Ministers have denied secretly approving plans to close rail ticket offices across the West Midlands, after a leaked e-mail from government officials stated the closures were going ahead.
Proposals to shut offices at up to eight stations and reduce opening hours at many more have already been privately approved, according to correspondence between Department for Transport staff.
And a special government transport advisor has drawn up recommendations which could see almost 50 West Midland outlets shut down.
The closure plans were drawn up by rail operator London Midland last year, and officially, the business is in negotiations with Ministers to decide whether it will be allowed to press ahead with the scheme.
But e-mails between Department for Transport officials, seen by the Birmingham Post, revealed that ministers have already decided to approve at least some of the closures – and there will be more in the future.
Ministers insisted the e-mail was sent by a “junior official” in error, and that no decisions have been made.
The Government is also considering the recommendations of a report by transport adviser Sir Roy McNulty, who urged it to let train operating companies close 49 ticket offices in the West Midlands.
Sir Roy is a former boss of aerospace manufacturer Short Brothers and former chair of regional development agency Advantage West Midlands.
He argued that the rail industry in the UK was inefficient, leading to higher costs for passengers and for taxpayers, and that train operators could cut staffing costs by closing ticket offices.
Passengers were increasingly happy to buy tickets at machines or over the internet, he said.
London Midland’s plans involve closing eight stations in the West Midlands and cutting opening hours at 57 more in the region.
A leaked e-mail exchange between an official working on the Department for Transport’s Rail Fares and Ticketing Review and a second official in the department’s press office suggested that the decision to let the closures proceed has quietly been made.
The first official states: “We can’t say the Government has no plans to close ticket offices because we have an application from London Midland where the Minister has already decided to approve some ticket office closures (it’s just not been announced yet while we’re concluding negotiations with LM) and there will be more of those in future.”
Stations due to lose their ticket office under the London Midland proposals include Adderley Park, Birmingham; Bescot Stadium, Walsall; Duddeston, Birmingham; Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham; Lye, Stourbridge; Small Heath, Birmingham; Witton, Birmingham, and Wythall, Worcestershire.
Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle raised the exchange in the Commons, saying: “I have a leaked e-mail, dated just two weeks ago, from the civil servant responsible for the rail fares and ticketing review.
"Will the Minister now own up and admit that she has already given the green light to these closures, which passengers will find very inconvenient and very expensive?”
Transport Minister Theresa Villiers said: “The shadow Secretary of State refers to the proposal from London Midland, which is being considered but on which no final decision has been made.”
In a statement to the Birmingham Post, Transport Minister Norman Baker said: “London Midland has made a proposal under the existing process, under which the Department is required to arbitrate in cases like these, following well-established industry rules.
“The official mentioned in the email is a relatively junior official unconnected with the arbitration process. It is a simple error on the part of that particular official – no decision has been taken by any Minister on London Midland’s proposals.
The officials in question have been given advice in regard to the need to not second guess a Minister’s thoughts and the appropriate language to use in Government emails.”
Birmingham MP Jack Dromey (Lab Erdington) said: “Together with blind, partially-sighted and disabled people and their representative organisations including the RNIB, Mencap and the Muscular Dystrophy campaign, I met with Theresa Villiers in December.
“She heard first hand the powerful testimony from a blind former police officer and a wheelchair-bound businesswoman why access to public transport is key if disabled people are to be treated as equal citizens.
“She promised that blind, partially-sighted and disabled people would not be disadvantaged.
“Now we know the truth. A dirty deal has been done behind closed doors to allow station closures.”
> Next page: List of railway stations where ticket offices have been recommended for closure