Dumb and Dumber on the Railways: Are Smart Cards truly feasible?

Commuting is not fun.  But it is a necessary pain in the arse.  And South Western Railway makes it even worse, though Arriva (Surrey and Kent) recently changed things to make their process of boarding buses just that little bit more inconvenient and terrible.

I’ve mentioned before how absolutely flipping useless the South Western Railway (though at the time South West Trains) smart card system is.  With a new franchise in operation, it does not get much better.

Occasionally I buy daily tickets instead of weekly or monthly – this is because I might be working from home a particular day or days.  Unfortunately, the South Western Railway ticket machines are absolutely bloody useless for this.  Assuming the contactless payment card reader actually works (more often than not it won’t, so one has to put your card in the reader), you then pay for a daily ticket to your destination on your “smart” card.  The transaction completes and you’re asked to put the “smart” card on the contactless reader.

ALAS!

While the system may tell you that everything is hunky dory, and you check that the card has been updated by swiping back on the same ticket machine to confirm all is well – the bloody barriers can’t, won’t or are unable to detect a ticket and flash up the “seek assistance” sign.  You then have to explain everything to the guards about what’s happened because the sodding bloody ticket machines from South Western Railway won’t issue a receipt.  The only thing is if you paid through a contactless system on a phone – there is a trace of the transaction, but it doesn’t tell you the destination or even the source of where you bought the ticket.

So you spend time explaining to the guards on the ticket barrier, then, possibly, any ticket inspectors on the train (though I haven’t come across this yet), and the guards at the ticket barriers at the other end.  Then you have to do all of that in reverse on your journey back home.  It adds delay.  It is inconvenient.  All because there is an I.T. problem somewhere that somebody cannot fix.  Or is unwilling to fix.

I’ve had one issue where the ticket machine (all of this happens at Woking Station,  BTW) has taken my money, attempted to update the smart card and completely failed to update.  I couldn’t do anything.  None of the ticket booths has the ability to handle smart cards!  So for a week, it was absolute hell.

A Smart card rendered completely dumb by SWT HQ.

So, I ask, why doesn’t South Western Railway either upgrade their I.T. system, the barriers, the ticket machines or switch to a whole new system?  Personally, I’d like to see the back of paper tickets AND these smart cards and have an NFC pass on my phone that I can use the contactless terminals on the barriers on passing through – or if the bloody thing breaks down (which it will), at least show the guards as proof of purchase.

Today as I bought a one day ticket, everything looked to be fine on the ticket machine and failed at the barriers. AGAIN, I had to explain to the guard on duty about the problems with these ticket machines and the smart card.

Tomorrow I’ll just buy paper tickets.  I hate to do so, but they usually work and I have proof of purchase.  It’s bloody 2018 for crying out loud.  We’re working on autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and whatnot – yet we still have to rely on paper tickets on the trains and buses outside of London because the I.T. situation on more rural routes is abysmal.

Arriva buses have an app called m-ticket which allows you to buy and load tickets onto your phone.  You then show that to the driver and all is well.

ALAS!

They’ve changed it to include an ever-changing QR code that is read by the ticket machine on the bus.  All good in theory, but..

ALAS!

.. the ticket machine combines a contactless reader at one end and a laser scanner at the other end, forming a single column.  If you’re using an Android phone and don’t disable NFC (near field communication) chip before boarding the bus, the ticket machine gets confused because you have to put it next to the contactless reader in order to give the laser reader enough space to capture the whole QR code.  As good as the Pixel 2 XL is, there is no easy option to disable and re-enable the NFC chip.  Though the app does take you to the right setting to turn it off.   But it’s this hassle to have to do this every bloody time that annoys me.  I use Google Pay now, and NFC has to be switched on before I can start using it.

Also, the positioning of the ticket machine near the driver is such that you have to kind of position the phone at an odd angle.

Showing the bloody app to the driver was quicker, easier and was fully validated by a human being.  Which is almost always faster every single time when it comes to tickets.  Got a SWR smartcard?  You have to wait until the ticket inspector prepares their ticket reader and scans it.  Or if they haven’t got one, has to take you on your word you have a valid ticket.

Smart ticketing, as far as I am concerned, completely knackered.  TFL pretty much got it down to a fine degree – but so few other companies follow their lead.  The result is a complete mess where I.T. management becomes a nightmare for the company and for the consumer.  Until these issues are addressed, there may be mutiny on the buses or trains if these companies don’t make more of an effort to fix their ticketing systems.

It’s depressing when..

.. you read an article on BBC News about how middle-aged people should be walking faster, and realise that you’re included within the “middle-aged” category.  I’m a sprightly 41.

As it happens, I do walk faster than most folk regardless of age bracket.  I outpace a lot of youngsters who seem to have their faces stuck in their mobile phones all the time. What drives me mad, actually, are places like Wimbledon where people amble about aimlessly, getting in my way of where I want to go.

Middle-aged?  Pah.

The P&O Cruises Shore Excursions experience..

Marty Feldman foresaw the P&O Cruises shore excursion coach tours that I recently undertook.

We lost two passengers for a short time (they got on the wrong bus), and given the number of times we got off and on, plus overrunning some stops (including lunch) because of buffets and what not – this sketch sums up the experience pretty well:

In all seriousness, however, I did feel that the majority of the coach tours were far too tightly packed & rushed (though to be fair, we didn’t have a great deal of time at each port – only Reykjavik and Dublin had any useful time limits on them), along with either too many stops (which means having to get everybody off the coach, then back on again, then to the next stop, repeat) or there wasn’t any time for a lunch break (the worst case was in Akureyri, Iceland, where “lunch” consisted of an energy bar, Icelandic chocolate bar and a bottle of water).

