Ticket office closures – Newbury

Ticket office closures – Newbury

This post needs an introduction – to which I’m sure many wont understand fully…

There are many organisations most small ones who advocate for the silent the non verbal etc yet the conversation around ticket offices  (and indeed accessibility) is driven by those who can communicate (eg speak) thus it no doubt sucks up to the general attitude on the railways – being (in all management areas including the unions) everyone speaks and so the ‘conversation’ (if ever there had been one) is the whole ethos of using railways undoubtedly revolves around those who can communicate, who can speak and so on. Essentially this post is a evaluation of the new customer focussed stations this example being that at Newbury – but unfortunately in terms of the impossibility of raising awareness of the problem at hand, its why this introduction is needed – and my worry is its one people simply will not understand, so they’ll miss the important part that is further down the page….

This matter is indeed most tiresome for it makes the task for those who want to advocate for the non speaking even harder. Some organisations such as Mencap & Downs do have policies for this but nevertheless the effort is small compared to other areas of disability. Not only that because of entrenched attitudes and a vice grip upon the notion of speaking and the ease of communicating it falls that the debate on accessibility and communicability controlled by that powerful lobby.

Ticket offices are also the only designated point in the station with a hearing induction loop. Many deaf people will be unable to access the assistance they need without this.

Letter extract from Caroline Pidgeon implying many Deaf people can’t manage without hearing loops. This is totally misleading and obfuscates the real needs Deaf people have. Twitter.

That unfortunately also means British Sign Language (BSL) gets a poor look in even though 2023 has been the year BSL has been made official but as can be seen from Caroline Pidgeon’s letter (and the general consensus proffered by campaigners & experts across the board as well as the cognizance exhibited – for example here’s another MP’s letter that advocates the same mis-understanding re hearing loops…) is that like non verbal, non speaking, BSL etc also takes a back seat and continues to suffer the debilitating effects of discrimination as well as the deflation of any importance that ought to be attached to it. That is because matters such as hearing loops for example are dominated by those who can speak thus its a huge misunderstanding this constitutes a complete provision for the Deaf.

Melaphone Speech Panels - were regularly used at railway stations in the past - though few ticket offices now have these because the product caused annoyance for many Deaf people.

Melaphone speak here ticket office window fitting – these have proved such a nightmare for many Deaf people because lip-reading cant be used!

Giving an example there are 7 million profoundly Deaf people in the UK so little is understood about the needs of that group. On top of that then are the other groups for which even less is understood. Essentially what it means is the huge majority are ‘speaking up’ for the minority without the latter’s prior agreement – and its a concern because the ruling majority gets almost everything wrong. No wonder so many railway station ticket offices were fitted with BOTH ‘Speak Here’ windows and hearing loops! So many Deaf people were in fact being cut out of the communicability process and that was because so many wrongly thought these contraptions were in fact helping many! There are some passengers things such as loops do help but they’re not the answer to everything thus such initiatives (along with those speak windows) have proved a considerable obstacle.

What is happening now is the proposal to close ticket office windows with the claim that everyone is being considered in terms of their needs. Except that is not true either. From those godforsaken speak here windows and loops to full on speaking ability – which very likely means no consideration for BSL or non-verbal users. Yet another obstruction in terms of those that may need to use these facilities and therefore does not constitute an improvement at all. In order to to test this very inevitability there was undoubtedly one station that could pretty well prove this to be the case

This post is where I make a visit to one of the new customer focussed stations that have been such a concern in the ticket office closures proposals first made fully public on 5th July 2023 (and for which the consultation ended on 26th July 2023 – an extremely short period as many pointed out ***). This was undertaken in order to see whether these are indeed as fantastic as the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) makes them out to be in terms of its view that any replacements of the railways’ ticket offices has to be a good thing. Some have no doubt seen videos extolling these new format stations and whilst they do look good – in practice there are concerns that need to be addressed – and this is is important especially when it comes to the communicability and BSL that has just been discussed.

Mock up rail ticket - BSL Parkway to Newbury - with simplified text content. Rail tickets have more text that this. BSL meaning British Sign Language.

As this mock up ticket shows, Newbury is indeed the station in question which shows the railways’ focus on specific disabilities is way off the radar.

In terms of the Ticket Office Closures, the RDG have so far given four main examples of what would be ticketless office stations of the future. These are Bicester Village, Oxford Parkway, Reading Green Park and Newbury. The first three are new stations that have been built with an open style ticketing area and staff. The latter is an old Victorian station repurposed for the 21st Century, again complete with a new open style ticketing area plus a new footbridge complete with lifts. The RDG extols the fact that these new style facilities will cater for every need – and all sorts of accessibility requirements.

These publicity videos that have been published showing the said advantages of these stations have all involved jovial communications (eg people who can speak and hear) and in none of the films has there been a disabled person shown at all despite the claim that every need and every disability would be catered for.

