Let's close all the ticket counters

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I bloody hate this cartoon that's doing the rounds (I think it's by the incredibly talented Len in Private Eye).

Cartoon. An old woman is at a train ticket counter. The ticket machine is out of order. The ticket office is now called "Info Hub". The ticket seller says "OK, one more time: Go home and log on to our website from your computer, create an account and purchase your ticket with your credit or debit card, download the ticket to a smartphone, then come back at the allocated time... Just what part of 'easier and more convenient' don't you get?"

Here's what I want the caption to say:

OK, one more time: Get here at least 30 minutes early because the queue barely moves and you'll inevitably be stuck behind someone trying to pay for their season ticket using pre-decimal coins. The person behind the counter either won't understand your accent or will have an accent you can't understand - so be sure to repeat everything a couple of times. No, sorry, we don't speak your language so you'll just have to hope your phrasebook is good enough. No, we don't have anyone who understands sign language either. Get given several flimsy bits of paper with tiny writing on them that you'll have to squint to read. One is your receipt, one is your seat reservation, one is your ticket - but they all look basically the same. Oh, and they'll demagnetise as soon as you put them anywhere near a phone or wallet, so don't put them in a pocket. But if you lose them you won't have any proof of your reservation or ticket. When the train is late, you won't get an automatic refund - so be sure to keep the ticket and post it to us if you need to make a claim. That's assuming the ticket barriers don't eat it.
Oh, we're out of £10 notes. So you'll need to take your change in assorted shrapnel.
Just what part of "helpful and less confusing for people" don't you get?

Here's the thing, I've been using ticket machines at train stations since the early 1990s. People have had over 30 years to get used to them by now. They aren't new and confusing. And they're usually pretty well designed (my gripes about the non-QWERTY layout notwithstanding). Modern ones even let you video-call someone if you can't figure them out.

We visited Berlin a few weeks ago. Rocked up to der Bahnhof and needed to buy a ticket for a train that was departing in 30 seconds time. I hit the large 🇬🇧 button on the screen, followed the instructions, selected the ticket, tapped my contactless card and I was done1. Quick and easy - even for someone who was tired from a long flight, in a new city, and didn't speak the language.

I'm a fully paid-up member of the O'Malleyist agenda - in that I think we should close all of the train ticket offices (actually read the piece before arguing in the comments, please). But, more than that, I hate that some people feel the need to always romanticise the past at the expense of the future.

Do you want to go back to slam-door trains, with smoking carriages, and paper tickets? Do you want easily misplaced railcards, ticket sellers who deliberately sell you the wrong fare if they don't like the look of you, and being stuck behind someone buying the most complicated route possible?


So stop with the phony nostalgia for a bygone time which wasn't nearly as bucolic as you remember.

  1. I mean, my wife did get trapped in the sliding doors because we weren't quite quick enough crossing the platform. But I don't think that's the ticket machine's fault! 

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16 thoughts on “Let's close all the ticket counters

  1. @Edent I think a lot of the mistrust around this is that station staff will also be cut. There are clearly people and situations where help even with ticket machines is desirable or necessary, and there are many more situations where station staff are important for people. If we had government that treated cost saving responsibly, as opposed to slash and burn, I think we might have a different discussion.

  2. says:

    @Edent having been through systems i’d consider ‘universally easy to use’ with family members who struggle with technology and the language, i disagree with closing all of them

    i think the majority of users will benefit from the machines, sure, but there’s a minority that needs support that only a person can give, and they deserve to travel independently too

    this is without even considering the aspect of all those workers being fired, which i think they will be

  3. @Edent co-signed. People forget all of the ways those systems failed, starting with the fact that they were different all over the world and we’re now on the cusp of seamlessly being able to use the same watch/phone to go the airport, board a plane, and use transit on the other end.

  4. George L says:

    UK ticket machines are awful though. Tried using one the other day for tickets for four of us on a family Railcard and you had to click through to every single kind of ticket to establish which one was the cheapest. And then for some of them it wouldn't take the Railcard. They needed to simplify the ticketing before bringing in the only rational way to find the right ticket (ie ask an expert!)

