Rail 811: Not all technology is the solution

 I have long been critical of the tardiness of the railways in adapting to new technology. Sure, a couple of more adventurous operators have enabled mobile ticketing and the London suburban companies have adopted Oyster card, but only after they extracted large amounts of money out of Transport for London. There has been a distinct lack of enthusiasm and the complexity of having a couple of dozen operators across the network makes innovation difficult. The system mitigates against risk taking and long term planning.

Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that the railway still uses the traditional BR orange tickets. They have been revamped a bit lately, with extra information and a slightly more comprehensible format, but nevertheless they are very much mid 20th century technology.

For the most part, the operators’ use of technology has been inconsistent and reluctant. Even when they have adapted to new ways of providing tickets, they seem to deliberately put obstacles in the way of making it easy. The websites with their crazy lay out which requires you to tick on a particular range of price before selecting the type you want are the most user unfriendly customer interfaces I ever have to deal with in both my work and leisure activities. At times the hassle almost seems deliberate. Why on earth do you need to put in a credit card to access pre-bought tickets which then have an 8 digit code. The companies say it is security but 8 digits gives a total of 26 to the power 8 options, 209 billion in all, which would seem enough to deter any people trying random combinations to try to get a ticket. Since any old credit card will do, why do they bother requiring that?

OK, enough rant.  The good news is that the Rail Delivery Group (the Association of Train Operating Companies as was, with a few extra bits) has actually begun to think seriously about ticketing and how it should work in the 21st century. The ideal, of course, is to have the same arrangement as the airlines where now, effectively, you can have a totally paperless arrangement.  When you turn up now at the check in desk – if you have not already checked in online – they now have your name on their passenger list and all you need is your passport. Many companies such as the main two low cost airlines operating in Britain (no free advertising here for the dreaded R….) have apps that mean you never even have to print out a boarding pass.

However, there are obstacles to such paperless travel for the railways. First, it would not be suitable for suburban short distance travel where thousands of people may go through barriers quickly and showing a ticket on a smartphone would be cumbersome. In those circumstances, smartcards are a far better option and the RDG is well aware of that, having established a task force to look at how to extend present usage.

Second, there is the issue of fraud. Here the complexity of the great range of tickets offered by the railways compared with the airlines is a major obstacle. Clearly tickets for advance travel for a specific train are not an issue but there are greater difficulties with those that are available for lots of trains, such as off peak or anytime fares.

That’s where barcodes come in.  If the tickets are sold with barcodes, then their cancellation can be electronic and they can’t be used again.  None of this requires great new technology or fantastic innovation. Barcodes and smartcards are well used technology that have been around for years and it is always better to use existing methods rather than reinventing the wheel, a past speciality of the railways. Now it could be argued that barcodes are an old technology, and why on earth are the railways introducing them in the second decade of t 21st century. But that is the point. Too often, leading edge technology is introduced on the basis that it is better but, in fact, using tried and tested methods is often the best option.

This innovation, though, requires quite a major change on the part of the operators and their staff.  Tickets will have to be printed with barcodes and, more important, readers will have to be fitted at barriers and carried by conductors.

There is another innovation that must go with it. Tickets will now have to be issued in the ‘Cloud’. In other words, if you purchase a ticket, there will be a computer record of it that will be accessible by railway staff everywhere. No longer will a paper ticket be required as evidence of purchase.  So when I forget my old man’s card, rather than being threatened with being thrown off the train as happened recently, I can point to the heavens and say ‘look up there’!

None of this will be cheap or easy to implement. It needs the owning groups of the franchises to agree to changes that will certainly require considerable investment. It seems, though, they are on board. I was given a briefing about the implementation and it is clear that under Paul Plummer, the Rail Delivery Group is changing direction. That was made clear to me by the introduction to these changes given to me by Jacqueline Starr, who has been the managing director of customer experience for the past year: ‘In the past we thought commercially when looking at innovations. Now, instead of looking at the cost of changes first, we will look at them in terms of the ‘customer proposition’, what we are offering to passengers.’ Changes, in other words, will be driven by customer need and insight into what they want. To help that process, Starr’s team has broken down the whole journey experience into a series of actions, ranging from looking up the timetable on a computer to giving feedback after the journey. Each of these actions has been assessed in terms of how well the railway does in terms of passenger satisfaction targets.

