There are so many threats to our freedoms coming from all sides that it can seem hard to push back, especially for those not directly affected. But when something you value and need may just disappear, there’s a greater urgency and importance to the question. This time, it’s the proposed closure of railway station ticket offices.
10.5 million people in England and Wales have a disability and around 12 million people are aged over 65; this means a fifth of the UK adult population could be affected by the proposed changes. It’s a substantial number of people, but what does it feel like to individuals in their daily lives? I spoke to just two, who are extremely anxious about the possible closure of ticket offices on rail stations, about their fears and why the consultation period (extended to 1 Sept) really matters.
Sue* is a single lady in her sixties with vision loss of 80%. She travels regularly from the West Midlands to Manchester and Yorkshire. Jane is approaching 80, has some visual impairment and is married to Tom in his 80s. He has macular degeneration, severe hearing loss and balance problems. They use trains from the East Midlands to the south-west and north. They all travel primarily to be with family and friends, and also to enjoy holiday breaks. They have concerns about ticket costs, their safety, their freedoms, their relationships and being side-lined from society.
I have to be sure about the connections
The majority of train users buy their tickets on-line. But this does not mean it’s always the best way, and for those who find the technology difficult or inaccessible, it’s obviously the worst method.
Jane said: “I do sometimes book online as I don’t live near a station. But it’s difficult and without personal advice and being able to explain my travel plans, I’ve found I end up paying more, so I do try to get to a ticket office. The bigger problem comes if you need to get a refund for a cancelled train, when tickets cover several train journeys. You can find you’re getting the wrong refund for a journey totally unrelated to the one you booked, and the only way to sort it out is to visit a ticket office and talk to a real person. That works!”
Sue finds just the same. With her severe sight loss, screens give her vertigo and she needs to book personal assistance when changing trains: “I have to get my tickets from an office, as otherwise I can’t be sure the connections are accurate. They have to be carefully worked out. People are so pleasant, they explain the prices, print out the schedule, and I leave feeling reassured I’ll have a safe journey.”
Being alone can be scary
For those who need any sort of help boarding and changing trains, the first port of call when starting the journey is the ticket office, where they can locate the right person to help. “What would I do otherwise?” asks Sue. “I need someone to help me get to the right train and the right seat, especially on long trains. I can’t just be wandering around platforms to find that person.” As it is, it can be difficult changing trains in a large station; if she has to ask at the barriers, they are usually very busy.
Both Sue and Jane need not only to be safe but to feel safe, and their journey starts with a welcoming ticket office and with sufficient staff to help them board and leave busy trains. They have heard from several members of staff that their jobs will go if ticket offices close, so with natural wastage it’s inevitable there won’t be so many people around. Sue regularly uses a small station where she knows and trusts the two people working there. “Being there alone would be very scary, with through trains rushing past and no-one near to take my arm.” Jane asks: “What would I do if I found myself alone in a small station with no-one around?” She does not have an answer.
I hate feeling an object of pity
Nearly everyone finds happiness and support through their relationships with others. Sue, Jane and Tom travel primarily to see loved ones. Losing this freedom would be devastating. But they also appreciate the care given by strangers: the railway staff who are there for them with a reassuring word or a guiding hand.
Jane and Tom rely on finding assistance easily when they need it, for example, to help Tom cross bridges confidently. “They are so understanding, and make Tom feel more secure.” Sue says, “The assistance I have booked is there, and they make me feel cared for and confident.”
Can they not ask the help of other passengers, I ask? “Yes, I do sometimes ask members of the public for help,” Jane says. “It can be difficult, but I try to make eye contact to assess the situation, and if I see a friendly response, I’ll go ahead. Many people are so kind.” Sue’s answer is somewhat different, as initial eye contact is far harder for her to make. “Passengers sometimes do offer help, but you can’t and shouldn’t have to rely on that. And I hate feeling that people see me as an object of pity.”
I’m being discriminated against
Ticket offices act as a locus of advice, onward help from staff and vital reassurance. Their presence is a matter of great importance to a substantial minority of our population. Jane says: “If they go, we’ll probably carry on using trains, but it would greatly affect our ability to travel, and cut us off from some of our older friends.” She also has a suggestion: “If the train companies really mean it about not reducing staff, they could have a large helpline number visible on each platform, so on arrival you can text the equivalent of the ticket office and ask for a member of staff to come and give assistance.” She concludes: “There’s no substitute for real people. The population is ageing, becoming more disabled. If they are going to be able to move around, real people on stations and trains will be more important than ever.”
For Sue, it’s more existential than this: “I don’t have an alternative to using trains, so I’ll lose my freedom and my close relationships. Since this announcement was made, I feel more vulnerable, disempowered, abandoned, just left to get on with it. I’m also angry and sorry for the staff. It’s inhumane, and it’s discrimination.”
*Names have been changed throughout.