  5. @Edent I think the point about the cost savings just going to shareholders rather than being used to improve the service/ reduce the charges is a Biggie. Unless you've mandated how the savings will be spent that is exactly what's going to happen.
    Also changes like that should be designed and prototyped in conjunction with the users to see what makes things better for them and my cynical brain doubts that is happening.

  6. @Edent I would be more in favour of closing ticket offices if the ticketing system were simpler. In the UK there’s constraints about dozens of railcards, whether a train stops on the way, the route, the company, how many people are travelling etc. Without a person to explain, people could be liable to a large fine.

  7. says:

    London has spent 20 years making it so you don't think about tickets. Just tap in and out and get the cheapest possible fare. No wonder you don't need ticket offices!

    The rest of the UK - not so much.

    You find yourself asking questions like "can I use this ticket to get a train leaving London between 4pm and 7pm?" only to later realise there are two different tickets with the exact same name.

    (Seriously, it took me 2 hours to work out what was going on.)

    So, yes, ticket offices are probably a symptom of how confusing and badly run rail is in the UK. But maybe don't kick away the crutches before curing the patient?

  8. Proactive Paul says:

    Early one Saturday morning, in Waterloo station, I used a machine to buy a cheap off peak day return to Southampton. I could not get through the barrier to the platform. The staff at the barrier explained that the ticket I had bought was valid only on the long route from London Bridge via Brighton to Southampton. That takes one hour longer than the direct route from Waterloo.

    I asked why you can buy a ticket for what was, to my mind an obvious Waterloo Southampton route, from a machine in Waterloo, which does not allow me to depart from Waterloo. There was no answer.

    I could not get a refund from a machine or exchange it for another ticket there and then.

    The staff opened the barrier for me so that I could take the direct train which was leaving in 5 minutes, and he explained that I had better not be caught, and that I had better return on the Brighton route.

    Fortunately (unfortunately for others) as my return time approached and I entered Southampton station, the Brighton London line was closed for an emergency, and my ticket became valid on "any reasonable route". That happened to be the direct train which was the one I wanted in the first place.

    Waterloo, early morning, no ticket office staff and lousy unhelpful machines . . . and that was in 2004.

    Saving grace - a real person with a touch of humanity.

    Machines will only be any good when fare structures and routing are simplified, and they will never be as good as a human who knows the railways.

  9. says:

    @Edent the linked article effectively advocates “let’s spend all this money” as a solution to a problem caused by attempting to save money, is this nebulous “The Government” actually in any position to compel whoever owns and operates stations (I genuinely have no clue) to build out this ideal software and perfect disability services at presumably some non trivial expense? Should the improvements not come first? We didn’t shoot all the horses before we had cars.

  10. On Merseyrail, it became apparent if I booked via the Trainline, I paid at least £2 more than if I simply went to the helpful ticket office at my local station on the day and bought a ticket!

    Guess which method I prefer?

    1. @edent says:

      The Trainline charges you a premium because it is a private company selling extra services. You chose to use it because, I presume, you like their UI or help function or mobile ticketing or something else which is of value to you.

      Of course, you can also choose to use one of a dozen different apps which charge you no extra fee. Or you can use the machines at the station.

      Or - and this is the key part - you can talk to a person at the station. You'll notice in my post I didn't propose getting rid of people. They just don't need to be trapped behind a glass screen all day.

  11. Ivan says:

    You talk about ticket machines in the post, but the ticket machine in the cartoon is also closed. I'm glad you're at least keeping the machines (I hope they still accept cash in your future!), because the experience of being trapped in a foreign country with a dead phone and cards that don't work is very real.

    1. @edent says:

      I've been in countries where the ticket machine behind the counter is also broken. So I'm not quite sure what your point is?

      I've also been in places where I couldn't bring cash into the country, so having a machine that only takes cash is equally useless.

      1. Ivan says:

        Can we have both online purchase of tickets and the machines, with the option to accept cash? Either option can be a necessity in different situations. (Of course, "can be" doesn't say how frequently that actually happens. I know my personal experience, but it's probably not representative of the customers of UK train service.)


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