As the video from the RDG (below) shows there are of course issues with buying tickets from stations. I always use a written note for this purpose and for any enquiries. However it doesn’t always help. For example I was dismissed from London Bridge’s ticket office the other day after trying to communicate with them in written language!

Even the issue of the need to cater for specific needs was brought up in Parliament (and although it doesn’t mention for example my kind of disabilities, the implication is indeed there). Evidently despite the claims of the rail minister, its clear these new fangled stations do not ‘work for each particular group that has different characteristics…’

Newbury station interested me for, without a doubt, it has a specific customer base – a particular group in fact. If the claims being made were to be believed, then the staff at Newbury should indeed be most comfortable when this particular customer base uses the station. And that’s important because at certain times there are quite a few of those wanting to get the train to Exeter, Reading or even London!

Having thus deducted if these claims are so bloody fantastic then Newbury certainly ought to be a location where real world experience could be easily tested – and thus either proved or disproved. But first what is that special customer base Newbury station has? I don’t want to delve too much into this because there’s great debate upon the methods used with the pupils at this particular establishment, but its a large school for the Deaf. One can read up on that at Wikipedia for example. The school is said to be the best example of its type in the UK.

The main entrance to Newbury station which has been refurbished. The new customer focus centre is just inside the lobby. There's a view of the station exterior, double arrow sign and roof.

The entrance to the rebuilt Newbury ticket office area – now a customer focussed station.

What this means is out of the four stations that have been regularly shown as a shining example of how railway stations would in future manage rail customers (or passengers), Newbury is the only one that has a specific identifiable need in terms of disabilities. This means the station staff should be considerably familiar with those needs and ought to be able to communicate with the school’s pupils easily.

The fact this customer service facility has been open since November 2022 – plenty of time for it to get its act together – and the fact I discovered in the second week of July 2023 absolutely no one could communicate with me or use sign language (BSL) is most concerning!

A multi-million pound upgrade to Newbury station has taken another big step forward for passengers. The north side of the station's now been completed. New ticket gates, waiting room, café and toilets are now in use. The pictures shows staff and dignitaries celebrating with a large cake modelled on the station.

Celebrations for Newbury station’s new look open access ticketing and passenger area. November 2022. Twitter. (Note: The tweet and account has been deleted thus a screencap of the original is used.)

The claim that these dedicated customer focussed stations caters for all needs is evidently difficult to justify. What about other stations in locations that have specialist schools or units covering other needs, other disabilities? Will this mean in actuality all needs are not catered for?

Evidently Newbury hasn’t met the claims the RDG says of it. If one watches the video below its pretty convincing that Newbury and Reading Green Park do seem to meet all needs. It does look as if everyone has been considered (even those with a little bit of hearing loss) thus the video is loaded with plaudits and gratitude. For those like myself (and no doubt others too) the video was an extremely slick, polished, presentation. It all seemed rather too pretentious somehow – and that’s why I decided to give Newbury’s customer focussed station a try.

No matter what the railways in general think of their stations/ticketing offices/customer focussed stations, the claim that all needs are met has to be a fallacy. So often I’ve met staff who had no clue and thought I was up to something, perhaps acting suspiciously or whatever because of my lack of response to their queries or my failing to answer questions on what I am doing. They might be talking to me from behind or from the side and I am not even aware of their presence. One can see I have a blog so certainly there is a need to gather material (including photographs) for the articles I write. There’s nothing nefarious about that yet the usual reaction seems to hold a notion I’m either a troublemaker or I harbour dubious intentions. In less than a week (Newbury, London Bridge and Waterloo 175th) I had this situation of maltreatment three times!

The issue at concern is that Newbury station should indeed have staff that are deaf aware – no matter whether the school pupils concerned are aural/oral or BSL users (or both.) Some of the staff seen in this video were also those I encountered during my visit to Newbury!

Would people with visible disabilities be seen as troublemakers? Those in wheelchairs? I don’t think so. Evidently it gets harder to discern disabilities the more hidden these are – and many who work on public transport either get caught unawares or otherwise react in unsavoury ways when this occurs. Yes those with visible disabilities do get abuse – however those with invisible disabilities have an often harder struggle because the disability isn’t discerned and the reaction is often unreasonable. That’s how it usually goes – visible disabilities and a great conversation (good communication/speech evidently essential) and one is often onto a good start. Those like me, we’re in the deep shit straightaway.

The whole purpose of the visit was to test the claims being made that the particular groups and all their needs were being catered for. Prior to making the trip I had wondered how this challenge would be met. Oft times in the past when I have tried to undertake enquires at railway (or tube stations or any other service provision in general) I’m met with ridicule. Often people mutter something and then wave their hands clearly indicating that I should leave because they can’t be arsed to have to deal with communication difficulties.

