Portsmouth City Council’s Cabinet Member for Transport, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, has written to the company in response to their consultation on the plans, highlighting a conflict with its work to simplify tickets and fares as well as the potential for the proposals to disenfranchise elderly and disabled passengers and encourage anti-social behaviour. It has also been highlighted to South Western Railway that there needs to be guarantees that this won’t lead to the start of significant job losses.
The full letter can be seen below and Cllr Vernon-Jackson is available for interview on 07976 949 272.
Dear Ms Mann
South Western Railway – Station Change Proposals Consultation
I appreciate that similar proposals are out to consultation by railway companies throughout England, driven by a desire to reduce the cost to Government, as rail travel has fallen by 30% since the pandemic. I am seriously concerned that the current proposals are rushed; poorly thought through; and will damage the independence and access to employment, education, and leisure activities for the most vulnerable citizens and indeed many other residents of Portsmouth. They will do nothing to encourage greater use of rail travel as the environmental choice. In fact, they will deter many passengers, leading to a potential spiral of decline.
The consultation is rushed, as the need to simplify the ever more complex array of tickets and fares is recognised by the rail industry but will not be completed before the proposals are planned to be implemented. Not all residents have bank accounts, especially in a city such as Portsmouth, with areas of deprivation and low income, yet not all ticket vending machines (TVM) take cash. Even those that do, are unable to offer the full range of tickets available in ticket offices. There is a plan to update TVMs, but again this will not be implemented before the proposals are planned to be introduced.
TVMs have touch screens where the virtual buttons are in different places at different stations. They provide no audio feedback and are unsuited to those with visual impairment. Unlike a ticket office where advice can be given, a TVM requires you to know which ticket to buy and to understand any restrictions as to time of travel, train operator or permitted route.
The consultation is poorly thought through, because if a customer is unable to buy the ticket they want at the start of the journey, they will be advised to travel without a ticket and buy this during the journey from the conductor; by breaking the journey at one of the 24 stations with full retail capabilities; or at their destination.
Suggesting that passengers should start a journey – perhaps not even knowing their fare – is perverse and will deter those without self-confidence. Encouraging ticketless travel, a complete U-turn in the last months where some train companies have introduced a £100 penalty for this, will lead some to realise that they can use the trains without paying at all and this could easily be followed by a rise in antisocial behaviour which will further discourage rail travel.
It is difficult to quantify how residents in Portsmouth will be affected, as there is a lack of detail in the consultation. We know that over six million passengers passed through the four staffed Portsmouth stations in 2019-20 but you only provide the national average that 12% of tickets are bought at ticket offices. An average can mask wide differences. Fellow First Group company Great Western Railway, which manages more stations than SWR, has provided data by station, so for example, at Barnstaple, 46% of tickets are sold at the ticket office. We should have similar data for Portsmouth stations to understand how our residents will be affected.
We do know, according to the proposals, that Cosham will no longer be staffed on Sundays. How will the toilets at Cosham station, which are essential to older and disabled users, remain open on Sundays, and if they do, how long before they are vandalised?
The consultation emphasises the growth of smart tickets, now accounting for 75% of journeys on SWR. SWR rightly proclaims the industry-leading “tap2go” smartcard which allows pay as you go travel. Smartcards can be bought at ticket offices, not at TVMs. Many Portsmouth residents do not have the means to buy these online. Ticket offices can also issue railcards for reduced fares on the day of travel. Railcards are not issued through TVMs. Will passengers be deterred or end up paying more?
The consultation lacks the necessary information to enable a fully informed response, but what it does tell us is that ticket offices should not be closed until a range of measures are complete. These include passengers being able to obtain the full range of tickets, railcards, and smartcards through TVMs and the fare simplification process is completed so that they can make informed choices. The needs of those unable to use TVMs or needing special assistance such as wheelchair ramps in a timely manner must be addressed. The needs of the digitally excluded and the unbanked must be met and where ticket offices provide enclosed waiting areas, to address personal safety concerns this must continue to be provided. The importance of toilets at stations with ticket offices must be recognised and methods to ensure no reduction in availability identified.
Portsmouth City Council has worked closely with South Western Railway for a number of years to increase rail use and improve accessibility for our residents to train travel. I am extremely disappointed with these proposals which, if implemented, will undermine much of what we have been trying to achieve. Therefore, I would request that the proposals are abandoned as they stand, or at least postponed until measures to address equality and inclusion are fully developed and implemented.
Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson CBE
Cabinet Member for Transport