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Ticket office closures: a reflection

Ticket office closures: a reflection

Theos’ Hannah Rich and Nathan Mladin reflect on the closure of ticket offices in rail stations across the UK. 02/08/2023

In defence of ticket offices

By Hannah Rich

The plan to close hundreds of train station ticket offices across the country – and with them, the loss of thousands of staff within them – has, quite rightly, provoked much consternation.

Not only is it a matter of convenience and accessibility of travel, but it also raises profound ethical questions about the role of human relationships in our economic life and how they are devalued in the drive for greater ‘efficiency’ in the system.

In purely practical terms, ticket office staff provide indispensable support for a plethora of individuals; disabled travellers, foreign visitors, those not confident enough to buy online, those not familiar with local public transport and those who want to ensure they’re getting the best value ticket all have recourse to them. Only 3% of people with visual impairments say they can use apps or ticket machines independently. Shuttering the windows in the name of cost–cutting neglects all these groups but also neglects to acknowledge something fundamental about who we are.

It runs contrary to the theological principle of solidarity which “helps us to see the ‘other’ not just as some kind of instrument to be exploited and then discarded… but as our neighbour” as Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis. It might be the most efficient thing to get from A to B without interacting with a single ticket seller, train guard or fellow passenger, but it isn’t necessarily the most enriching way.

According to the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it is in the face–to–face of everyday life that we find our ethical responsibility to each other. We are at risk of removing the face–to–face from an ever–growing list of aspects of life and we are all poorer for it. This is true not only of customers, but also of the staff whose jobs are being cut. What does it mean to say that a job predicated on social interaction is one that can easily be got rid of?

Right up until the pandemic began, shortly before he passed away, my grandad used to take his rent to the council office in cash each month. Far from being technologically challenged, he knew his way round his iPad better than most nonagenarians, but it was a deliberate choice. Paying online would have been more efficient, and indeed became necessary when lockdown hit, but it lacked the human touch. There would be no conversation involved in an online transaction, no smile from the cashier, no recognition that a familiar and valued routine had been maintained.

You can argue that ‘only’ 12% of ticket purchases now take place at ticket offices, or you can recognise that over one in ten people still choose – or need – the interaction offered there, and act in solidarity to keep the window to human relationship open a little while longer.


In acceptance of ticket office closures

By Nathan Mladin

In case you missed it, money and technology are changing our world in big and small, blatant and subtle ways. Modern, technological society worships at the altar of efficiency, speed and scale – modernity’s secular gods in a rudderless world.

It is easy to see the planned ticket office closures as the perfect illustration of this dynamic – the ugly underbelly of a technological society actively undermining itself and the relationships on which it depends. Great hurt and even horrors have been caused in the name of ‘modernisation’.

My colleague is right to point a finger at this. Face–to–face, person to person, meaningful interactions are indeed an ‘endangered species’ in a techno–social milieu where increasing swathes of human experience are outsourced to machines. We should do everything to save them!

But here’s where my colleague and I disagree: I do not think buying a paper ticket from a person in a booth is what we should be worrying about; at least not in light of the details of the case at hand.

First, whether we like it or not, this sort of human interaction is almost always quick, perfunctory and inevitably contractual: I state my destination, I hear the amount, I pay, I get my ticket, I leave. ‘Next!’. Sure, I’ve seen a human face instead of a screen, but was it really a meeting of persons, an interaction that enriched our life and honoured the fullness of our humanity? Rarely.

Desirable or not, digital technology and the pandemic have dramatically altered purchasing habits, work patterns and people’s movements. We cannot pretend otherwise. Keep everything else unchanged simply will not work. According to the Rail Delivery Group, only 12% of tickets are still bought from a ticket office and 99% of these purchases could have been made through a vending machine or online.

At this point in the argument I will rightly be reminded of the disabled and other groups of travellers who require a personal purchasing experience. I agree. Provision has to be made for them. But does this require keeping ticket offices open no matter what? This is far from clear and likely unsustainable economically. According to the Rail Delivery Group CEO Jacqueline Starr, the new proposals “mean more staff on hand to give face–to–face help with a much wider range of support, from journey planning, to finding the right ticket and helping those with accessibility needs.” If what Starr says will obtain, and I admit there is some reason to doubt this, interaction with ‘actual humans’ at stations may not worryingly disappear. At the same time, apps and vending machines – which are not going anywhere – should be made more accessible for those who currently struggle with them and would not have a ticket office to turn to.

So as a matter of principle, let us firmly push back on the encroachment of machines on authentic human relationships. But in this specific case, let us also accept that some (most?) ticket offices may have to close. Rather than being sentimental about it, how about next time we buy a ticket online we strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller, even look them in the eye?


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