Ticket office closures row: London train firms reveal they have stopped hiring new counter staff

Just the ticket: the ticket office at St Pancras station (Ross Lydall)
Just the ticket: the ticket office at St Pancras station (Ross Lydall)

Train companies have been accused of closing London ticket offices by stealth after admitting they had stopped hiring staff to fill vacancies.

The capital’s three main commuter rail firms - Southeastern, South Western and GoVia Thameslink Railway (GTR) – said they had halted recruitment of new ticket office staff.

Government-backed plans to close hundreds of ticket offices to cut costs have sparked a public outcry, with almost 700,000 consultation responses – including 180,000 relating to London stations.

A final decision is not expected until next year – but a lack of new recruits has been forcing London ticket offices to close on occasions during normal operating hours.

Steve White, managing director of Southeastern, told a London Assembly inquiry into outer London travel connections on Tuesday: “In all conscience, for the last year or more we have not been recruiting people to fill ticket office vacancies.

“If a local station lost a ticket office person, we have not recruited the replacement of that person while simultaneously consulting [on] the removal of that position. We have vacancies on our network today.”

South Western managing director Claire Mann said it had vacancies “across the entire network”. She said: “It would be inappropriate to recruit [to] jobs while change is being discussed.”

GTR managing director Angie Doll said: “In the bigger ticket offices where we are seeing a decline in the tickets being sold, we aren’t actively backfilling any of those [vacancies].”

Data obtained by the Labour group at City Hall found that ticket offices at Southeastern’s “metro” stations in the capital’s suburbs were only open 73 per cent of the time over the last five months.

GTR’s ticket offices, which include those on the Southern and Great Northern networks, were open for 94.4 per cent of scheduled hours between April and July. South Western’s London ticket offices were open for 87 per cent of the time in July.

The train firms say they use “general purpose relief staff” on a temporary basis to keep the ticket offices open, or decide not to open them for all scheduled hours.

They say the rail unions have been made aware of the “temporary” approach and support it. Southeastern said ticket office closures were publicised on its website.

Elly Baker, Labour transport spokeswoman on the London Assembly, said it appeared the firms “had already made a judgement” on ticket office staffing levels before hundreds of thousands of public responses had been considered. “It sounds like those cuts are already being made,” she said.

She told the Standard: “Today’s revelations suggest the consultation that train companies are running is a sham. It looks like operators have already made the decision that they’ll be getting rid of ticket office staff.”

About 20,000 of the consultation responses relate to GTR stations, and 17,000 to Southeastern. Mr White said Southeastern was “in a holding pattern” on staff recruitment until the consultation outcome was known, but vowed to fully staff all stations that retained a ticket office.

He said Southeastern needed to provide a “better, safer and more accessible railway at a lower cost to the taxpayer”, as it currently relied on a £1m-a-day Government subsidy – more than three times higher than pre-covid levels – to run its services.

He said that Southeastern had only consulted initially on 40 ticket offices, each of which sold fewer than 50 tickets a day “because people are walking past the ticket office with their pay-as-you-go technology”.

Referring to the consultation process, Mr White said: “It’s more important to get it right than to do it quickly.”

He said station staff “would be able to do so much more when not in the ticket office”. He insisted the temporary closures would not impact on the outcome of the current ticket office consultation.

More than 150 ticket offices at London stations are thought to be at risk. Mayor Sadiq Khan has vowed to keep all London Overground and Elizabeth line stations staffed while trains are running. Hundreds of Tube station ticket offices were closed under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty.

Train bosses say rail unions support station staff being “multi-skilled” and able to perform several roles as it improved job security.

Keith Prince, Tory chairman of the assembly’s transport committee, said suspending recruitment was a “very sensible approach”. He said: “It also safeguards the jobs for those staff who are left.”

Speaking after the hearing, Mr White said: “Southeastern is committed to a building a better, safer and more accessible railway for our customers and it is important not to conflate current industry-wide staffing issues with the ongoing consultation on the future of ticket offices.

“As we await the outcome of consultation, we continue to do everything possible to ensure ticket offices are open on a day-to-day basis.

“We welcome the response to that public consultation and the work of London TravelWatch (and Transport Focus) to review the responses received and summarise the issues raised.

“Their work will inform the practical solutions that need to be put in place for customers where the closure of a ticket office is agreed and it is this process that will determine the future of our ticket offices and their staffing. Following the outcome of the public consultation , we will staff our stations to the levels agreed.”