In a remarkable turn of events, a united front of trade unions, disabled people’s organizations, passenger groups, and countless other campaigners has succeeded in compelling the UK government to perform a humiliating U-turn on their plans to shutter hundreds of rail ticket offices in England. The Transport Secretary, Mark Harper, announced on Tuesday that the government had urged train operators to withdraw their controversial proposals, citing their failure to meet the high passenger standards expected.
This significant reversal of the Conservative Party’s position is a testament to the power of mass campaigning and the fear of electoral annihilation that has gripped the Tories. This victory showcases the importance of collective action and sends a clear message that the public will not accept the deterioration of essential services.
The objections raised against the proposals were widespread and impactful. Passenger watchdogs Transport Focus and London Travelwatch reported that they received a staggering 750,000 responses from individuals and organizations during a public consultation. These responses were characterized by “powerful and passionate concerns,” as stated by Transport Focus.
Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union, hailed this victory as a resounding one for passengers, community groups, and rail workers alike. He has called for an urgent summit involving the government, train operating companies, disabled and community organizations, and passenger groups to devise an alternative path for the rail network. Their goal is to ensure the preservation of ticket offices and station staff jobs while delivering a safe, secure, and accessible service that prioritizes passengers over profit.
The government is trying to distance itself from the proposed closures, arguing that they were not directly responsible for the plans. However, the fingerprints of the Conservative Party are all over this scheme, as they had originally approved it. Essentially, the Tories have rejected proposals that they themselves had endorsed.
The BBC reported that rail executives were “furious” over the government’s decision to backtrack, given that the original plans had been approved by the Department for Transport (DFT). A source from one of the rail companies expressed their frustration, revealing that they had been compelled to promote and defend the plans despite widespread criticism.
The victory to save ticket offices is a significant step forward, but it should not overshadow the ongoing struggle for fair wages, job security, and passenger safety within the rail industry. This achievement underscores the importance of continued action, including strikes, to push for these essential reforms.
In September, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had asserted that closing ticket offices was in the public interest, citing that only one in ten tickets was currently sold through ticket offices. The initial plans aimed to close ticket offices at 974 stations in England, but none in Scotland or Wales. However, with the overwhelming public response to the consultation, watchdogs such as Transport Focus and London Travelwatch unanimously opposed every planned closure, citing issues related to accessibility and operational concerns.
Mick Whelan, the general secretary of Aslef, highlighted that the consultation process demonstrated that almost no one, except for train companies and the Conservative Party, believed station ticket offices should be closed. The resounding support for the Save Our Ticket Offices campaign has been a victory not only for unions and campaigners but for all rail travelers.
The consensus from passengers, staff, and rail providers for the future of rail travel, as called for by National Pensioners’ Convention general secretary Jan Shortt, is now more attainable. Disabled People Against Cuts founder Linda Burnip emphasized the positive impact of this victory on disabled people, who would have been disproportionately affected by the proposed closures.
Katie Pennick, campaigns manager at accessibility charity Transport for All, aptly described this outcome as bittersweet. The proposals were indeed disastrous and discriminatory, and they should never have been put forward in the first place.
The U-turn on the ticket office closures reflects the triumph of people power, where collective action and a united front of campaigners and unions have successfully pushed back against regressive policies. It underscores the importance of vigilance and continued activism in protecting essential services and workers’ rights. Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh MP’s call for a publicly owned and unified rail network resonates strongly, offering an alternative vision that prioritizes passengers and quality service.