Upon my arrival at Newbury staff were spotted taking a blind person & guide dog to the bay platform (no.3) for the Reading local service. This scene looking down the platform is from my bodycam.

Staff taking a blind person & guide dog to the bay platform (no.3) for the Reading local service. Screencap from my bodycam.

Straight off the bat I knew that by merely entering the customer focussed centre at Newbury and trying to conduct enquiries could result in this sort of situation, so I had to think of a way to get a hold on people’s attentions in order to show 1) the deficit in the claims that all needs are met and 2) to make them realise I was there for a serious reason, a proper enquiry, an investigation and that I shouldn’t be waved away no matter how poorly I communicated. And not for example, as has happened on a few occasions, called for the police to come and sort me out.

After thinking about it I simply decided to go to Newbury and just take pictures of the station. I hadn’t been there for quite a few years so I was pretty much thinking in terms of an enthusiasts visit since the station had been upgrade with OHLE, new footbridge and new lifts (and that even though the OHLE finishes just a short distance to the west of the station). If I somehow got challenged by the rail staff I could take it from there since they would be wanting to ‘sort me out…’ and they would be the ones that had dug themselves a hole. I wore my lanyard as well as my body cam which is insurance should anything go wrong or I need evidence of something that happens. I proceeded to take many pictures of the station upon arrival and early on in the visit I observed a blind guy being escorted by one of the staff from platform 1 entrance across the footbridge to the Reading train waiting on platform 3.

Video of the staff trying to talk to me when I arrived at the customer focussed centre.

I also took a look at the new footbridge and accessible lifts. This was a huge change from the old footbridge at the other end of the station, although I must add the old structure had to be demolished in order to make space for the OHLE (eg the overhead electrification equipment needed for the trains.) Besides that the old footbridge wasn’t accessible either. The location the old footbridge once stood was by where the bay platform began. I walked along the along the bay platform too and looked at the spot where Newbury Middle signal box once stood. I also photographed the departure of the Reading local from the bay platform before proceeding back to the main station buildings and the main purpose for the visit – the station’s customer focussed centre.

Newbury customer focus station staff giving me strange looks. They were also speaking tome but I didn't know what they were saying. This view looks along the new customer focus centre towards the ticket gates.

The looks I got from the staff were quite discerning…

The whole visit had been quiet up to that point which was good. Absolutely nothing happened until I entered the new customer focussed station area – and it was there the staff challenged me, this had been preceded by some dirty looks from them when I entered the lobby and began to take pictures. Despite their challenging me I simply looked at then then gestured ask asked do you sign?

‘No I don’t’ was perhaps the reply or maybe ‘I can’t do it’ or something of the sort. Then I noticed the three staff talking among themselves & giving me strange looks – it seemed it was that usual thing – that I was an annoyance – or whatever – and what the heck was I doing there anyway? The staff looked at me blankly as I tried to explain what I was doing.

Station staff continue to watch me and talk among each other - probably about me. This view looks to the entrance on to the main London platform and the new seating area/cafe.

Evidently I’m under the careful watch of the customer focussed staff including the one sitting down. None of the three had any work at that very moment so I imagine it was a good moment for them to peruse my movements and quite possibly discuss with each other just how much of a credible threat I could be.

It was then I decided go through the ticket barriers and get face to face with the person at the information/ticket counter. But everything is so hard hard even with a bodycam. Mobile phone in one hand (ready to type out conversations) as well as take pictures, rail ticket in the other, and trying to sign at the same time. Not only that to try and keep the camera forward ahead so that I capture conversations, reactions etc. Nevertheless I went to the main ticket counter and ask if anyone at the station could sign or communicate with Deaf people – and the answer was no.

At the information desk trying to ask the guy about whether staff could sign.

The guy at the ticket counter was a fairly famous one. This being the person who has featured in several of the DfT/RDG’s videos extolling the new format customer focussed centres and saying how well these worked for everyone. In fact it appears at least two of the staff I saw had been involved in those videos (one of which is show on this page) as well as one at least in earlier publicity shots for the new customer focussed centre’s opening in November 2022.

Staff at the Newbury rail information centre gesturing that they could not use sign language. The scene shows the station's new open style ticketing/information counter.

GWR’s station information officer says no he cannot use sign language.

Well I learnt something at least (even though it wasn’t anything new because of the way it happened and the fact it was a new form of rail customer service barely made any difference). If I had simply gone up to staff I probably would have been met with a brush off as that is how it usually works and I would have been left thinking well there’s not much use trying to find out something is there and would have left it at that. It’s because my skills my enquiry skills are totally dire I have little clue how to begin conversations or even to question &; challenge others. So in a way how it happened was good in that it provided me an avenue to challenge & find out things without looking inconsequential, weak and unable to maintain a hold on the situation etc.

