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Buying a rail ticket

In the not-so-distant past buying a ticket was a relatively simple experience. You went to the station, and the ticket clerk asked what you wanted and sold you the ticket that best met your needs.  If tickets were not sold at the station, the conductor on the train would ask and then sell you a ticket.  This member of staff acted as a guide through the complexity of the structure and the range of products on offer.

Technology has revolutionised retailing across society, creating new ways to purchase goods and services.  The railway has not been immune from this and we have seen the shift towards automated ticket vending machines and internet sales, as well as moves into smartcards, print at home  and tickets by mobile phone.

Consumer choice brings benefits.  The ability to buy a ticket when you want, and in the way that you want, is clearly of value to passengers, but choice can also bring complexity and confusion.  While larger stations continue to have ticket offices with staff available to advise on ticket purchase, many stations are seeing a reduction in ticket-office opening hours.

We are working on every aspect of rail ticket retailing to ensure that the needs of passengers are identified, understood and met during this time of change.

Ticket machines

Ticket machines are used by thousands of passengers every day, and use is increasing.  Passengers by tickets for immediate use, or collect ticket they have already ordered on line ( ticket on departure, TOD)  Ticket machines are useful for many passengers but we have also received complaints about ticket machines.  We have worked to find out how ticket machines can be improved.

In 2008, Transport Focus carried out research into passenger use of ticket vending machines (TVMs) at stations[1].  The research found that most passengers queuing at the ticket offices could have bought their ticket from a machine but chose not to.  The charts below show the main barriers to using TVMs.

Buying a ticket at the station (2008):

We returned to this subject in 2010 as part of research into queuing times at regional stations[1]. This showed that queues built up at ticket windows even when ticket machines stood idle. It also demonstrated that off peak queues tended to be higher than peak queues, in spite of lower off peak footfall at stations.  Most passengers could have bought their ticket from a ticket vending machine – why didn’t they?

In order to find out more we did another piece of research. We worked with a number of train companies who gave us access to their ticket machines, and helped us choose test journeys. We then recruited a range of passengers claiming varying degrees of confidence in the use of TVMs, and asked them to purchase tickets for the test journeys.

The results of our ‘Ticket Vending Machine Usability’ research published in 2010 suggest there are good reasons for passengers selecting to use a ticket office in preference to TVMs for some purchases.

Evidence showed that in many cases passengers found operation of the TVMs was not easy and often counter-intuitive:

  • Sheer volume of information felt to be overwhelming and difficult to decide where to press.
  • Passengers felt they had to do the hard work of finding the best ticket for their journey instead of the machine.
  • Information boxes to the side and bottom of screens were often not seen by passengers.
  • Information in yellow writing was not readily visible.
  • In some cases information about routes and restrictions was not provided, instead instructions were given to ask a member of staff for information.
  • Ages applicable to child fares were not shown.
  • Jargon was also used especially in relation to the London zone system.

[1] Still waiting for a ticket? Ticket queuing times at large regional rail stations (2010):

[2]   Ticket Vending Machine Usability – Qualitative Research (2010):

Since undertaking our research we have continued to investigate ticket machines and have identified further issues that cause lack of clarity for passengers purchasing tickets:

  • There is often insufficient information about  restrictions to enable to the passenger to make an informed choice.
  • There is a lack of coherence between TVMs. On a station it is possible to find a variety of machines all working in differing ways. E.g. One TVM may offer a rail card without requesting a photo card number while another machine on the same station requires it.
  • At hub and terminal stations TVMs standing next to each other, but provided by differing TOCs, may offer different products. The range of tickets on offer and priority given to them is varied, and from the passengers perspective, without an obvious rationale. This includes not providing tickets to some regional towns serviced by the station.
  • Some ticket machines nationally do not provide the option to purchase ticket to relatively local stations built within the last 6 years. Train companies cite the high cost of reprogramming some manufacturers TVMs as a key factor preventing the updating of machines. ATOC have advised they are working to develop an automatic feed to correct this matter but have not offered a date when this development will be in operation.
  • The presentation of TVMs offers no information as to the range of products available, or whether preference has been given to tickets for a particular route.
  • Even on unstaffed stations passengers are offered no advice as to what to do if they are unable to purchase the required ticket from the TVM. Permits to travel tickets are rarely available.  This exposes passengers to the risk of unpaid fares, and penalty notices.
  • Some station have a TVM on one side of the platform only
  • Some machines take credit cards only
  • Some TVM are subject to glare on screens during bright sunlight

In short, the TVM in its current form is not able to dispense a full range of products, or provide sufficient information about routes and restrictions to satisfy the purchasing needs of all passenger groups. There is evidence to show that many passengers do benefit from using TVMs to collect pre booked  tickets on departure, and regularly purchased tickets. So TVMs are beneficial for passengers as part of an overall retailing strategy, but are not a universal solution to ticket retailing, or reducing the cost of running the railways.

What is Transport Focus doing about ticket machines?

The research we have undertaken has been well received in the industry. We have taken our work to train operators, The Association of Train Operators  machine manufacturers, systems providers, Department for Transport  and the Office of the Rail regulator.

