/ 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.

The peak/off-peak thing gets me every time – I know there are certain tickets that I can’t use at certain times, but not being able to find out what these times are really frustrates me.

By far my most common gripe, though, is that the station I use most frequently has only one ticket machine. It’s a popular commuter station, and heading into London during rush hour means you can end up queuing for 15 minutes at the single machine. I’d go to the ticket office, but there’s an equally huge queue there, and often the ticket office is just closed with no explanation. I buy a weekly travel card and try to get things in advance where possible, but on the few times it’s caught me out it’s been really frustrating – can’t imagine how much worse it is for the people who aren’t familiar with the station or the area!

I used to have similar frustrations at Waterloo station as they never seemed to have enough ticket machines, but they’ve now added lots more, with the rather amusing result that the machines which are immediately visible from the tube exits are always heaving with people, but the machines around the other side are queue-free!

Machines are made so complicate that large number of passengers avoids buying tickets. One single mistake will build up tension and day ruins and upset your travel plan.
This is the main reason; passenger would prefer to buy ticket from ticket window. We can see big queues at all stations as passenger do not have any confidence to operate ticket machine.
Rail companies like to make complicate machine to trap travellers for their single mistake
Simplified fares, remove peak and off peak tickets will make machine more customer friendly.

I usually buy rail tickets online, which is fairly painless. I hate the uncertainty of having to collect tickets from a machine because of queues, faults and occasionally having to wait ten minutes for a machine to deliver. I prefer to order tickets long enough in advance for them to be delivered by post, at no extra charge. That seems very quaint but Royal Mail works well for me and it does save all the hassle.

Virgin at least allow you to print you own Advance tickets or even use a Smartphone ( though that seems to be asking for equipment faults!).
Just have to remember to take the proof of ID you chose online.

I thought of suggesting the option to print your own tickets but decided that it might be open to abuse. Thanks for letting me know that this is an option rarrar. Unfortunately, there are no Virgin trains in this part of the country. 🙁

Printing your own tickets means there’s got to be the technology on the gates to read bar or QR codes, like on the Eurostar, or no gates at all and a human being with a scanner. So fine on certain routes for certain journeys but I doubt that TfL will ever change their gates on the Underground to allow self-printed tickets to pass.

Perhaps we could do this outside London, then.

These machines will seem very quaint in a few years. I can see why the ‘official’ tickets are required now (eg TfL readers) so they will quickly become ticket printing machines for tickets previously bought on line via tablet or phone. As NFC technology becomes more ubiquitous then it will be just necessary to have the smartphone near the machine and the ticket(s) will print. In the further future the ticket will be displayed on the tablet or smartphone screen with no further need for these problematic printing machines.

Oyster style smartcard schemes in the other metropolitan areas would help matters. Vast numbers of tickets are walk-on short distance cash fares. In London Oyster has made an excellent job of simplifying this and getting you the cheapest fare for the trip and time of day.

Gerry says:
19 February 2013

Southeastern’s TVMs must be the worst !

They refuse to sell off-peak tickets at peak times, but will happily overcharge by selling peak tickets at off-peak times. This is a blatant rip-off that cannot possibly be justified. Southeastern admit there’s a problem but refuse to do anything about it.

They do not recognise the names of Underground and Docklands stations that you type in, yet there’s no problem with recognising seldom-used faraway destinations such as the Kyle of Lochalsh.

The menu options are extremely complicated and illogical, made worse by many selections resulting in ‘No Fare Available’ being displayed.

My main frustration is that the “virtual buttons” on the screen do not always respond to finger touch.I find that I have to keep prodding all around the button until I get a response. This sometmes takes me twice as long as expected to purchase a ticket; sometimes making thre wrong selection and having to start again.

I take my bike on First Great Western trains into London every now and then. I use the machines to collect tickets not buy them but the system is not consistent. In the past year I’ve had to follow three different procedures:
1. Collect my ticket and my cycle ticket from the machine (preferable).
2. Collect my ticket and my cycle ticket from the window (bearable).
3. Collect my ticket from the machine and the cycle ticket from the window (delayed me so much I missed my train).

Daniel says:
6 May 2013

I went from East Croydon to Brighton yesterday and nearly paid double the price for the journey were it not for my Wife questioning the price.

On the main screen of the machine was the most selected journeys, one of which was a return ticket to Brighton for £18.

If in a rush we wouldnt have had the time to search for tickets by destination and discover that I could get a return for £10 by travelling on First Capital Connect trains only.

The information button didn’t explain what’s considered peak & offpeak either.

These machines entrap passengers in a rush and should not display the most expensive tickets ahead of the cheapest, its scandalous, do the train companies care?

FCC’s Weekend only offer. I doubt the ticket machines are clever enough to highlight the best ticket for the time of day, not that’s that’s any excuse. There is a case for showing the cheapest fares to the most popular destinations rather than the most used fares.

There is a downside though. Flagging FCC’s cheaper restricted fares above Southern/any permitted might seem reasonable until you don’t pick up on the restrictions and get fined for unwittingly taking one of Southern’s faster, more comfortable trains. There’d be a fuss in Which? and the companies would be forced to put a second screen explaining the options to avoid accusations of trapping the unwary, thus removing the whole point of a quick ‘most popular’ selection.

As and aside before going out you can easily search all UK rail fares here without battling through sales oriented TOC sites: http://www.brfares.com