The machines that aren't broken

Typical: of course the ticket machine chooses a busy time to go wrong. In Oxford station, queues were forming at a machine that refused to display Network Railcard as a valid railcard. The woman at the front of the queue tried for quite some time to make it work, then gave up and sought assistance. I was eavesdropping on her conversation with James, a busy member of station staff, when I got to the front of my own queue and encountered an identical problem. Soon it became clear that all the ticket machines had the same issue: refusing to display Network Railcard as an option.

The helpful James came up with a workaround: everybody with a Network Railcard should simply select a different railcard (the Forces railcard) and then he would endorse our tickets to show that the station staff were aware of the discrepancy. He then worked very hard to ensure that everybody got their ticket endorsed in time to catch their train. I was impressed with how hard-working and helpful he was in the face of machine failure.

Fast-forward two months and I’m catching another train at roughly the same time of day. Again, the Network Railcard option wasn’t displaying. So I did what I did the previous time and simply selected a different railcard, then asked at the information desk to get it endorsed. The info desk staff sent me to the ticket office, where I explained that the ticket machine bug had happened again and asked for them to endorse my ticket with the discount applied for the wrong railcard. I assumed that this bug keeps recurring and they have to keep using this workaround, so I was expecting them to know exactly what I was talking about and quickly stamp my ticket.

Instead, the guy at the ticket office told me that the machine wasn’t broken. It’s simply not allowed to issue tickets with a Network Railcard discount at a time of day when the Network Railcard isn’t valid for travel. So if it’s before 10am, I can’t get the discount, even if I’m buying the ticket for travel after 10am. This was why my ticket, bought at 9:50am for a 10:05am train, couldn’t be bought with a Network Railcard from a machine (although it could be bought online or from the ticket office). He refused to endorse my ticket, but he did refund my payment, then sell me a new ticket. Of course, all this palaver plus the queuing meant that I missed my train.

So the ticket machines aren’t broken. It’s just that these machines, designed to sell tickets, prevent certain people from buying tickets for several hours every weekday. But they’re not broken. Many customers who try to use them assume they’re broken and seek help from station staff, but they’re not broken. At least one member of station staff has also come to the conclusion that they’re broken and acted on that assumption. But they’re not broken.

If your machine is working as intended but causing stress, confusion and missed trains, you need to re-examine the design. If a UX flaw is so serious that dozens of people genuinely think your machine is broken, maybe it actually is broken. Who gets to define whether it’s “broken” or “working”? The designer or the thousands of users?


Nick Burch (not verified)

Wed, 2013-11-13 21:22

In theory, they're supposed to start selling time restricted tickets the moment the last train that they're not valid on has left. In practice, they do that for a while, then someone changes the timetable but doesn't change the ticket machine...

Your best bet is to go to a Meet The Managers session, and complain to them. They can generally get these things fixed within about a week, as long as what you suggest doesn't cause other problems. (For example, if the last non-NR valid train leaves at 9:55, and they start selling NR discounted tickets at 9:50, then they'll get lots of people buying them and catching the invalid train, then getting fined and complaining). Back when I was at TBX, I complained to Customer Services about the Cotswolds Railcard and the ticket machines, and got no-where. Dropped in to a Meet the Manager session, complained there, and it was fixed a few days later!

Janet (not verified)

Wed, 2013-11-13 22:26

It’s simply not allowed to issue tickets with a Network Railcard discount at a time of day when the Network Railcard isn’t valid for travel.

Amazingly, I think they manage to fail in the other direction as well: last time I was buying train tickets in a hurry I accidentally bought an off-peak ticket from the machine while it was peak time (I sort of thought it was a machine for buying tickets for travel-right-away so it wouldn't have sold me one if it wasn't valid right now... what an idiot I am), so I got beeped at when I tried to go through the gates & had to go through massive faff to buy the extra bits for both halves of a return journey, ended up with a bunch of about 8 tickets stapled together that I couldn't use on any of the barriers etc (very unhelpful when trying to make a tight connection). Also got another telling-off from the station staff: "Why didn't you just go and ask if you don't know when off-peak is?" "Because there was a queue of about 50 people and I would have missed my train, and I FOOLISHLY thought the machines would tell me when off-peak was if I needed to know." "There's always someone with a ticket machine walking around the queues, you could have stopped them and asked them." "Well, sorry, I didn't know that." "They're ALWAYS there."

I mean, I can see why the machine should be able to sell off-peak tickets when they're not valid, but surely the machine could actually TELL YOU when off-peak is? Or there could be a sign somewhere, maybe by the nice big visible clock at the end of the ticket hall OH NO WAIT they took that away.

Sorry, I didn't mean to hijack your rant with my rant, but... I just can't believe[*] they've managed to make TWO CONFLICTINGLY STUPID assumptions about how people will use the machines.

[*] I can actually believe, only too easily.