In terms of their extolling how these new customer focussed centres worked – it was that everyone benefitted and no-one was left out. Except that didn’t work for me because I didn’t benefit from the new facilities and I got left out. I did try to enquire about train times for my return journey but even that proved somewhat problematic and it would have been better had the staff even had some basic awareness of my needs.

Another scene showing the station's new open style ticketing/information counter. The staff behind the counter is trying to understand me - evidently they have not had awareness in terms of Deaf communication.

The staff at Newbury information desk – which also sells tickets.

Anyway it was most evident for me that these customer focussed stations are not what they have been made out. That at Newbury has been open more than eight months – and not one person could communicate with Deaf people or use signing! The guy at the counter did write down and explain that he would be taking a course some time later (he wrote ‘I’m due to learn’). On a second piece of paper he explained some of the others would being doing a course at some future date. He wrote ‘This will be addressed ASAP. We’re all due to go on a course for sign language. To help out all customers. 🙂 ‘ (Smiley added to the end of his sentence.)

In response to my enquiry, the staff at the counter wrote: This will be addressed ASAP. We're all due to go on a course for sign language. To help out all customers.

The guy wrote ‘We’re all due to go on a course for sign language. To help out all customers.’

But why had they not done it in the first instance? And especially not at Newbury? That’s anybody’s guess! Hence these new customer focussed stations won’t be a boon for those like me and in many instances not even for the Deaf-blind, those who are blind & others (learning disabilities for example) who may have difficulty trying to locate staff in the first instance, let alone communicate with them. These new customer focussed stations will evidently have some degrees of success depending on the disability/need/communicability etc but there will be the usual hit and miss when it comes to certain disabilities.

My reasoning as to why the railways generally do not bother with signing etc is because the railways invariably expect everyone to hear, this being a deeply historical endeavour. Its why despite the considerable onset of visual information this is largely relegated to train times because its so much easier to carry equipment that enables staff to make announcements and these can be changed/modified to suit ongoing situations thus generally those with such needs as mine nor others with similar are regularly left out.

Curiously whenever those like myself have found it difficult to understand what is going on we’ve gone up to staff to try and find out what is happening, they’ve said something like ‘go look at the train boards or the destination indicators…’ I’ve had so many stories about this type of treatment from rail staff over the years from the many Deaf people I know. Its not just that we’ve encountered a wave of the hand (eg ‘go away you’re not wanted here’ that sort of thing) or met with a hard, cold, blank stare. Perhaps even worse, they see us, they can’t understand us and then they mumble some incoherent stuff and look the other way – or they find someone worthy in terms of communication effort and therefore eligible for ‘assistance.’ No doubt a good excuse to get out of our way. Essentially its a clever means of getting shot of those like us!

Updated 18th, 19th, 26th, 31st July 2023.

New comprehensive introduction added 25th July 2023 regarding the dilemma of Deaf and nonspeaking people who use ticket offices.

***NOTE: The Ticket Office Consultation period has been altered to 1st September 2023! BBC News.

NOTE: The ticket image I created entails a fictitious rail trip from Bsl Parkway to Newbury. Bsl isn’t an abbreviation for Bristol but for British Sign Language (BSL).

NOTE: The videos demonstrate that rail staff had evidently not received any training (eg BSL or awareness about communication difficulties) at what could be described a mission critical station. It is a common problem on the railways and metro systems of the UK and one which few operators seem to be able to address – probably because perhaps something like 99.9% of passengers can communicate. However Newbury station is no doubt be a location where that proportionality is evidently much less therefore the need for BSL and other awareness would be more critical.

NOTE: There have been instances of stations where entire staff have learnt BSL etc. TfL’s Piccadilly Circus being one such example which was a cause célèbre at the time. With staff moving or or retiring however these have undoubtedly returned to a non-capable status and the process isn’t repeated. Even with Newbury if all the staff learned there is of course the question of maintaining that level of capability – and its something that hasn’t been addressed.

My disabilities are Deaf and Autistic, plus I need BSL or written language. In a nutshell those who speak are often ignorant and don’t care and the abuse that emanates can be frightening.

I don’t put subtitles on my videos because I can’t do that. Not even sound effects or other stuff. They’re just plain videos straight out of the tin. I have absolutely NO CLUE what any of the staff said in the videos (the videos are about half an hour long) and basically there’s nothing that is said except those moments in the customer focussed centre. I only know those very brief moments when I could see simple stuff such as for example ‘no, can’t’ etc. That’s because they’ve waved their hands or nodded their heads so I’ve been able to fathom they likely said no, or whatever. Some of the dialogue with the staff was eventually achieved by way of writing notes. It took some time before the staff resorted to writing things down for me.