Or if there was a lunch stop, it was a buffet and given the number of coaches/passengers plus different levels of walking ability, lunch was a horrific affair.  At one point, in Voss, Norway, I gave up and went to a small cafe in the centre of town which for £15 I got a sandwich and a diet coke, and wasn’t packed in line sardines in a hotel dining hall.  The other buffet lunch was outside of Reykjavik and it was only for 25 minutes.  Being the last one off the coach, and having had another coach party arrive at the same time as us, 35 minutes later I had finally managed to get something to eat.  We left around 20 minutes late.

That said, not all the tours were jam packed madness.  And I should also mention that the destinations far outweighed the overall experience. I got to see some truly remarkable landscapes.

Just beyond Flam, Norway, there is the village of Gudvangen:

The absolutely stunning Námafjall geothermal area in Iceland, just outside of Akureyri:

Here’s a geyser blowing at the Geothermal Park, Iceland.  The Sony RX100 V camera has a rather noisy zoom motor – but then again, it’s intended as a compact still camera than a fully fledged video camera:

and while I was on the remote island of Hesteyri (one of the better shore excursions, though there were so many flies it was difficult to pay attention to the tour leader because we were all swatting the buggers all the time), there were some Red Wing chicks in a nest right by the small cafe:

The Game of Thrones: Beyond the Wall tour wasn’t really Games of Thtone-sy enough, if I were to be honest.  But it didn’t matter to me – the alien landscape of Iceland was more than enough to make you appreciate why HBO came to Iceland (though as we found out, the producer was married to an Icelander and had worked there on previous projects).

I found that the best shore excursion is the one you put together yourself.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Dublin by taking the P&O supplied shuttle bus into the city, then taking a City Sightseeing bus around (with at least two of the ticket sellers, both Danes, having worked as extras up at Ardmore Studios – which I paid a visit to back in my early days at MPC whilst working on Ella Enchanted – for the History Channel’s hugely popular Vikings TV series).  I just wished I had done this in Reykjavik.  But then again, I’m definitely planning on returning to Iceland, and I’ll set the agenda next time.

Dear P&O Cruises

On the 9th April this year, I paid for a variety of shore excursions for my trip on the Arcadia to Norway, Iceland and Ireland. One of them was for a tuk-tuk tour of Reykjavik. I’ve taken tuk-tuks before – I know they come in a variety of sizes and styles. But it wasn’t until I left the Arcadia and went shore side to see how cramped they were. One tuk-tuk looked as if people were crammed in there like sardines – one poor sod facing backwards looked very uncomfortable.

Then it was my turn.

Bloody hell, I’ve never known anything like it. I’m a big lad – both tall and, well, outwards (fat). There were two other people (presumably a husband and wife) who were sitting forwards, which left me, realistically, facing backwards in the middle seat. Given how high the floor was, it was physically painful to sit in that position for 90 minutes, so I left. I don’t pay £56 for 90 minutes of being super uncomfortable.

Or let me put it this way: you pay for a tour in a car, except you end up shoved in the boot.   Would you pay for something like that?  No, I didn’t think so.  Not unless you’re a bit kinky.

I went back on board the Arcadia and made my way to the Shore Excursion desk (since nobody from the tour company pointed out there was a tour manager or anybody managerial shore side – in fact, nobody from the tuk-tuk company offered to assist me with anything). I was then told I should have spoken to a man called Frasier, but it would be pointless to do it there and then because it was “rush” hour. So I left for the shore side again and took the City Sightseeing tour bus instead.

When I got back from that, I managed to find Frasier and told him the problem. “Sorry,” he said, “but we cannot issue a refund because you saw what the tuk-tuks were like on the website, that there are all sizes of tuk-tuks, and we buy all tickets up front”. I went on to explain that yes, I saw what was on the web site, but it gave no indication whatsoever about what they were really like – that it was only until I saw them up close and personal could I make an assessment. And I DID try to get in them. Frasier told me flat out that there would be no refund, and that if I made a complaint, it would be referred back to them, and he’d still decline any refund.

So I went and cancelled my Dublin city tour.

I reached out to P&O on Twitter who reached out to the Shore Excursion team and said that the manager would get hold of me. If that manager is Frasier, there is little point. Also whoever the team leader for the Shore Excursion team is, they haven’t reached out to me yet since I made the complaint.

While I have generally enjoyed this cruise so far, and I have been looking at cruises from 2018 onwards – I am thoroughly hacked off with P&O regarding a single £56 refund. In the 17+ years I’ve been travelling (and I was married to a travel agent who has worked for Lastminute.com, Wexas, Royal Caribbean and Cruise.co.uk amongst others – and let me tell you that we did a heck of a lot of travelling together to all manner of destinations far and wide), I have NEVER had to make a complaint about anything travel related. Then along comes P&O Cruises – my first P&O cruise, but my second overall (the first was with Azamara) and they managed to hack me off big time because apparently I have to care about their contracts with their vendors.

So this will be my first and last cruise with P&O unless they pull their fingers out and do something. If we still cannot resolve the issue when I write to P&O’s head office, then I’ll take them through the small claims court.  If I do end up buying another holiday from P&O again, I won’t be booking any of their shore excurions ever again.

The stupid thing is that I ended up not doing the Herdal Mountain Farm tour. I lost £52 for that. And I completely understand that – nobody needed to explain that to me. And because I am nice, I actually went down to the Shore Excursions desk as early as possible to apologise and say I wouldn’t be coming so that they didn’t have to wait around. So I did them a favour.

Oh, and the stupid thing about the tuk-tuk tour was they had to move the start time backwards from 9am to 8am. I could have had a refund then, apparently. I wish I took it. But I wouldn’t have known what these tuk-tuks are like until I got out there.

I’ll write more about my trips a bit later. Lots and lots of photos to come.