Rail Industry Focus

16.03.17

The user must be at the heart of technological change

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 17

David Sidebottom, passenger director at Transport Focus, discusses the need for developers and the industry to consider the way that people use ticket machines and ensure it inspires their trust.

There has been a lot of attention on rail ticketing recently. This is rightly so, as buying a ticket is often the first contact that a passenger has with a train company as they plan their journey and can set the tone for the whole relationship. 

The decision, if not a simple repeat purchase of a ticket the passengers is familiar with, can be incredibly complex with a vast array of options. So getting the right ticket is an important element of passengers’ trust in the railway. 

There are ever-increasing ways of buying a ticket for a rail journey. At one time a clerk in a ticket office was the only option. Now we can buy them from the comfort of our home online, at machines, through apps, with smart tickets or contactless technology. We can also download tickets to our mobile phone. This can all help passengers avoid the dreaded queues. 

The industry’s blueprint for a Digital Railway is now talking about Bluetooth and biometric ticketing (more on page 28), so reducing the need for paper tickets. No doubt technological developments will continue to provide an increasing range of new options for this process. But right now, we are largely dealing with bits of orange paper – so careful baby steps are needed to bring passengers with us! 

Clerks v TVMs 

It is easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of new technologies. But to be truly successful, they must be well designed and work every time to inspire trust. On contactless payments, our work has shown that passengers, once they are aware of contactless, see saving time as the big benefit. But there are big concerns about security and fraud, which the industry must overcome to reassure them. Ticket vending machines (TVMs) have been with us much longer, but the passenger experience of them must give us some pause for thought.   

Our research in 2010 showed a preference for buying tickets from a well-informed clerk than with a TVM. Passengers felt they had to do the hard work in finding the best ticket. We found that passengers can be presented with a vast array of ticket options right at the beginning. This can be confusing; rather than guiding them through to the ticket they need, it can make them pick one at random, or choose the most expensive one, so they are sure that it is valid for their train. By contrast, some ticket options have not been available to buy through TVMs at all! 

Further confusions can result from a lack of clarity on the validity restrictions, either when they choose the ticket on screen or when they take the tickets away from the machine. TVMs do not necessarily sell tickets to all National Rail stations or add new stations as soon as they come on stream. They do not automatically offer GroupSave tickets once the qualifying number of passengers is reached, so are denying people access to those cheaper deals. 

Problems with TVMs were further emphasised recently by Office of Rail and Road (ORR) research which used mystery shoppers to assess their experience. As many as one in five of them selected a more expensive ticket for their journey than they needed, or had not bought the right ticket for their journey and were at risk of a penalty fare. Also, 57% of them didn’t have the difference between peak and off-peak tickets explained to them. A number of them – as high as 39% – would have given up with the process and gone to the ticket office. 

Fairer redress system 

It is of particular concern that people could buy the wrong ticket and then receive a penalty fare. The system has resulted in people being unfairly penalised, although the government is due to introduce a fairer redress system soon. 

Some of these problems are being addressed through the Action Plan for Information on Rail Fares and Ticketing. We have been working with the government, industry, ORR and other consumer groups to take this forward. Part of this includes an industry Ten Point Improvement Plan for TVMs. What is encouraging is that some train companies, such as South West Trains at Woking station, have been piloting schemes where human assistance can be given to passengers next to the TVMs.  

The strong message from this for the developers of technological advancements and the industry is that they should consider the way people use such machines and ensure it inspires their trust. To do so, the user must be at the heart of the development process.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com 

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