The corporate media just let the Tories off the hook over train ticket office closures

A train going quickly ticket office
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The Tory government has confirmed that it’s letting train operators close countless rail ticket offices across England. The plans were originally leaked by campaign group the Association of British Commuters (ABC). However, much of the corporate media has absolved the government of responsibility in this – framing the train operators as wholly responsible.

Ticket office closures: greenlit by the Tories

As the Canary previously reported, the ABC leaked the news on 26 June that transport secretary Mark Harper was about to green-light train operators mass-closing ticket offices. This has been on the cards since at least September 2022. The Sunday Telegraph reported at the time that the government was changing East Midlands Railway’s contract – ‘hardwiring’ ticket office closures into it as part of its broader industry plans. The paper also reported back then:

sources saying the conditions will be replicated across the country.

Train operators and the government argue that only 12% of people buy tickets via station offices. However, many of these are likely to be disabled people or other marginalised groups. Disability rights activist Paula Peters previously told the Canary:

Taking away ticket offices is another barrier to exclude and marginalise disabled people from travelling, ticket machines are often broken and inaccessible to use, visually impaired people can’t use ticket machines and many with a learning impairment can’t either.

Weeks ago, Harper reportedly gave a mandate for train operators to go-ahead with ticket office closures, as there are regulations surrounding this. The ABC has attempted to intervene in the government and train operator’s decision. It and other parties wrote an open letter to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR, the government’s independent regulator) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It expressed concern at the ticket office closure plans, and asked both organisations to intervene.

However, it appeared to be too little, too late. On Tuesday 5 July the ABC revealed that Harper had signed off on the closures.

Read on...

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Corporate media reporting

The story has been widely reported in the corporate media. Sky News noted that:

the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents the train companies, is due to unveil the proposals in an attempt to save money in the wake of the COVID pandemic causing a drop in revenue.

BBC News reported:

Train companies are pressing ahead with plans to close hundreds of station ticket offices across England over the next three years.

Meanwhile, the Guardian said:

Train operators told staff on Wednesday morning of proposals to shut down almost all of the 1,007 remaining offices, bar at the busiest stations, within three years.

However, some of the mainstream media failed to mention that the closures were not only a government plan, but that it also has the power to stop them.

For example, not once in the BBC‘s article did it state that the idea came from the Tory government, nor that it had to approve it before train operators could make the closures. The Independent did similar, putting the blame on the RDG. Meanwhile, the Times went further – not only failing to mention the government’s role (except in quotes from opposition voices) but also calling the passenger-led ABC a “lobby group”.

Even allegedly left-leaning media’s reporting of ticket office closures was limp, at best. The Guardian noted that the plan had been “pushed by the government to save costs”. The Mirror was more robust – placing the blame squarely at the Tories’ door. It noted that a public consultation the government will be running could derail the plans.

However, nearly all the corporate media failed to mention there is a legal case for stopping the Tories and train operators closing stations.

A legal basis for stopping the closures?

The ABC noted in a statement that:

the ORR informed us that it “has not seen any plans or given assurances on any matter connected with [the closures].” The EHRC also confirmed that it had been excluded from these discussions despite recently meeting with the Department for Transport (DfT) about railway destaffing. Experts believe that “this alone raises serious questions about whether the DfT has been following due process regarding its public sector equality duty.” They say: “Unless the ORR acts immediately, the process will go forward without adequate equality assurances, and without the necessary retail and accessibility mitigations in place.”

It went further in its open letter, stating that if the ORR and EHRC believed the government had breached its public sector equality duty, then the two organisations:

must now take urgent action, including a public position on whether accessibility and retail mitigations are ready to go forward. If they do not believe this to be the case, they should call for an immediate pause to proceedings and prepare to make use of their full regulatory powers to intervene. This is the only way to ensure that rail modernisation plans are properly regulated and consistent with the public sector equality duty to ‘eliminate discrimination’ and ‘advance equality of opportunity.’

In other words, the regulators could stop the ticket office closures in their tracks. As of 4pm on 5 July, the ORR had begun to intervene:

No care for disabled and marginalised people

Of course, for much of the corporate media, reporting on the fact that the Tories’ decision could potentially be unlawful is clearly a step too far. Alternatively, not giving the public this information is either an oversight, or a failure by journalists to grasp the complexities of the situation.

Either way, the government and private train operators are pushing through one of the biggest changes in the rail network’s history. Yet some of the corporate media is failing in its duty to properly report on this. Disabled, chronically ill, and other marginalised people will bear the brunt of this disastrous decision. However, that fact seems to have escaped some journalists – because if it hadn’t, they’d have thoroughly pulled apart the Tories’ toxic plans.

Featured image via pxfuel

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