Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
Stockholm’s grand and central railway station feels like a Scandinavian cathedral: a shrine to mobility in the northern world. Devotees of the rail network enter a vast and extravagantly decorated ticket hall – which, in decades past, will have marked the inspirational start to many adventures by train.
I spent a few hours there on Saturday: admiring the architecture, enjoying the sound and motion of a rail hub and exploring in some detail the ticket hall. In it, you can buy a pint of Murphy’s stout at O’Leary’s Bar; change money at the Forex counter; or order freshly prepared sashimi at Sushi Yama. But what you can’t do is buy a train ticket.
You will be aware that train operators are proposing mass closures of rail ticket offices at stations in England. Many disability campaigners as well as the RMT union are implacably opposed to the idea. A big demonstration is planned for Thursday 31 August at Westminster. If you want to register your views on the proposals you must do so by Friday 1 September (when, by the way, most rail services in England will shut down for the day as train drivers belonging to Aslef walk out).
The government insists that service to the passenger will actually be increased, because staff will be taken from behind a glass screen and will be better able to assist travellers who need some care. The RMT says it is a job-destruction scheme that will trigger 2,300 redundancies.
My best guess is that proposals will be seriously watered down so that initially only smaller, quieter stations lose their booking offices. But to find out what life for rail passengers without ticket offices feels like, I have been exploring western Sweden.
Stockholm Central is the natural place to start. Emerging from the capital’s excellent Tunnelbana metro system, you can follow the signs promising “Tickets”. But once you reach the main concourse, they vanish. I was looking perplexed when a chap in a high-visibility jacket asked – in Swedish and English – if I needed help. Where, I wondered, is the ticket office?
“There isn’t one,” he replied. It closed early in 2021, along with the nation’s only two other surviving booking offices in the other two big Swedish cities, Malmo and Gothenburg. During the Covid pandemic, when rail revenue slowed to a trickle across Europe, it was seen as an essential step.
Swedish Railways’ spokesperson Tobbe Lundell, said at the time it was a money-saving move: “We are now eliminating an unnecessary cost in order to continue to be able to offer an attractive price level on our trips.”
Many rail travellers who like to be able to buy from a friendly face will see the extra cost as far from unnecessary. Yet my new hi-viz pal said if I wanted to buy from a person, I could do so at the tourist information office in the middle of the concourse.
It would be simpler and cheaper, he said, if I booked online. Swedish Railways has spared no expense in providing free weapons-grade WiFi to all station users, and within a couple of minutes I had secured a cheap ticket described as “last-minute” for the 40-minute journey north to Uppsala.
When I reached the historic university city, opportunities for buying rail tickets blossomed. The regional transport enterprise has an office in the station primarily for local journey needs but which also sells Swedish Railways tickets. Across at the Pressbyran newsagency, you can pick up a ticket along with a hotdog and coffee. Over the road, a convenience store also advertises that it sells rail tickets. Some passengers were buying from ticket machines (which charge a small premium on online prices).
I bought online for my return trip to Stockholm – but on a rival operator, Mälartåg, which undercuts many Swedish Railways trains on the route. Just about everyone on my train seemed to have bought on the company’s own app. I preferred the journey, too: aboard a new, double-deck train with two mains sockets per passenger rather than just the one on Swedish Railways.
The crucial dimension: for travellers who need human assistance, the market has delivered solutions. A convenience store assistant could not be expected to interpret a rail ticket system as Byzantine as the UK’s. But that is because our fares structure is bonkers: simplify the system and everyone will benefit.
The train back to the capital paused at Knivsta station. The handsome century-old ticket hall has been transformed into a microbrewery. Change can deliver some surprising benefits.