Plans to close rail ticket offices including at Northumberland stations and campaign to keep them open set to enter key phase
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Ahead of the next stage in the process, which should happen by October 31, the House of Commons Transport Committee has written to the Rail Minister Huw Merriman to raise its concerns.
Although this has been welcomed by some, including partially by Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery, he and a rail user group have said the committee should call for the plans to be completely abandoned.
In early July, the Rail Delivery Group announced that operators “across the country are launching passenger consultations to move staff from ticket offices and into stations”. The plans would include closing the travel centres at Alnmouth, Berwick and Morpeth.
The consultation deadline was extended to September 1 and there were about 680,000 responses. Transport Focus has confirmed in an October update that it plans to respond to the train operators by October 31.
If it objects to the proposals, the operators can refer their bid to the Secretary of State for a final decision.
After holding an evidence session about this matter, chairman Iain Stewart on behalf of the committee wrote a letter to Mr Merriman.
It includes the following: “We consider that the proposals as put forward by train operating companies in this consultation go too far, too fast, towards a situation that risks excluding some passengers from the railway.
“At a minimum, changes this radical should be carefully piloted in limited areas and evaluated for their effect on all passengers before being rolled out. This would allow for the alternative proposals, which at present are too vague, to be properly understood.”
After seeing the letter, Peter Groves on behalf of the Alnmouth Rail User Group said it was a “disappointing response”.
He added: “What a shame the Commons Transport Committee could not bring themselves to put their full weight behind the overwhelming public opposition and recommend that this badly advised mass ticket office closure proposal by the Rail Delivery Group be abandoned in its tracks.
“No, instead they want pilot schemes to gauge the impact. Rather than save money for the Train Operating Companies, which is what this proposal is really about, Alnmouth Rail User Group fear that if it is allowed to progress we will see a reduction in ticket sales, a consequent decline in railway services for the first time since the mid 1990s and witness a potential cycle of reducing rail patronage and rail services.
“It would be interesting to know how many of the Commons Transport Committee actually personally buy their own railway tickets on a regular basis and seek the best deals for their travel up and down to Westminster each week. I suspect not very many.”
Georgina Hill, Northumberland County councillor for Berwick East and rail campaigner, said: “The comments from the Transport Committee are really helpful and sum up the issues well.
“It is increasingly clear, despite prevarication from the rail companies, that there is no justification for closing Berwick’s ticket office and others across the country. It is simply a mean, cost-cutting measure.
“I suspect the rail companies and the Government are getting spooked by all the opposition – which won’t necessarily lead to a change of mind, but quite possibly to delays in making the formal decision.”
Mr Lavery said: “I welcome the intervention of the Transport Committee members expressing their concerns about these plans. I would, however, urge them to go one step further and completely oppose these disastrous plans.
“As the RMT (rail union) has continually stated, ticket offices are critical for safety, security, accessibility and passenger service.
“The threat to close nearly 1,000 ticket offices across the country is quite frankly a disgrace and is simply designed to protect the profits of the train companies and cut the jobs of loyal staff.”