Apology replacement service

A couple of links about railways have passed my desk in recent times.

The first is an Economist blogger who hates the special language the railways have developed. In the comments, it develops into more hatred for the automated announcements that blight our stations and trains. Lateness is so normal that robots apologize for it without reference to real people. Once a train is more than thirty minutes late, the robot automatically becomes “extremely” sorry.

My own pet hates, particularly when I am unfortunate enough to use Nottingham railway station in the morning, are the ticket barriers, and the constant reminders of things people shouldn’t do on the platform: smoke, leave their luggage unattended, and, apparently, be unaware that CCTV monitors the station 24 hours a day.

Once, on a tour of council housing estates with the then CX of Nottingham City Homes, he told me that he hated the little signs on lampposts about domestic violence and burglary and smartwater. He told me they were tantamount to putting up signs that say “We hit women!” and “Lots of crime happens here!” If domestic violence and burglary are so endemic you need to start putting up signs for the violent people and the burglars then you have lost the plot in a big way.

In my travels recently, I passed an abandoned lorry trailer in a layby, on which was emblazoned, in 20 or so EU languages, “WARNING! LORRY THIEVES OPERATE IN THIS AREA!” – attempting to tell drivers that if they nap in their cab in a layby, they might wake up to find their trailer has been nicked. How depressing that this is common enough an occurrence to need an ad to tell people about it? Why not simply have one that says “TRUCKERS – the police here are useless!” since this is clearly the subtext many people will get from the other ad.

So it is with wretched ticket barriers. They are an admission of failure. Fare evasion is so much a normal part of the travelling experience in the UK that it is apparently worth spending millions of pounds on hateful robots that sit in our stations and assume all travellers are fare dodgers until they prove they’re not. I hate them so much. If, as I do, you celebrate your timely arrival at the station before a train by buying a coffee and a danish from Amt Espresso in Nottingham Station’s distribution hall, you then find you do not have enough hands to operate the machinery: coffee in one hand; cake in the other, how are you supposed to sort out your wallet, sort through the 20 coupons you were given, locate the one the barrier will understand as a ticket, feed it into the tiny slot and get through without scalding yourself, or worse, dropping the cake? They must be a pain for those with mobility problems, cycles or more small children than hands. And far from replacing the staff, the robots need a small army of human chaperones to fix the inevitable problems when half the travelling public are unable to use the barriers. Surely that small army would be just as effective if they were there on their own unsupported by the hated robots?

The barriers are certainly a part of Paris’s Métro system and I expect you can see them in other parts of France too. Yet in my experience most of Germany’s public transport relies on more honesty from its passengers. Yes, they have ticket inspectors – rarely – but the stations are much more open, and of course there are a lot more of them – and everyone just assumes that most people will pay their way. I wonder if anyone has ever prepared an infographic on ticket barriers? Is there line across the globe like the line with details of how you pronounce A in words like “bath”? Barriers vs inspectors? Fare-evaders vs fare-payers.

My second rail link is here, as usability experts take a look at rail tickets and see if their design can be improved. No question there is substantial scope for improvement and the blog post takes us through the problems and potential solutions. It’s been at least fifteen years since I looked at the ADULTS: ONE CHILD: NIL line on the tickets and wondered what the point was: they had obviously been designed so that it was possible to have a whole family travel with one ticket, and this functionality has never been used, at least as far as I am aware.

When I shared the link on G+ an irritable friend opined it was time to ditch tickets altogether in favour of phone apps and home printing. But even if they did introduce those, they’re still not going to be able to get rid of ticket offices entirely, and if they are going to print some tickets it would help to make them more understandable. I have certainly spent many uncomfortable moments on trains listening to train staff and conductors break the bad news to passengers within earshot that their ticket is not valid on the train they are travelling on and they either have to leave at the next station or pony up a penalty fare. Any attempt at clearing up the confusions that arise from the increasingly complicated fare structures should be welcomed, as of course should any attempt at simplifying fares.

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2 comments on “Apology replacement service

  1. Mum says:

    Went to Hereford on the train on Monday. By-passed Leominster ticket office, as there was the usual queue of people with lost railcards etc etc, and I knew I could buy my ticket on the train (having in the past been advised to do so by man in ticket office, as previous queue of people messing about had held me up so much, was in danger of missing train!)Hey presto! No ticket inspector from whom to purchase said ticket on train! Cannot therefore get off Hereford platform because of barrier! Nice man at barrier pointed in direction of “back door” from platform to booking office and all solved!All much harder than needed to be 😦 And how much do they pay the man to stand at barrier, for heaven’s sake?

  2. […] Apology replacement service by Alex Foster on Niles’s Blog. Alex rails at Railspeak. (Submitted by Alex Foster via […]

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