/ Travel & Leisure

Train ticket machines have gone off the rails

Train in grey and blue

Don’t you hate it when a rail ticket machine won’t sell you the ticket you need? Ticket machines should cut queues and make buying tickets easier, but we found they don’t always sell the tickets passengers want to buy.

I recently told a friend about the low-cost way I travel to London on the train. I buy two tickets – one to a station half-way to London, then another for the rest of the journey. This saves me around 20% on the price of a direct ticket.

He tried to do the same thing but wasn’t able to, because the ticket machine at his station couldn’t sell a ticket that started from somewhere else or another start-station. So, to get the ticket he wanted, he joined the queue for the ticket office.

And he’s not alone – our latest research reveals that of the 28% of train passengers who use ticket machines to buy tickets, only 15% prefer using machines instead of the ticket office.

The trouble with ticket machines

In our video below, find out the top five ticket machine nightmares uncovered by our recent investigation.

Providing ticket machines that don’t sell all train tickets seems wrong to me. With so many ticket office hours being reduced – more than 500 offices since 2005 – why do train operating companies think it’s OK for their ticket machines to sell a limited range of tickets?

This means that if you use an unmanned station or a station where the ticket office is hardly open, you’ll almost certainly be getting a second class service.

Make ticket information clearer

The other big problem with ticket machines is the lack of information provided about where, when and how you can use the tickets they do sell. In fact, one in three ticket machine users in our survey thought that information about the trains they could and couldn’t travel on wasn’t displayed clearly.

If you buy a ticket and end up on the wrong train because of the lack of information provided by the machine, you could end up paying a penalty fare. To help people avoid penalties, train operating companies really need to be doing more to make validity information much clearer.

Do you find that ticket machines make the difference between catching-and-missing your train? Or do you always head for the ticket office if there’s one available? Please come and share your train gripes to help us demonstrate the extent of the problems on the rail network.


Machines cant offer you “web only” tickets ( Virgin online offered me a “web only” ticket when all the Advance tickets had been sold at the same price).
You cant use your Refund vouchers at machines .
Ticket Office opening times seem random at our local station.
So much for the “ticket machines can provide you with any ticket” statement seen at the station.

MetalSamurai says:
18 February 2013

There are a number of problems I’ve had with them:

1) when something goes wrong, there’s no big red “help” button.
2) you need to know exactly what ticket you want, but there’s no information available at the platform explaining what the differences are, or when peak/off peak is, just the ominous warning that tickets are only valid according to conditions which you can’t check.
3) there’s a machine near me where the “receipt” button doesn’t work (but it’s a touch screen and that part of the screen seems to work just fine). I’ve reported it, but no change (the machine on the opposite platform quite happily prints receipts).
4) If you want to buy a ticket for an unaccompanied teenager and the machine’s not working, you’d better hope there’s a cash machine nearby.
5) And seriously, when do they ever actually work?


The most annoying thing about ticket machines is their inability to sell season tickets for anything but specific calendar periods, e.g. one week, one month etc. It is nearly always cheaper to add extra days to a monthly ticket so that it ends on a Friday, otherwise those additional days have to be bought at an expensive daily ticket rate instead of the monthly rate. This necessitates a visit to the ticket office where they can sell season tickets for any period between one month and a year.


There is consistency either – Southeastern’s seems to be fairly straightforward but I missed trains at Gatwick trying to get through Southern’s complicated menus. And it wasn’t just me – I was most embarrassed at Shoreham-by-sea station when some German friends ended up paying about three times what I had for my (already purchased) return as the machine would not seem to offer the cheap single off-peak fare to London. Checking on the web revealed it should have been sold, but the machine would not cooperate.

I think one option may be to use apps that allow you to collect tickets from machine. It’s the only way I am able to buy extensions to my London travelcard, which again, cannot be bought from machines unless you want to end up paying for zones already covered by your travelcard.


Neither ticket machines nor the web sites sell tickets from London zone boundaries, you have to use a booking office.

A simple example is if you have an all-zones season ticket and want to go to Cambridge. A Boundary Zone 6 – Cambridge return will let you travel there and back by either route. All you can do on a machine or the web is book from the last station in zone 6, somewhere like Enfield Lock, which ties you to travelling via Liverpool St; in theory the train must call at that station, and the fare is slightly higher too.

I have long asked why this can’t be rectified. Given that all everything uses the same ATOC fares manual it would be a matter of moments to add these notional stations to the system, but can never get a sensible reply beyond ‘we’ll look into it’


I live in London’s ‘zone 3’ area and as I have an Oyster card, I have already paid for public transport for zones 1, 2 & 3. When travelling outside of London, the only place I can buy a ticket from the boundary of zone 3 is from a ticket office. I’ve never found a ticket machine in London with this option.
Ok, I know not a huge amount of the UK population will be affected by this but why should I pay twice for part of my rail journey?


to tab onto my comment earlier, it’s not just ticket machines that won’t offer a ticket from a ‘zone’ but I don’t purchase rail ticket online because of the same problem.


As I said.

I’ve raised this with Which? before but no-one has taken any notice. I suspect it’s either too difficult or too boring.