Rather than discuss the results of the survey, which I felt was a highly imperfect one, I felt it would be far more interesting to get some views and experiences from my friends on the subject of ticket machines. Thus, I posted the BBC website’s article on Facebook and requested people’s opinions. However, what happened was that the discussion that started trailing off into lots of discussion about the quality of the railways generally and the various run-ins that a few of my friends have had with railway officials. Yet from amongst these I received some interesting comments.
Sarah said that she was “always paying over the odds” because she was “thick!” I think not Sarah. If anything has come out of the survey it is that ticket machines are confusing and sometimes do not show the cheapest price. However, this is what they are legally obliged to do. Simon followed this by saying that “I've picked up some very cheap tickets from the ticket office as opposed to the machines.” Therefore, as limited as this evidence is, my friends confirm that occasionally the ticket machines overprice which it seems from all prior pieces of evidence is not a new phenomenon.
But then again, Adrian recounted a story in which he was offered a ticket at the ticket office, as opposed to the machine which he was unable to use.
“I normally buy off-peak returns to Manchester Piccadilly from Thames Ditton or Surbiton, which allow me to make the inward journey at any time within a month. This, with my 16-25 railcard, costs me £45.60. When approaching a ticket kiosk the member of staff offered me a return for somewhere in the region of £120, even though the machine offered me my usual £45 snatch minutes earlier (but it wouldn't take my card). I even had an old ticket for a previous journey, which I showed him, and he paused, shrugged and said that £120 something was the price he was being shown. I then persuaded him to sell me a travelcard. This way I travelled to Euston and bought my usual £45 ticket from there.”
Therefore, it seems that there is not just a problem of ticket pricing at machines or at the offices, there is a very real problem somewhere in the software. If machines and offices are out of sync with each other this amounts to a form of corruption. Indeed, unless people are willing to check both the machine and the office prices, then this put the railway companies’ operatives in a position of power. Who has the correct knowledge, or time in this case, to be able to question what prices are presented to them? Very people I’m sure. Therefore, the companies can effectively stop people from receiving the cheapest prices. They might try to deny they do this, but the evidence is plain to see in the cases recounted by my friends and others.
Only Simon talked about the actual quality of the interaction with the machines. While in no way representative of the nation’s experiences, the lack of commentary on how user-friendly they ticket machines were in the discussion I started, possibly shows that the quality of this interaction is secondary to people’s concerns over receiving the correct and cheapest price. Simon said:
“I think the machines operated by South West Trains are okay. It's Southern's that are rubbish! You don't seem to be able to buy multiple tickets of a single type. However, Southern do provide Oyster services which SWT do not.”
In my own experience I have found that the difference between different companies’ ticket machines can make a very real difference in the quality of the buying experience. I agree with Simon that SWT’s ticket machines are okay, but they could be improved. The only other experience that comes to mind is East Coast’s machines which are very user friendly. I think, however, the report that Passenger Focus presented is quite poor because it was not a complete survey of ticket machine services across the nation. PF only looked at the machines operated by four companies (South West Trains, First Great Western, East Midlands Trains and SouthEastern). This is no way to run a survey and what is required is more data from which to draw conclusions. Indeed, if the Association of Train Operating Companies’ (ATOC) own figures show that ticket machine users are satisfied 7 out of 10 times, then there seems to be a discrepancy that can only put down to regional variations that haven’t been accounted for in PF’s work (even if ATOC’s figures can also be considered dubious).
Overall, I think that the process of purchasing tickets by all means, from machines, offices or online, needs to be looked at more carefully and using far better research. Perhaps there should be a standard machine or software? Or what about a poster with the prices of the most used tickets at each station? Of course, with such a fractured industry this is unlikely to happen. I think first we need to get the prices altered…oh dear, well, that’s another problem!