Social Justice

'We need the freedom to travel': Disabled people fear train ticket office closures will leave them stranded

People with learning disabilities, vision impairments and who use a wheelchair fear the closure of ticket offices at train stations will strip them of their independence

Taunton ticket office Image: Wikimedia Commons

Nearly every train station in England will be left without a staffed ticket office, according to new plans announced by the government and rail companies, leaving millions of disabled people fearful of how they will continue to live lives that include train travel. 

The Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has justified the move by emphasising that just one in eight tickets were sold at ticket offices last year. But with official figures showing approximately 990 million train journeys made between 2021 and 22, that’s around 124 million that were made possible through the existence of ticket offices. 

With staffed kiosks closed, the only options available will be to book online or use a ticket vending machine (TVMs). But for many disabled people, both of these options can be impossible. 

Alongside plans to close ticket offices, plans to move to driver-only trains means guards may also be removed from services. This could leave passengers with even fewer options for help if something goes wrong on the train or on the platform. 

Transport union the RMT says the move will lead to hundreds of job losses, but the rail firms say they aim to redeploy staff to wider roles at stations and will mean passengers can actually expect “more face-to-face support”, as reported by The Independent.

“Customers will always be able to access in-person help at a station,” said the Rail Delivery Group in a statement.

But with u-turns aplenty from both the rail companies and the government, it seems we can only know the true impacts if the plans come into force. 

Mick Lynch, leader of railways union the RMT, said: “The decision to close up to 1,000 ticket offices and to issue hundreds of redundancy notices to staff is a savage attack on railway workers, their families and the travelling public.

“This is catastrophic for elderly, disabled and vulnerable passengers trying to access the rail network.

“Travellers will be forced to rely on apps and remote mobile teams to be available to assist them rather than having trained staff on stations.

Not only are disabled adults far less likely to have access to the internet – 23% don’t compared to just 6% of non-disabled adults – but people with disabilities often need assistive technologies to use sites that have not been made accessible. 

These are some of the people fearful that ticket office closures will strip them of their independence.

Penny Heffran and her guide dog Questa, Rayleigh

I regularly travel by train to different places with my guide dog Questa, and am always reassured by the information and assistance I receive from staff at my local ticket office. Having a specific location at the station where I know I can find help is so important. I have no idea how I will locate someone who is moving around the station if I need assistance.

I am also not able to use the ticket machine because it’s not accessible for people with a vision impairment, so purchasing would be a real issue for me if this closes. Although a lot of stations on my line have machines where you can tap in and out with your payment card, they aren’t consistently placed and if I don’t know the station, I won’t be able to find them.

Even more worrying is that the proposed changes will mean that there will be no staff at all on my station after 1.30pm in the afternoon, so there won’t be any assistance either before, or after, a journey which is really scary, particularly if I’m travelling without Questa. 

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Although there is the passenger assistance line where you can book help in advance of travelling, I am not always able to predict what time I will need to catch a train so would not be in a position to use this service. I’m also not able to access the information boards so if trains are cancelled, I won’t know. I also wouldn’t be able to find my way to a different platform if this was needed.    

At the moment, I know that if I need help, it will be there. These changes will mean that I could find myself in a situation where I struggle to get about, which will mean that I and others in my situation won’t feel able to travel as we do now, potentially impacting on our ability to get about as a sighted person would.

Vijay Patel, London

Vijay Patel

Travelling by train is important for me so that I can travel to my job at learning disability charity Mencap, where I work as a campaigns officer. Sometimes I travel to places like Birmingham or Somerset for work, too. I also use the train to socialise with friends. I don’t drive, I only use public transport. 

For me, I would need assistance when buying a train ticket at the station. Sometimes I have trouble understanding money, so trying to understand how much the train tickets cost, for people with a learning disability like myself, means I need support doing this. I can get confused and worried that I’ll buy the wrong ticket. 

When I am travelling for work with a colleague, I get support from my colleague to buy the ticket. But when I am travelling on my own, I sometimes don’t understand the different destinations – I can get the inward and outbound tickets mixed up. 

Things can change at such short notice when travelling by train. You get to the station and there are cancellations then you don’t know what to do next, it puts you off track. You have the plan you originally scheduled, and one minute later, everything has changed. If there’s no staff there to support you, that’s really difficult. 

With the ticket offices closing down in England, I think it will be difficult for me to figure out how to buy tickets on my own. For people with a learning disability like me, we need them open. They provide support and reassurance for us. 

I know that other people with learning disabilities will face similar situations to me, they will be anxious about travelling and feel less safe. We need the freedom to travel, it gives us the ability to become ourselves. We are human too, like everyone else.  

Kathy Bole, Ipswich

Kathy Bole

I have an ELCI, energy limiting condition, which is fibromyalgia chronic fatigue. I use a power wheelchair because I can’t walk very far and I have an assistance dog. If I’m going somewhere, down to London for instance to meet a government minister in my role as co-chair of Chronic Illness Inclusion, I’ll be travelling with my chair, assistance dog and a suitcase, so it becomes like a circus. The closure of ticket offices makes the whole thing even more difficult. 

There have been times when I couldn’t figure out what ticket I needed, and I’ve always found the ticket office really helpful. I have a tremor, so using those stupid machines doesn’t work for me. It makes me extremely anxious. 

It’s looking like I’ll have to get my husband to drop me off at the station and buy my ticket for me, and that’s not independence. This is yet another way of making disabled and vulnerable people second-class citizens. 

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If you couple this action with what the train companies are trying to do with getting the guards off the trains as well, I will refuse to travel by train. I already refuse to travel by bus, because there is no one onboard that can make sure I don’t get into an altercation with someone who has put their buggy or suitcase in the wheelchair space. There needs to be someone on the train to make sure I can park safely.

If I had to travel every day for work I’d be looking for another job. When you become disabled you find out how many things are closed off to you, but when you’ve been independent and have been able to travel in your wheelchair in the past, and then to have that taken away from you is terrible. Everybody who isn’t disabled is temporarily able bodied. You can have an accident or an illness and that can change. So we need non-disabled people standing up for us as well.

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