RMT General Secretary, Mick Lynch, would probably not care much for Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the state-owned principal passenger railway operator in the Netherlands. You will be aware that the RMT is currently engaged in a lengthy, in fact, going-on-forever, campaign to stop ticket offices in British railway stations being closed. Says the RMT: ‘We all know that closing ticket offices will make the railway less safe, secure and accessible and this is part of the Government and rail companies’ plans to de-staff the railway.’ I’m sure there are statistics to back-up the union’s claim and I’ll leave it to you to scour through the RMT website if you are interested enough to find them. What I know is that 43% of British stations (759) already operate without a ticket office, 40% (708) have part-time offices and 17% (299) are staffed full-time. I have no idea how this compares with NS but it struck me that at all the stations bar one I visited last week had no staff at all.
I don’t blame the RMT for fighting for their members’ jobs. What is the purpose of a trade union if not defending its members jobs but the reason we have so many ticket offices and the Dutch don’t has to be something to do with the complexity and absurdity of our ticketing system and the simplicity of the Dutch one.
When I bought tickets at Rotterdam Centraal Station, I used the many machines placed conveniently around the place. I observed there was a ticket office, which was always very quiet during the many times I was there, but the machines would be accessible to a trained monkey, quite possibly an untrained one.
Essentially, you rock up on the day and your ticket costs the same as it would three months ago. It’s very easy to follow and ridiculously quicker than the cumbersome machines at our stations. But then, on our trains we have what appears to be a dynamic pricing system which makes ticket prices very hard to understand and often obscenely expensive. The argument thus runs that if you have a completely bonkers ticketing system, designed to rip-off passengers, it’s handy to have someone in a ticket office, a real human being, to give you the cheapest, or should I say least expensive, option? But in the great city of – hmm, let’s think of somewhere. I know – Bristol we have a grand total of one station with a full-time ticket office. The one at my local station, Bristol Parkway, shuts in the early evening, so on the basis of the RMT’s campaign messaging, it will only be safe during daylight hours. Every other station in the area will be unsafe 24/7.
I found NS perfectly safe and secure at all times when I was using it and there were no ticket offices anywhere. I saw elderly and disabled people being assisted by station staff at Centraal Station, quite possibly freed up by not needing to behind a desk twiddling their thumbs, seeing no one? We know that Dutch ticket offices were removed for the same reason the railway companies over here want to get rid of them – it’s to save money, end of – but when you have a straightforward system like they have, with excellent ticket machines that a halfwit like me can navigate, what’s not to love?
The ticket office debate is not dissimilar to the debates we used to have about conductors on buses and trams in places like Rotterdam. Because we always had conductors, we need to keep them forever. And unions campaigned to keep conductors until they were gone, replaced by technology, as so many jobs have been and will be in the future. But in the end, things change. The Dutch trams, for example, require you to check in and check out, you might think on trust, but random ticket inspections occur pretty well anytime of the day and woe betide anyone who tries to get a freebie.
In truth, I’m happy for the RMT to carry on campaigning to keep ticket offices, even though personally I buy my tickets on line. The system we have is legalised theft of passengers’ money, to try and squeeze as much cash out of them as possible. But the idea that having ticket offices means more safety and security for passengers – no, I don’t buy that, but anyway surely that’s a law and order issue?
The main difference between British and Dutch railways is very simple. British railways, thanks to John Major’s privatisation, something that was deemed too bonkers even by Thatcher, is run for profit, to make money from passengers, or customers as they try to call us. NS is run as a public service. That’s probably why something only like 1% of UK journeys are by rail: they exist to rip us off. The thing is, though, if we ever have the vision and imagination to adopt the Dutch system, we’ll still have Mick Lynch telling us to keep ticket offices and railway guards on the grounds that we’ve always had them and nothing must ever change. Two systems. One works for the people and the other works for shareholders and the people who work for the railway companies.