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PERPETUUM 2017

The human factor

Jerry Alderson looks at ways the industry can attend to the needs of those that will fall outside of its ‘vision’ for ticketing  

Britain’s railway has not embraced new technology as quickly, widely or reliably as other industries, such as retailing where bar-code readers at supermarkets provide a faster check-out, a real-time balance and a fully itemised receipt – a win-win scenario. Unfortunately changes often benefit the people who run the railway – or the government that controls its expenditure – at the expense of passengers, and as the railway plays catch-up there is a danger that the customer’s needs are forgotten in the rush for improvement and innovation.

The phasing out of permit-to-travel machines, which were no more sophisticated than a 1970’s parking meter, and their replacement by ticket machines (TVM’s) has reduced revenue loss but they take more time to use – 90 seconds instead of 30. Queues are longer and passengers have to arrive earlier, making the train less competitive on end-to-end journey times. The fact that additional TVM’s were rarely provided underlines the operator’s lack of concern for its customers.

TVM’s are cheaper than providing a ticket office or on-board staff. They can be open 24×7, do not suffer from staff sickness, and more of them can be afforded. For non-native speakers TVM’s have the ability to support multiple languages too.

Web-sites and mobile apps effectively provide an infinite number of TVM’s at every point in the journey from your home to your seat on the train. Google will translate pasted text into any language, and because there is no queue behind them the customer can take as long as necessary (or until it times out). Pay-as-you-go smartcards, contactless credit/debit cards and m-ticketing mean that some people never need think about the fare as it becomes a matter of travel now, pay later.

Isolates the non tech-savvy

This all sounds wonderful but it risks isolating those who are not ‘tech savvy’ or lack confidence. Even those who are must remember to bring their device, charge up the battery in advance, top-up credit and ensure that data roaming is enabled in the case of foreign visitors. It is vital that no-one becomes financially disadvantaged because they do not pay the way that is most cost-effective for the railway.

Another danger is that a certain technology becomes so ubiquitous that the industry cannot cope without it – a fault with the check-in computers brings an airport to a standstill – and first-time or infrequent travellers are utterly lost especially where information is missing, erroneous or does not make sense.

In January two new stations opened in the West Midlands: Coventry Arena and Bermuda Park. Already aware that many TVM’s did not include the seven stations on the Borders Railway that had opened in September, Railfuture decided to check a number of websites and apps to see if they supported the new stations. The results were pretty depressing and more than a month later, despite the publicity generated and after communicating with some of the companies involved, few (apart from National Rail Enquiries along with Deutsche Bahn and ÖBB in Austria) have the full set. It’s not just inconsistent but random. Virgin Trains West Coast lists both stations, but not two others that opened in December (Cranbrook and Apperley Bridge), whereas Virgin Trains East Coast has three of them but not Bermuda Park. By far the worst is Abellio Greater Anglia, whose TVM’s, web-site and app omit all of the 16 new stations that have opened since December 2013.

To compound the problems, on some TVM’s the software for the touch-screen keyboard has a bug. In one example, pressing a ‘B’ gave a ‘V’, so a ticket for Bedford, Brighton or even Birmingham could not be purchased.

What should a passenger do if they want to board at an unstaffed station within a penalty fare area if their destination station is not available on a TVM or their chosen web-site or app? What if they chose Appley Bridge assuming that is how Apperley Bridge is spelt?

Whatever technology is deployed and however inclusive the railway tries to be, if the industry cannot get its act together on something as simple as a list of stations or ensure that a TVM keyboard is tested then how can anyone trust them to reliably introduce, say, smart-ticketing technology?

With everything it introduces the railway industry must ensure that there is resilience in case of failure, and quality assurance needs to be vastly improved. The operators collectively must trial and fine-tune a wide range of customer interactions taking account of so-called human factors.

Rail user groups and stakeholders need to be involved prior to implementing changes and there must be a plan for addressing concerns raised and testing the solutions as soon as practicable.

For those who need it – and this is not just about elderly or disabled people but all of us at some time – there is no substitute for the face-to-face experience, even if it is via a station help point with a screen. Where possible it must be maintained, and passengers who have not been able to ask staff for ticketing advice must be given the benefit of the doubt when they have made an innocent mistake or incorrect assumption.

Technology can free-up staff but it cannot – and must not – remove the need for them. There is a positive business case for retaining their presence, perhaps with revised working practices as has happened on London Underground. As the majority of passengers become more self-reliant there will be opportunities for ticket staff to sell other items to bring in additional revenue, but it must be a case of trained staff cross-selling rather than baristas trying to offer ticket advice.

The savings made from fewer staff at a larger station could be used or extend the hours of staffing or re-deploy staff at currently unstaffed stations. If operators or the Treasury simply pocket savings it risks stifling passenger growth over the long-term.

Jerry Alderson is director of finance and corporate governance at Railfuture, and a business consultant