/ Travel & Leisure

Are train ticket machines a waste of time?

Busy train station

Ticket machines at your local train station can save you a bunch of time. But the technology is so full of jargon that the queue to speak to another human being sometimes doesn’t look so bad.

So you’re on your way to Brighton for the weekend and you need to buy a train ticket. You have two choices – queue for 15 minutes at the ticket desk, or brave the machine. It’s a tough one.

I’m happy to use the ticket machine if I’m travelling back home. That’s a journey I’ve done many a time and know the exact ticket I need. But the problem comes when I’m off somewhere new – a situation many are going to face this weekend (who’s looking forward to the summer holiday chaos?)

Ticket machine jargon

If I buy an ‘off-peak open return’, does that mean I can return within a month or do I need to come back on the same day? When exactly is peak time these days (it seems to be getting longer) anyway? Sadly the machine can’t answer these key questions for me. Off to the ticket booth then…

Research by Passenger Focus (PF) suggests the same – passengers who often use ticket machines end up rejecting them for less-familiar journeys. Instead they resort to swamping the ticket office.

This has resulted in queues at two out of five stations being longer than the rail industry’s own guidelines. Apparently you shouldn’t have to wait longer than five minutes for a ticket. That’ll be the day.

Guildford, Winchester and Basingstoke came worst off – the queues are long, but the ticket machines stand unused. In Winchester I’d expect it’s because the machine is right next to the ticket office queue, so you can’t get to the damn thing.

Are ticket machines really doing their job?

The machines may shorten our time in the station when we know how to use them – but the experience isn’t as easy as it should be.

‘When passengers ask for something as simple as the cheapest way to get from A to B, the least they should expect is just that,’ says our rail expert James Tallack. ‘Unintuitive ticket machines just add to the need for a transparent system that ensures fair and hones ticket prices for consumers.’

However, train firms think most of us are happy with the machines – PF’s own research shows that seven out of 10 passengers are satisfied with station’s ticket-buying facilities. There’s even been accusations that PF’s report is unrepresentative, looking at only a small number of stations across the country.

So what’s the truth? Do you happily brave train ticket machines, or do you prefer to queue up at the ticket office?

Are train ticket machines a waste of time?

They're alright, but they could be better (49%, 38 Votes)

Yes, I prefer to queue for the ticket office (33%, 26 Votes)

No, they're easy to use (18%, 14 Votes)

Total Voters: 78

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I completely agree with this article. I far prefer to use the machines to queuing at the desk, but am always frustrated at the information available when buying a ticket for a journey I am not familiar with. There should be information on terms & conditions in plain English available at every stage. There should be a simple mode where you put in what you want to do (here to there now and back today at 15:00; or here to there now, then to there at 14:00, then back at 22:00; or to there and back next Tuesday afternoon) and it tells you the cheapest fares (and alternatives like first class). I thought computers were supposed to be good at things like that?

With complex arrangements and needing to travel as a group with my disabled daughter and my wife, I doubt that I would ever use a ticket machine. Frequently out of order and not able to give anything useful when they work, they have a negative incentive plan programmed into them. Most times it is not only faster but cheaper to use the car, e.g. we needed to go to an ice show in London. Station car park full up so no way to park, train travel needed 3 hours just on the train. We went on from the station to the car park near the venue and arrived in 50 minutes… What use is the terrible train system with its awful ticket ‘lottery machines’?

Ticket machines are infuriating, over-complicated and can result in passengers having to pay more than they should for their tickets.

When I travel with my husband we both have railcards. We enter details into the machine for one ticket but can’t just increase the number of tickets to two. Although there is an option for this it doesn’t work with railcard tickets – we have to enter all the details a second time. When I suggested to staff that the machine’s programme should be adapted to allow this, it was suggested that I look around the station for flying pigs!

Also off-peak tickets are not available from the machines until after 9 a.m. – so if your train goes at 9.00, you are entitled to use an off-peak ticket but you either have to go to the booking office for it, or pay full price at the machine, or you miss your train.

Also the ticket descriptions are misleading – look for "Cheap day return" and you won’t find it – it shows up as "Standard return".

Plus all too often at least one machine at my local station is out of order.

I use ticket machines quiet happily but … I investigate train fares on the internet first. Some operators have a "find the cheapest fare" facility. My own local operator (Southern Railways) offers a discount of various tickets if they are booked on-line and collected via ticket machine. All the conditions of travel and limitations are available on-line and collecting at the ticket machine is pretty simple (if less than 20 pounds or so you don’t even need to enter a booking reference). Southern Railways is presently offering 15% discount on off-peak returns and other discounts on "advanced" fares. If you really need to talk to a human being I find the larger stations have a "Travel Centre" where there tends to be less of a queue. So I suggest researching the prices on-line, booking on-line then only use the ticket machine for the actual printing of the ticket – and most frustrations would be side-stepped.

My local station [Diss, Norfolk] has a ticket machine on both platforms but the only ticket office is on the London platform requiring a double hike over the footbridge [30 steps each side = 120 steps] if taking a down train. Plus the ticket office is not staffed between odd [and variable] times during the day. Because the train conductors are some of the most officious rule-observing jobs-worths I have ever encountered I have mastered the ticket machine on the down platform for same-day returns although I made a few errors as I learned the technique. Up journeys are generally more complicated involving uncertain return dates/times, railcard discounts, oyster card add-ons, etc, so I usually use the ticket office despite the need to wait for up to twenty minutes while other similarly beleaguered passengers negotiate their transactions. It is fair to say that the recent "simplification" of the ticketing system is an improvement even though it does not go far enough – at least even I can work out that an "any-time off-peak return" is exactly what it says [once I’ve discovered when "off-peak" applies of course]. [I recently witnessed a young woman being turned off the train by the conductor at Chelmsford where – because not all Norwich trains stop – she would have to wait for an hour just because her ticket was for a train running thirty minutes later than the one she was on, and even though the train she was on had plenty of room and was emptying as it progressed. She said that she had booked the tickets on-line and was not aware of the restrictions. She had compliantly accepted the conductor’s orders which he might not have attempted to enforce with a less meek or male **********. The railways are still not working in the public interest and all ATOC [the passenger train operating companies’ representative body] says is that it must be all right because most people manage to put up with it.


I lived in Japan for 17 years and have been bewildered at how confusing and expensive trains are in the U.K. Making sure you have a Railcard and checking prices online before travel are the things I do to try to somehow reduce the cost. The whole thinking behind fares needs to be simplified a lot before we can get to easier to use ticket machines.

Gerard Phelan says:
13 August 2010

It seems unfair to blame the ticket machine for the complexity of railway pricing. If you already know what you want it provides the goods pretty quickly.
If you want to change railway ticket pricing, then you have to face the fact that the UK Government wants to CUT the subsidy and the only way that private interests can turn a profit is to use yield management to ensure trains are full with people paying the highest possible price tickets – which leads to inherently complex fares – as you can see if you consider that few Airline tickets are sold in machines?

Peter Holt says:
20 January 2012

Since the start of the year I am unable to buy an off-peak ticket before 9:15 although I am permitted to use the 9:15 as off-peak and with my Senior Rail Card -why is this?
Also, the price shown on the machine is £1:00 dearer than I can get at the ticket office (if it is open). The reason given, it’s down to the route. As I am a direct line between Farnborough and Waterloo I don’t see how this can be the case. All VERY confusing.