/ Travel & Leisure

Do train ticket machines drive you crazy?

rail tickets

According to the rail regulator, train ticket machines cause so much confusion that one-fifth of passengers who use them buy the wrong ticket. Are you one of them?

Earlier this week, I suddenly had to get a train from Edinburgh to Manchester. I rushed to the station to get my ticket and used the nearest ticket machine.

Edinburgh to Manchester: £67, it said. But only if I was going via Carlisle.

I desperately looked at the departure board. Was the next train going via Carlisle or not? I couldn’t see.

So, in my confusion, instead of using the ticket machine, I went to the nearest ticket office.

A friendly chap listened to my request and searched for details of the next train to Manchester and the cost of the ticket.

‘Hmm, £67?,’ he said. ‘Let’s see if we can do it for cheaper than that.’

Before I knew it, I’d bought tickets to Manchester for £41 – a saving of £26. But only because I’d been given a return ticket from Edinburgh to Preston, and then a single ticket from Preston to Manchester.

Pete's tickets

Confusing system

My experience perfectly illustrates the mess of our current ticketing system in the UK.

Being Head of Campaigns at Which?, I like to think of myself as a pretty savvy shopper, but even I’m bemused by the jargon, exclusions and confusing information when you try to get the cheapest train fare from a ticket machine.

While there’s been lots of news about split ticketing – where you buy multiple tickets to cover different parts of your journey and save money – little has been said about the fact that we have to go to the ticket office to get the best deal. Why can’t we simply find it on a ticket machine?

My experience is pretty common, as a new report from the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) shows. It says that train ticket machines cause so much confusion that one fifth of those who use them buy the wrong ticket.

For some people that means getting a ticket that was more expensive than the one they needed. For others, it means underpaying and being hit with a fine or a very expensive upgrade on the train.

Making it simpler

We’ve been hearing these stories and conducting similar investigations for some time. And that’s why at the end of last year we secured an action plan with the government, the ORR and, most importantly, the train companies to sort out our ticketing system.

We’ve recently heard that train companies are starting to test and trial new ways of ensuring we get the right ticket. And we need the whole rail industry to get on with quickly making the changes needed to ensure people aren’t bamboozled by ticket machines in the way that I was.

We’ll be holding train companies to account and ensure that they actually deliver on the ticketing action plan.

You can help us to keep up the pressure on train companies by telling us your experiences.

So have you had an irritating train ticket experience? Or perhaps you got one over the system by using split ticketing? Let us know, so we can keep campaigning for change.


I travel by rail once or twice a year and usually at a time when the ticket office is open. Because I so rarely use those overcomplicated ticket machines, find myself totally confuddled by them.

I invariably have to cancel and restart the process several times before I select the right combinations and by that time people are queueing behind me and some kind if slightly impatient person usually does it for me.

And that is on a cheap day return. 😟

My first experience of ticket machines was not good and I was glad that I arrived 20 minutes early. I have not had problems since but prefer to book in advance and have the tickets delivered, which has not failed me and would allow time to sort out the problem if it did.

One of my concerns is that it is necessary to insert the payment card for tickets that are collected at the station. Surely it is possible to devise a secure scheme that could eliminate the need for this.

For long distance journeys, which are generally planned in advance, I buy the tickets on-line and have them sent by first class post. Sometimes I select the option to print off the ticket at home but not all stations have bar code readers so there is then a hold-up at the escape exit barrier.

For local journeys I have learnt how to use the ticket machine and can now get a ticket in under thirty seconds, but there is no doubt it is a fiddly process and can take some passengers a long time to work their way through the screens, sometimes having to go back or start again.

It would be technically possible, presumably, to produce a programme for every station that would offer the best fare for every conceivable journey at any particular time of day according to the routeing guide and the ticket restrictions in force at the date and time of the journey, the class of travel, the status of the passenger [adult, child], the type of railcard to be used, the number travelling [where relevant], the changing points, and so on. I think we would be there all day waiting for this lot to load up and go through its algorithms so the objective of any reform must surely be to make the ticketing and fares structure very much simpler and design easy machines for buying the tickets required.

