Opening the railway’s front door: can we transform the ‘booking office’?
Prof. Paul Salveson
We’re going through troubled times, with proposals to close hundreds of staffed booking offices and more strikes planned. It feels like we’re going back to the days of Beeching and a sledgehammer approach to cutting costs with no thought on long-term implications, still less real opportunities to boost rail travel when climate change is more than a worrying threat on the horizon, but a reality.
There is no question that change is needed. Even the archaic name ‘booking office’ reeks of Victorian ways of running a railway. Yet passengers value that staffed presence for all sorts of reasons, not least personal safety but also for re-assurance, information and general assistance. Let’s look at the issues and some possible solutions.
Firstly, there is no doubt that more and more rail passengers are buying tickets on line. This is in the face of persistent advice from me (mainly to my daughters) who think, often wrongly, that they get a better deal ‘going on line’.
That trend will continue. We’re told that only 12% of passengers buy tickets at a booking office, but that’s still a lot. I suspect revenue is actually much more, as people often use booking offices for longer and more complex journeys which are higher value.
Yet what we offer ‘customers’ at staffed stations is often a less-than-ideal experience, having to communicate with someone stuck behind a window who can present, without intention, the image of unfriendly officialdom. It’s a system that even most banks have done away with. For so many journeys involving different options in the kind of ticket purchased, being able to talk to a real live person sat alongside you is important. For larger stations, we need to keep a decent number of highly trained and well-motivated staff, with good language and inter-personal skills.
But what of the small station which might have a footfall of around 200,000 passengers a year and may offer nothing more than a single person doing a 6-2 shift? Many stations around the North fall into that category, and the member of staff may only be dealing with a couple of trains an hour with passengers bunched within a few minutes of the trains’ departure.
“Close them,” the bean counters will say. But there are other ways. Think about it, how barmy is it that someone is sat there in a ‘booking office’ selling only one product (i.e. rail tickets)? Can you imagine a petrol station selling nothing other than petrol?
One experienced professional told me “a station is the railway’s shop window and is now more than ever a loss-leader like milk in a supermarket. Yes it can sell tickets but can also provide useful information about rail travel, plan journeys, de-mystify tickets types, provide details of onward connections, advise about bus links, be a source of local information and be that reassuring presence for passengers wary of travelling by train.”
Merseyrail piloted an interesting scheme some years ago called ‘M to Go’, with their partner Merseytravel. It was based on experience on Netherlands Railways (NS) – the ‘wizzl shop. This involved some ‘booking offices’ being transformed into convenience stores. Merseyrail staff would sell rail tickets but also a range of other products. From what I’ve heard, the scheme has generally worked well, though it is very location specific – like any other retail business. Some locations have worked well, others less so.
Perhaps the best example is Switzerland. 15 years ago Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), together with a food retailer, set up a company called AVEC and began converting many of their remaining station ticket offices to small convenience stores that also sold the whole range of rail/travel tickets. These have proved to be a great success. Displaced railway employees were given the first option to become involved the new business either as part owners or salaried operators. SBB also offered low cost loans to encourage their former staff to become local entrepreneurs.
City-region transport authorities such as Transport for Greater Manchester or West Midlands Rail Executive could take over the running of smaller stations and develop them along the ‘M to Go’ lines, where the location is right. Having a substantial public body like TfGM or WMRE taking over responsibility for smaller stations would ensure economies of scale in procuring goods as well as ensuring high customer care standards and staff training. Depending on location, there may be scope for extended opening hours and more staff, including use of part-timers.
There is scope for the rail industry working in partnership with convenience store ‘chains’ such as the Co-op, Post Office or others. This has been tried in the past, in the south-east. Again, it’s location, location, location.
There is a ‘community rail’ angle to this. A few stations (e.g. Gobowen) have staffed booking offices run by a social enterprise. I’m talking about paid staff rather than volunteers. That could work in several locations, including stations outside the larger combinations without the benefit of a regional transport body like TfGM but possibly with an active community rail partnership (CRP). There is scope for using new products at stations. Payzone now have a fully functional rail ticketing module which is cheap to operate and also offers all the other Payzone modules such as mobile phone top-up and payment of utility bills.
There are quite a few stations that could develop this way, with the support of an active CRP or ‘station partnership’. I would stress that it is heavily dependent on location and footfall, what else is in the immediate vicinity. It makes neither commercial nor social sense to set up shop in competition with a similar place across the road.
