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.

The Joys of Commuting

Last week’s commute was just horrific.  It took me three hours to get home on two days out of the five, with one of those days seeing the bus between the railway station and my village break down 10 minutes into the journey.  I had to get an Uber to get home.

But there is one thing that makes my commute a little better.  I managed to source Apple’s Airpods a couple of weeks ago from a store in Wimbledon.  And they’re just terrific.  I’ve spent a happy week listening to the audio book version of Terry Pratchett’s Thud! via Audible, and these things made carrying a pair of earphones a breeze.  They live in my trouser pocket, and I just have to whip them out whenever I need them.  No cables.  No fuss.

They look flippin’ odd, but their portability more than makes up for it.

The only problem with the AirPods is that they don’t block out the sounds of trains whizzing past, nor do they block the sound of the train guard announcing things at every station stop.  Otherwise, they’re brilliant for listening to audio books, and they’re not bad at listening to music.

If only they’d get rid of :

  • Signalling problems across the South Western Railway network
  • Disruptive passengers
  • Broken down trains

and improve:

  • More direct trains from Woking to Wimbledon and vice versa
  • Lazy people not putting their discarded coffee cups and rubbish in bins mere meters away
  • My memory – I left my umbrella on a train a couple of weeks ago – the day it absolutely hammered down with rain

South West Pains: Oh, Doctor Beeching!

Well.  We’ve just returned to the stone age with South Worst Trains South West Trains.

A Smart card rendered completely dumb by SWT HQ.
A Smart card rendered completely dumb by SWT HQ.

I’ve been using my South West Trains Smart Card just fine for the past month.  I had bought the contactless portion at Woking station’s ticket machines using the season ticket renewal option.

ALAS!

Today when I tried to do the same thing, the machine told me – several times, and most insistently, that it couldn’t find any season tickets.  I could buy regular train tickets for the card, and a 7 day pass between Woking and Guildford – but not a monthly.  So I walked up to the ticket office who told me that they don’t support these contactless cards and could only offer me paper tickets.  Talk about a step backwards!

Grudgingly I had to go for the paper route as I had to catch the next train to Guildford.  But before I went for my daily coffee fix at Costa, I went to one of the ticket office kiosks and asked if they were able to handle contactless cards.  Nope.  They couldn’t even read them.  All HQ’s fault, apparently.

What I don’t understand is why this worked before and now it doesn’t.  The system was working beautifully for the month I had the contactless card.  In/out at the barriers with not one single hassle.  Now I’ve got to go back to using paper tickets which wear out easily (often necessitating me to go and get it replaced), and thumble to pull the ticket out each time.

This is 2016, FFS, not the time of Doctor Beeching.

And when I tried to log into the South West Trains web site, not only am I not able to determine what my credentials are (I have them saved in my password management utility, but they’re not being accepted), but I’m getting this old chestnut:

Classic Windows 2008 Server (now a decrepit 8 year old OS) error - it can't negotiate a stronger set of TLS ciphers, PLUS they're not loading all their assets behind SSL (which they should).
Classic Windows 2008 Server error  (now a decrepit 8 year old OS) – it can’t negotiate a stronger set of TLS ciphers because it’s too old – they need to be using TLS 1.2 which is supported on Windows 2012) PLUS they’re not loading all their assets behind SSL (which they should be doing).  This is all too common a problem with a lot of commercial sites running on the Windows platform, and it’s driving me mad.

I wanted to check if I could buy the ticket in advance (although I’d still have to get the Plusbus component at the ticket office as SWT has never supported Plusbus on tickets longer than a week at the ticket machines).

In short: what a flippin’ mess.

Finally, South West Trains join the Smart Card generation!

I may be learning to drive with the intention of replacing buses and trains with a car so I can drive door-to-door from home to work (and vice versa), but it may be a few more months yet.  In the meantime, the good news is that South West Trains has finally brought out a smart card which is used like an Oyster card to get through the ticket barriers without the wear and tear on paper tickets.

I’ve just registered to get one, and hopefully I’ll never have to spend time getting my monthly ticket replaced because the ticket machines have chewed/destroyed them.  Apparently the Plus Bus aspect will still work, but obviously that bit will remain paper (which is fair enough because you only have to show that to the driver – it goes nowhere near a machine).

You can get more information and register for a South West Trains smart card here.