Work is being undertaken by ATOC to co ordinate improvements.  Machine programmes and presentation can be improved, but the real problem lies in the information that is fed to the machines.  It’s often complex and full of jargon.  The industry is working to improve both the presentation of machines and the information it provides to passengers.  ATOC are also are working to redesign tickets so that they provide passengers with more information so that they have a record of their transaction.  The Office of the Rail Regulator is also working with the industry to ensure that information provision meets the requirements of consumer law.

We have ongoing meetings with the businesses that make up the industry and are monitoring progress on improving ticket machines.  Our work feeds into Government planning and consultations.

“ I am grateful to Transport Focus whose analysis of passenger needs and preferences in relation to fares and ticketing has informed much of this document”

Rt Hon Justine Greening MP, Secretary of State for Transport

Fares and ticketing Consultation

We are continuing to use our findings to influence planning,  making recommendations for new franchises and in due course in our response to the fares and ticket consultation document issued by DfT.


In June 2011 Transport Focus undertook research into the usability of websites[1].  Passengers were recruited to test purchase a range of tickets, from a number of web sites.

Many of the people used in the research had a high degree of confidence when using the internet. They were familiar with buying a range of goods of services online, indeed many saw the internet as being the default channel choice when purchasing tickets for longer-distance journeys. It was interesting, therefore, to see that this confidence was sometimes misplaced –  some struggled to obtain the most appropriate tickets for a range of journey scenarios.

Perhaps the most significant finding of this research was that some passengers buying online may end up paying more to travel than they need to. This is not because of deliberate overcharging, but because passengers may lack sufficient knowledge to interrogate websites in the best way to find the most appropriate ticket for them (e.g. they misunderstand the term ‘open return’; do not remember to check if two singles are cheaper than a return or vice versa; or have no knowledge of alternative, potentially-cheaper routes).

We recommended that website operators and train companies could do more to help passengers:

  • avoid paying more for a journey than is necessary by allowing them to make better-informed choices between times, routes and price
  • gauge whether the ticket they have selected is the lowest price to travel that day, or the highest price (indicating that they may be about to buy more flexibility than they need) or somewhere in the middle.

There is also a wider challenge for passengers’ purchasing on line.  Train companies are able to sell their own tickets cheaper from their own site, than they can be purchased from other sites.  Currently there is no way of easily checking if a cheaper ticket is available on another web site.  This is unlikely to increase passengers trust in the fares system. A universal rail fare price comparison web site would assist some passengers but is currently not available.

[1] Ticket Retailing Website Usability (2011):

There are also occasional problems for customers ordering tickets on line but collecting from a train station. Sometimes the machine requires the same card to be used for collection as was used for purchasing .  If the passenger has been reissued with a new card or if they didn’t order the ticket this can cause problems. We are pressing the industry to make systems easier to use.

As with TVMs the industry is again looking at how it can improve services for passengers. East Midlands undertook an award winning piece of research looking at passengers checking their web site for fares to London. They discovered the most expensive fare was displayed first causing some passengers stop the transaction. By developing a cheapest fare finder facility they increased purchases, and improved their NPS value for money score. The question of the link between customer trust and value for money scores remains intriguing.

National Rail Enquires has also amended the way it displays ticket to ensure that passengers are show the cheapest tickets  as well as the fastest, though frequently more expensive options.  This is a most welcome development.

While there are signs of improvements we are continuing to meet with the industry to ensure that we are aware of changes and to press for further improvements.  We are also mindful that currently internet retailing does not meet everyone’s needs.  The Fares and ticketing Consultation Document indicates that the Government share our concerns.

“76% of homes are now connected to the internet, compared with 61% in 2007, and we can expect the number of people with internet access and the proportion of ticket bought on line continue to growing. Nevertheless, we must take account of the needs of all users, and for the moment at least there is still a limit to the extent to which online sales channels can provide an acceptable alternative to ticket offices.

Smart ticketing

Print at home tickets, tickets to mobile phones and smart cards and contactless cards (near field communication/ NFC) are all current reality. Looking forward, the next 20 years will see more changes to the way rail tickets are sold.   Whilst new systems are developed there is a danger that passengers will be overwhelmed with choice, and be uncertain as to the best option for their journey.  We are pressing the industry to make passenger information a priority to ensure that passengers get the best deal. The industry must also be mindful that not all passengers will wish to adopt new ideas, and for some new won’t necessarily be best. Passengers must be protected, and  where new systems are introduced the needs of groups who do not wish to use them, or are unable to do so must be taken into account.

Transport Focus is also undertaking research joint funded with Go Ahead Group, into future trends . This important work will form the foundation from which we continue to work to ensure passengers needs are  fully taken into account by the industry. In addition we are working with holding companies, manufacturers  and  TOCs  as they develop ideas for next steps. We are pressing for all new systems to be tested not only for technical delivery and security, but also for usability. Our message is simple. “Retailing systems  need to be simple to understand and use, and ensure that passengers can select  the right ticket for their  journey.

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