Prime minister Rishi Sunak told reporters that rail ticket office closures are the “right thing for the British public”. However, his comment contradicts the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which said it was “concerned” over the plans. It also flies in the face of the public themselves – particularly disabled people and those with other accessibility issues.
Plans for rail companies to close rail ticket offices nationwide were first made public by the Association of British Commuters in late June. People have widely opposed them from the outset, particularly because of the impact they would have on chronically ill and disabled people.
The government then launched a public consultation that closed on 1 September. More than 680,000 people responded, although the results are not yet known. And it was in his response to this consultation that Sunak claimed closing ticket offices is the “right thing” to do.
On 10 September, the Mirror reported that Sunak told reporters he doesn’t want to “pre-empt the conclusions” of the consultation. That came in response to being asked if he’d respect the outcome if it asked for ticket offices to remain open. Despite not wanting to pre-empt the conclusions, the PM went on to say:
It’s right that our railway network is modernised and is put on a sustainable footing. That’s the right thing for the British public and British taxpayers and recognises the fact that I think only one in 10 tickets are sold currently in ticket offices.
Plans pose safety issues
Sunak’s comments fly in the face of a recent report by the EHRC. Following the closure of the consultation, the government watchdog published its own response. As Disability News Service explained, the EHRC warned that the closures could breach human rights laws due to their impact on disabled and older people.
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In particular, the EHRC’s response said [word doc, p7]:
We are concerned that, without greater strategic direction from the Department for Transport… there will be significant inconsistency in the provision of rail services across the 13 ToCs, particularly for disabled and older people. A lack of coordinated and consistent policy and practice has the potential to be confusing and increase the barriers to accessing rail travel for disabled and older people.
The plans put forward by train companies claimed they would redeploy ticket office staff to other parts of the station. Sunak parroted this claim to reporters. However, as the Canary previously reported, research by the ABC demonstrated back in July that this is untrue.
As a result, the EHRC’s document also highlighted the impact closures could have on other sectors of society:
Any reduction or other changes in staffing may also have an impact on passenger safety, which may have a disproportionate adverse impact on those who share certain protected characteristics, such as women, members of the LGBT community, younger or older people, as well as disabled people.
All aboard the gravy train
Even for people without disabilities, chronic illness, or other accessibility challenges, ticket office closures will come as a blow.
The plans put the jobs of thousands of office staff in danger – which is something the National Union of Rail, Transport, and Maritime Workers (RMT) is campaigning on. Meanwhile, financial journalist Paul Lewis pointed out in July that the cheapest rail tickets are often only available from in-person offices:
One in five rail tickets, including some of the cheapest, are not available from ticket machines, putting up costs and limiting choice if ticket offices are shut. pic.twitter.com/gHhh0Kuu6R
— Paul Lewis (@paullewismoney) July 30, 2023
In a sensible culture, supporting accessibility, safety, jobs, and reduced fares would be the “right thing for the British public”. However, we live in a society where the PM travels by helicopter, and the wellbeing of companies is more important than the lives of people. So make no mistake: ticket office closures are far from the “right thing” for the British public – it’s just that that doesn’t matter to Sunak.
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