There will always be a lot of variables with ticket purchase and to assist with that I would suggest that railway travellers, even if they are only occasional passengers, should be able to equip themselves at no cost with a card to use over and over again that skips through a lot of the interrogation by being encoded with most of the standard information. For example, my personal card would contain coding to say adult, standard class, one way, off-peak, senior railcard, today. Inserted into the machine at the outset all I would have to do would be to select the destination, confirm the ticket, and pay. The ticket would give all relevant details of changing points and route options. It seems to be generally agreed that all tickets should be singles [one way] in a simplified system and the single fares reduced to ensure that anomalous return fares are abolished. I would suggest that 90%+ of the people who go anywhere by train come back by train and that it is not worth worrying about the few that don’t. People could have more than one card if they might sometimes want two or more tickets or go in a different class or during a different time period.

Overall I am very happy with the rail system but the ticketing is a bugbear. From our local station we can go to Norwich and beyond in one direction, or to Liverpool without changing, or to London with one change, and to loads of other destinations with just one change on the Liverpool route at Ely, Peterborough, Nottingham, Sheffield, or Manchester. Being on a line that goes right across the country from west to east really is very advantageous for the connexions it offers [so long as time is not the essence of the contract].

It’s high time that mobile ticketing was universal, like it is in many other countries. I should be able to buy a rail ticket online and then show a QR code on my mobile phone in order to travel. Some train companies have introduced this, but many are unreasonably lagging behind. Why we still have to use ticket machines is beyond me.

It should be the responsibility of the railway company to offer only tickets that may be legitimately used on its services. As passengers we may accept the companies’ need to charge more money for services at high-demand times, but we are not here to provide revenue protection for the railway companies. They need to ensure that we get the correct ticket for our journey – customers who feel that they are getting a good deal are more likely to board your trains, and perhaps spend more money with you. Too often the passenger instead has to deal with their corporate arrogance.

I travel from Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent regularly ( football & family) I also hold a Senior Railcard & local public transport pass which entitles me to free travel within the boundaries of Greater Manchester. I find it very frustrating sometimes when I Key in travel from/ to Stockport return using keys which you sometimes have to hit twice to get a delayed reaction displayed and you have to have the skills of a multi card bingo player to cover all the daily, train company, type of railcard single or return options etc ; then to find when you’ve inserted your bankers card and it says touch the ‘confirm’ button to pay that it fails to appear on the screen and takes you out of the system to my and the line of customers behind me annoyance . More than once I have punched the machine in desperation until a member of staff or kindly customer stepped in to help.
I would suggest a remedy from the middle ages be used to punish the inventor and procurer of these infernal machines from Hades –that the individual(s) be made to push/pull this mechanical/electronic purveyor of human misery on a railway bogey around the city centre for several hours on a busy Saturday.
Hopefully like the baker or brewer of bad/stale bread or bad ale they would then withdraw these monstrosities and conduct a series of public experiments with a view to a more efficient mechanical/electronic successor.

I share your annoyance. One of the answers is a much simplified ticketing system. Fewer ticket types = easier buying.

I suppose the reason we have to select our specific railcard from many alternatives is that they don’t all offer the same discount or validity. That might be a good place to start making things simpler.

Simon Bannister says:
23 February 2019

Still just as confusing now. Like the guy in the article, I consider myself pretty savvy and technically minded yet I have no idea where the ticket machines get their prices from. For example, I’ve just paid £32.70 for a return trip to London yet according to the Trainline.com – my ticket should have been £21.80. I can tell you now, there was no option on the ticket machine at this price.

I’ve travelled on the metro in both Paris and Barcelona and found them so much more straight forward than National Rails system. I reckon if you take out the regular commuters, it’ll be a hell of a lot more than 1 in 5 that get the incorrect / cheapest ticket.