for old people who are confused by technology. In the aviation industry there is a lot of redundancy and trains should follow their example, not cut costs by excluding some passengers or add stress by removing the last resort option.
· It is ridiculous to think that all people are able to cope without a ticket office especially the elderly and disabled
· I always use the ticket office when it’s open. I do not like to buy things online and find that when I have to use the ticket machine, it is not easy to use and feel very vulnerable when using it in the winter. Having my back to everything and such poor lighting. It also makes me cross to think thank Northern Rail have adverts everywhere telling us how we will be fined £100 if we board the train without a ticket, but are taking away a way of buying them. I am also quite sure that they will invest in more enforcement officers ! I also use the waiting room in the winter when trains are cancelled. Without a ticket office, where are we supposed to go to get passes such as rail cards, school annual passes and more complex train tickets. If I have to use the ticket machine, I am unable to buy a duo ticket, but I can purchase one at the office. The machine doesn’t provide the most price efficient ticket if you need to travel on more than one train. I also feel safer knowing that there is some there to help.
· Terry would lose his job, he is always very helpful and knowledgeable and is well liked and respected. A ticket machine just could not replace talking to a staff member like Terry. His experience is priceless. The ticket machine is sited in a position where it is exposed to the elements, it has no canopy and is on the top of a bridge where there is no shelter from bad weather, this is bad enough, but when it is also stressful to use because a queue of people are also waiting, willing you to hurry up, many people find this difficult and there are a lot of older people living in Handforth that would struggle to cope. People arrive late and are bad tempered because they don't want to miss their train and resent having to wait behind a queue of people, especially if someone wants more than one ticket and doesn't understand how to use the machine. No information about delays is available at a ticket machine! Threatening people with large fines if they don't have a valid ticket is intimidating. We are told that around 12% of tickets are sold in ticket offices, I do not believe this. I've seen people struggle with bad internet connections and bad phone signals when evidence of a ticket has been needed.. And there are lots of commuters that have returned to work, post covid, and schoolchildren that use Handforth station ticket office, it is quicker to buy a ticket in the ticket office.
If you have got this far, thank you for reading.
Signing off with a Poem by our active volunteer and resident Poet, Mrs Rosemary Thomason. Enjoy!