Transport Minister Norman Baker is at the centre of a major row after claims he's backing the closure of hundreds of station ticket offices, according to newspaper reports today.
The row was triggered after the Sussex MP promoted the benefits of smart-ticketing. That would replace paper tickets with a card where money is stored and passengers enter stations by passing it over a reader which allows you through the ticket gates. It would be similar to the London Oystercard scheme.
Mr Baker said only a third of tickets sold at Southern trains were by staff and the number of people buying from machines was increasing all the time.
“What is important is that passengers will get the best priced ticket they are entitled to,” said Mr Baker, in an interview at the Lib Dem Conference in Brighton.
But the introduction of the smart-tickets has cast a shadow on the long-term future of hundreds of ticket offices which were earmarked for closure by Sir Roy McNulty in his review of the industry earlier in the year.
He recommended the closure of the 752 least used offices in an attempt to bring down the industry’s operating costs and save the Government millions of pounds.
Mr Baker’s remarks were seized upon by Bob Crow, leader of the RMT Transport Union.
“The Lib Dems within this rotten coalition Government have admitted that they are prepared to cave in to the train operators’ demands to axe ticket offices in the name of profit and at the expense of passenger service and safety,” he said.
“They have given the green light to turning our railway stations into a de-staffed, criminals’ paradise.
– Anthony Smith, chief executive of Passenger Focus
“Passengers tell us that they prefer to use the ticket office to ensure that they buy the cheapest, valid fare.
Ticket vending machines can’t do what staffed ticket offices can – not all machines sell the full range of tickets to all destinations, or any tickets at all to some destinations."
He added: "“Lots of passengers also find the machines physically difficult to operate, with some really struggling to use them at all.
“When we asked what would make passengers feel safer when travelling on the railway, the message from them was clear, increase the presence of visible staff. The closure of ticket offices might make passengers feel less safe and put them off from travelling by train.”