Are Rail Ticket Office closures just a case of bungled change management?

Posted on 24th July, 2023

This is Blog no 36


In recent days, many of us became exercised about the inadequacies of the current public consultation on the closure of up to 1000 Rail Ticket offices.


My views were outlined in last Friday’s blog - What’s wrong with the Train station ticket office consultation? Actually – quite a lot!

But there is another perspective. After all, this is about CHANGE MANAGEMENT


Train Operating Companies have a very legitimate right to look for efficiencies and improvements to customer services, and they have made a serious case that – with limited staffing, passengers can receive more assistance on the platforms rather than behind glass screens in booking offices. As one who has switched mostly to online booking, I could see that there will inevitably be some closures, but when, where and with what mitigations, I had assumed would be subject to considerable discussion and consultation. I’m now afraid the whole programme may have been botched.


Anyone who has ever read any of the books on change management … or even attended the most basic course on the subject will have heard one message above all others.

If you impose change on people; they will resist. If you engage with them, outline the issues, and consult them, you are much more likely to secure successful change.


In the current situation, the Rail Delivery Group (RDS). no doubt argue that this is precisely what it is doing, and that the consultation is part of an elaborate agreed process – complete with a passenger watchdog, Transport Focus to collate public views.


Unfortunately, for change-related consultation to work, one needs to establish a sound basis of trust and effective means of dialogue. Most of the Rail Operators have indeed gone to pains to explain their case for change (some are better than others, but if you look at their websites, it IS there). But it is all one-way information-giving. There are no signs of there having been an exchange of views with anyone.


This is in contrast to the similar programme of closing Post Offices some years ago. That exercise was widely criticised, but it had the virtue of providing long lists of potentially threatened POs and asking the public about any extenuating circumstances that should influence managers in selecting the final list. Eventually, many were reprieved as the output of the consultation was absorbed.


For rail ticket offices, they could have adopted a similar approach, and indeed may still wish to do so. But the consultation as it has been promoted to the public feels different. It suggests a desire to close everything come-what-may. When that happens, people just assume that consultation is purely a tokenistic tick-in-the-box.


One final observation. We should remember that this all takes place in the context of serious industrial relations disputes that have lasted almost a year. It is no surprise that Trades Unions have been un-co-operative about these and other proposed changes in working practices.


Is it possible, I wonder, that the Rail Delivery Group, and an anxious Government standing behind them have calculated that public opinion might be more sympathetic to the proposed closure of the ticket offices than the employees? And might they have thought that a relative lack of interest or objections by online-comfortable users would ‘bounce’ the Unions into accepting the proposals?


Were this theory to be correct, I fear it is backfiring, as the consultation has lacked the quality and thoroughness it needed to carry credibility. The best outcome I can now envisage is that Transport Focus, representing passengers and the wider travelling public could perhaps facilitate a compromise around a phased approach with better consultation ahead of individually-considered closure proposals.


In summary – a carefully prepared change programme.


Rhion H Jones LL.B


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