During the meeting, I raised what could be called the Burton problem. I had decided to drop in on the Burton v QPR game on my return from the Labour party conference in Liverpool. I knew I had to change at Birmingham New Street but actually I did not know the destination of the Burton train. I had to work backwards from knowing the time and found it was Nottingham. However, the destination of Burton was nowhere to be seen and if I had not know the train time, then I would never have found the right platform. It is on this kind of issue that the railway fails time and again, and Starr and her team, who interestingly had had a similar experience the day before, were happy to agree.

Here, at root, is the problem of private companies running a public service. There is no money to be made from better signage except in improving the overall journey experience. It seems that the RDG has finally grasped this.  All this may sound like management doublespeak and I am the last person to be taken in by such jargon. If the railway can really deliver on this and companies are able to think beyond their immediate bottom line, then this is the most important shift in thinking since privatisation. Too often decisions have been made on the basis of what the immediate impact will be on that year’s  profit and loss account, rather than what might be good for the railway and its passengers in the long term. If the type of approach advocated by Starr is really adopted by the owning companies, who may well also be going through bad times given the slowdown in growth on the railway, then it really will represent a radical and welcome shift in direction.


A step too far for HS2


I took a couple of rail journeys in Hungary last month and it was noticeable how difficult it is to get up on the trains. As is common on the Continent, platforms are low and generally one has to climb up a couple of vertical steps to get on board. Even where there were flash new commuter trains, wheelchair users would need a ramp.

The designers of HS2 are required to avoid this problem under EU rules (even with Brexit, compliance is still likely to be demanded under any future agreement) but there is a problem. Because the wheels need to be bigger to prevent overheating, it is expected that the floor height of the trains, as yet not specified, will have to be 1200 mm above rail height.  According to an internal HS2 document, ‘lowering their floor heights presents significant technical challenges’. Even though at the moment, only heights of 760mm and 550 are allowed according to European technical standards, the document suggests that HS2 platforms should be at 1.200, which would require an addition to the technical standards.

Agreeing that the train floors would be 1200mm above rail height would, however, cause difficulties in the circumstances where the high speed trains left their dedicated network and called at classic line stations or if other trains used the high speed network.  While disabled people at high speed rail stations would have easy access to the trains, they would face a high step at conventional ones.

Reader Neil Roth has tried to find out whether this is a firm decision by HS2 but has hit something of a brick wall and despite the internal document saying this issue needs to be decided by the end of 2015 to avoid incurring extra costs. He was told recently that no decision had been made. Insiders in the industry however are appalled at the idea of train floors being 1200 mm above rail making them incompatible with the rest of the network but are reluctant to criticise HS2 publicly. This is typical of many aspects of the project  when outsiders try to hone down on specific aspects and find only confusion and obfuscation.

  • paulf78

    “Nothing illustrates this more than the fact that the railway still uses
    the traditional BR orange tickets. They have been revamped a bit lately,
    with extra information and a slightly more comprehensible format, but
    nevertheless they are very much mid 20th century technology.”
    Since the 20th century covers the 100 years from 1901-2000 I’d put “mid-20th century” as 1935-1965. The credit card sized BR orange tickets (i.e. APTIS) was introduced in October 1986 based on a Thorn EMI technology developed in 1978 or very much late 20th century. To put it another way, Christian, you aren’t even past the second paragraph and you undermine your own argument by talking rubbish!

  • paulf78

    “The companies say it is security but 8 digits gives a total of 26 to the
    power 8 options, 209 billion in all, which would seem enough to deter
    any people trying random combinations to try to get a ticket. Since any
    old credit card will do, why do they bother requiring that?”
    8 [numeric] digits is 10^8 or 100 billion. 8 alphanumeric characters gives 36^8 or 2.8 trillion options. You have quoted for 8 letters.
    It’s not people trying random combinations but remote systems trying to brute force the system by trying millions of combinations. Asking for two pieces of information like this (the order number and the card used for the order) is reasonable but if, as you allege, any credit card will do, rather than the credit card used for the booking, then the security is broken and it should be fixed.
    It’s all very well having tickets in the cloud accessible on a smart phone but not everyone has a smart phone and those that do would need to ensure the battery lasted until their journey was complete. Not everyone will have a charger and not all smart phones have a battery that will last that long.