As someone who relies on the railway to get to and from work because I’m medically disqualified from driving, I was alarmed to learn of the plan to close the majority of ticket offices of the network. The argument being put forward by the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) is a simple one. Specifically, here is what Northern, who operate the route I currently take to and from work set out as ‘the need for change’:

Across many areas of life, the way people access services and buy products has changed. Northern customers are no different and we need to modernise to respond to their changing needs.

As customer habits have changed, people have moved to other, more convenient ways of buying tickets. Many people prefer to buy online or use apps, a trend that is expected to continue.

Nationally just 12% of ticket sales are made through a ticket office.

Only 1 in 6 journeys on Northern services are bought through a ticket office, compared with almost half of all journeys in 2018.

As the railways adapts to evolving customer behaviour and to ensure that it can thrive in the long-term, the industry needs to modernise how rail tickets are sold.

Now, I don’t think many passengers would disagree with the need to ‘modernise how rail tickets are sold’. However, closing ticket offices has a much wider impact on passengers than simply forcing them to use an app or a vending machine to buy their ticket. In fact, there a distinct possibility that it might be illegal.

For the last few months, I’ve been getting to my office in Wigan by travelling between Huyton and Wigan North Western. This wouldn’t normally be my route of choice; I live in Kirkby, but there has been a rail replacement bus between there and Rainford for some time to facilitate the competition of a new and much-needed station at Headbolt Lane. The timings of (and journey times for) this bus journey are so inconvenient it is easier and quicker for me to take two buses to Huyton and get the train from there than to follow my usual route. So, let’s use the current opening hours of the ticket office at Huyton to examine what these changes might mean for passengers. At the moment, the ticket office is open seven days a week, as follows:

  • 05:40 – 23:59 18 hours, 19 minutes (Mon-Sat)
  • 08:10 – 23:35 15 hours, 25 minutes (Sun)

Under the proposals the industry currently has out for consultation, the ticket office at Huyton would be permanently closed, as would the offices at a further 130 stations managed by Northern. Only 18 out of the 467 stations managed by the company would retain their ticket office.

So, what happens to the people who currently work in ticket offices?

Our colleagues will continue to provide a great service for our customers.


As part of our proposed changes to ticket offices, we will be removing all existing ticket office roles. Instead we will bring our ticket office colleagues into new Journey Maker roles to assist customers around the station.

Journey Makers will be based at stations, although no longer within ticket offices. They’ll be available in other areas of the station to help customers face to face with a wide range of needs. This includes supporting people who need extra help travelling through stations and onto our trains.

All 149 stations where we have ticket offices currently will continue to have a colleague presence. We will reduce the number of hours that Northern colleagues are present at these stations.

We will provide a range of options for customers to buy tickets before they board a train… Where available, Journey Makers will support customers to buy tickets at ticket machines or through the customers’ own mobile device.

Well, that seems fair enough, doesn’t it? Staff will come out from behind the plexiglass and onto the platforms and, as Journey Makers, will be on hand to help anyone who needs them. Right?

Well, this is when Northern proposes to have Journey Makers on site at Huyton:

  • 07:00 – 10:30 3 hours, 30 minutes (Mon-Fri)
  • 09:00 – 12:30 3 hours, 30 minutes (Sat)
  • No provision on Sundays

As things stand, Huyton would only have a staff presence for 19% of the time it currently has one on weekdays, the same on Saturdays (but slightly later in the day) and nothing on Sundays. Over a full seven day week, the reduction is more than 120 hours; if this plan is fully implemented, the Journey Makers would only be on site for 16% of the time where the ticket office is currently open.

Furthermore, all of the guaranteed Journey Maker time at this station is loaded into the morning peak. What happens if you need to make an unplanned train journey at, say, 11:00am on a Sunday and you use a wheelchair? The right of all passengers to Turn Up And Go (TUAG) is enshrined in law, regardless of whether they have a disability or not. The Office of Rail and Road makes this clear on their website:

It’s not always possible to plan your journey in advance. Passengers can turn up at any station that they have identified is accessible to them and request assistance on to a train from a member of staff, or via a help point or a Freephone number.

But if a four-platform station like Huyton is unstaffed, how would a wheelchair user request assistance, or check that the lifts are working? And this definitely needs checking, because at Huyton, the lifts frequently aren’t working.

If passengers with disabilities are no longer able to TUAG, are they being discriminated against, in breach of the Equality Act? I’m not a lawyer, but my gut feeling is that not having the same opportunities to travel as someone who doesn’t use a wheelchair might be discriminatory.

Northern say all the right things on their website, of course:

You will still be able to contact Northern to arrange the assistance you need to make your journey.All of our trains have a conductor who can support customers with getting onto and off our trains. We recommend that you continue to book assistance at least two hours before travel if it is needed.

That last point’s fine if you know in advance you need to make a trip but it is dependent on the booked assistance actually being delivered. The problem is that, even when you book assistance in advance, it doesn’t arrive. My son uses a wheelchair, my wife has mobility issues and I’m autistic, so we are very used to booking assistance… then being greeted with baffled looks when we arrive at the station and request the help which has been requested, sometimes a week or more in advance.

Reducing staffing at stations affects all passengers, not just those with disabilities. For example, Huyton is on served by TransPennine trains which connect Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Victoria. Imagine you’re travelling back to one of these cities from a night out in the other and the train has to terminate at Huyton due to a bird strike or a member of the train crew being taken ill. (Both are unusual, but have happened to trains I’ve travelled on.) It’s late, your train isn’t going anywhere and you’re stuck in, essentially, the middle of nowhere. In that scenario, having station staff on site to help stranded passengers is invaluable.

If you’re a parent with young children, or visually impaired, or elderly, you might need some additional help and / or information as well as a ticket. Can a Ticket Vending Machine provide that help? I know AI is coming on leaps and bounds, but come on! The image at the top of this piece was taken at Derby station earlier today (12th July 2023) and published on Twitter by @catherinebuca. It clearly demonstrates the value of ticket offices to passengers. According to the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), Derby was used by more than 2.95 million passengers during the 2021-22 measuring period. If we assume that Derby is ‘average’ and 12% of those passengers bought a ticket from the ticket office, then that suggests that between 1st April 2021 and 31st March 2022, that one ticket office sold more than 354,000 tickets.

The ORR’s own figures indicate that over the 2021-22 period, some 990,050,962 journeys were made on Great Britain’s railways. If 12% of those journeys were undertaken using tickets bought at a ticket office, then that’s 118,806,115 sales transactions. That’s right; ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTEEN MILLION.

To my mind, the numbers simply don’t stack up. As a parent of a wheelchair-using child, as a husband and as a railway commuter, I want my local ticket offices to stay open, even if I don’t always need to use them myself. The fact that the proposal to close the vast majority has been made public during a period of industrial unrest, coupled with the fact that passengers have been given just three weeks to participate in a consultation, smacks of spite. It feels to me like the Department of Transport and the Treasury are attempting to take a wrecking ball to the railway just at the moment when we need to get cars off our roads and people on to trains.

If TOCs are serious about creating a modern railway that meets the needs of all its stakeholders – yes, HM Treasury, that includes you – then the solution is simple. Talk to passengers and staff properly. Ask passengers what they need. Ask staff for their input on how the stations they work in could be run more efficiently. Then put what you learn into practice. That might mean some ticket offices do close. But I’d be willing to bet it wouldn’t see stations like Huyton end up virtually unstaffed.