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.