One station in my area (a re-opening of the 1980s) has a busy commuter flow as well as leisure trips. It serves what was an old mill village which has been transformed into an attractive place to live with a lot of nearby housing development. Yet there are no facilities. The old corner shop and post office closed when the mill shut, leaving nothing. The under-used ‘booking office’ could provide a much wider range of facilities and services.
In cases where a station is only partly staffed , as an alternative to de-staffing it and losing an important community asset, why not hand it over to the community to develop? This is a model that is growing in popularity, with a number of shops and pubs being handed over to community-owned businesses. There is money to help. The Government – sponsored Community Ownership Fund’s objectives include help to:
- acquire a physical community asset at risk, such as land and buildings which deliver a benefit to local people
- renovate, repair or refurbish the asset, only where it is a community asset at risk of closure and where this is critical to saving the asset and making it sustainable for long-term community use
- set up a new community business or buy an existing business in order to save an asset of importance to the community
However, given the scale of the propsoed closures, Gocvernment (DfT) should offer transitional grants (capital AND for at least 18 months, revenue) to businesses (including sole traders, social enterprises and simialr) to take on a station booking office, and develop it.
Could existing employees working with the local community set up a community business if there was the right support (finance, training) available? A CRP could help to get the process off the ground, possibly as a subsidiary business. As president of a community rail partnership I’d shy away from my CRP taking on the direct running of a station shop, but we could offer support and advice, with help in promotion and marketing (just as we do with our sponsored bus services). There should be a clear contract on what would be expected and a favourable rent, but outside of mainstream regulation. Grants should be available (as above) to take on the station shop with structural changes made to the lay-out of the building to bring it into line with what we expect from an attractive small shop.
It’s about applying ‘corner-shop economics’ to a small station, where the people running it are part of the community and able to exploit opportunities and develop a valuable range of services.
Using this model, there would be a case for bringing quite a few currently unstaffed stations back to life. In my own neck of the woods, I would nominate stations such as Westhoughton, Mills Hill, Slaithwaite and Mirfield.
We should not be deterred by the absence of buildings. There are examples, such as Llandeilo, where a new station building has been provided. There are lessons to be learned from that experience (it wasn’t easy) but the basic concept was right. The cost could be brought down by having a simple but attractive modular design approved by GBR.
To re-cap, we’re talking about four categories of station, viz.,:
- Category 1: Large station, staffed by train company (or GBR possibly), with specialist advisers, including offering one-to-one travel advice (multi-modal), with other retail facilities available within station.
- Category 2: Medium-sized station, possibly with combined ticket sales and some retail, staffed either by the train company or a transport body such as TfGM, WMRE, Merseytravel etc. Could also do bike hire and other services depending on location..
- Category 3: Small station, staffed by employed agents as above, providing a mix of rail tickets and other retail. In tourist areas there is scope for doing a range of tourism-related products and sales. There could be potential for involving a retail partner, e.g. Co-op, Post Office, or similar, in this category.
- Category 4: ‘Community Station’ run independently by a social enterprise, small business or similar, offering perhaps a limited range of rail tickets and advice, plus ‘local shop’ functions and other goods depending on location. Local post office? Village cafe? Art gallery and shop? The possibilities are endless. It’s about applying ‘corner-shop economics’ to a small station and being at the heart of the community..
The experience so far of independently-run booking offices is mixed and we need to learn from that. If independent station shops are to sell tickets, they need to be properly re-imbursed. They must be disentangled from the red tape that surrounds rail ticket retailing and booking office opening times. There should be public funding (capital for setting up costs and initial revenue support while the business gets established) for staffing smaller stations where there is a demonstrable community benefit. Stations have potential to be community hubs in so many ways and that should be recognised through start-up funding.
There is already quite a lot of thinking about these questions going on in the rail industry behind the scenes; this is a contribution to what should be an ongoing debate informed by some serious research. Staying as we are is not an option but the sledgehammer approach of ‘shut ’em down’ is utterly wrong and should be strongly opposed.
To the barricades! (or barriers…)
Paul is president/advisor to the South-East Lancashire Community Rail Partnership, founder member of ACoRP (Community Rail Network) and a member of the Rail Reform Group. He is co-ordinator of Friends of Kents Bank Station and Foreshore. He is writing in a personal capacity.