Small print can scupper (what should be) small conversations

I use the inter-city rail service often, and generally it’s okay; but there is one snag in the way it operates which many travellers will confirm causes ill-will and chaos. This is that the ticket / receipt of payment to travel, and the required seat reservation which goes with it, are usually printed on separate ‘business card’ sized tickets.

The very, very small print says that the seat reservation is not valid without the ticket / receipt itself – but many irregular travellers don’t see this micro-message, or they assume that simply having paid for the travel ticket is enough, and there’s no need to produce it alongside the seat reservation.

How ‘wrong’ these hapless train travellers are. If the ticket-receipt is not produced, the seat reservation ‘ticket’ is pronounced worthless, and the passenger is required to pay for another (full, no concession) ticket instantly, or else leave the train altogether.

Perhaps, I think on my more cynical days, this is a wheeze to extract more money from passengers (‘customers’) when they are at the mercy of the train company and have no option.

But on other days I suspect it’s more likely that the (poor and ill-designed) technology was cobbled together by someone who thinks micro-small print is an adequate way to communicate with unsuspecting travellers.

Whatever, the result is the same:
> the unsuspecting passenger, having already parted with good money for the journey, is firstly incredulous about this unbendingly bureaucratic position, and then becomes very upset; and
> the train manager is placed in a position which only the most hard-hearted of them enjoys, and which is acted out in full view of often many other increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed travelling customers.

Perhaps there is extra money in the short-term to be made in this way, but it looks dreadful (as also do the stories such as that related by Tom Wigglesworth, the ‘Good Samaritan’ who was nearly arrested for collecting money to pay the cost of a new ticket for an old lady who erroneously boarded a train 30 minutes different from the one scheduled).

So why is literalist technology allowed to  trump human misunderstanding in an issue as simple as a train journey?  Was there ever a trial run of the ‘two ticket’ policy, or was it dictated simply by the size of already-installed ticket printing machines?

* Is it ever OK to permit the infliction of distress and humiliation resulting from technological ‘requirements’ on customers who actually have paid for the service they believe they have purchased?

* Is there a role for someone in relevant organisations to ensure that the technology will interface appropriately with normal human expectations, so that situations such as those above are avoided?

* Who is looking after the customer interface in instances such as these?  Or isn’t it considered?

Posted on April 11, 2011, in Media and Messages and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m afraid that the print you talk about simply isn’t small! As this image shows – – the relevant information is clearly printed in capital letters across the top of the ticket.

    What this shows is that people need to take responsibility for themselves. If you buy a ticket and there are several elements to it – read them! Surely this is what we try and teach children to do – open their eyes?

    I agree the system is clunky, but that’s because the machines that print the tickets can’t include all the information on one (it also enables you to make a reservation even when the ticket itself doesn’t require it, extending choice).

    However, I would prefer to do a bit of reading rather than see my ticket price increase because the various companies that creamed off our national rail network couldn’t possibly dip into their profits to update their ticket infrastructure.

    As for your questions, the first is clearly biased: there is simply no infliction of anything on anyone, other than the need to take some time to understand what you’ve bought. If you buy an epilator and don’t read the instructions and end up burning yourself because you thought you knew how it worked, is the company inflicting pain and distress on you? Or do you agree with the woman who famously sued a company because she was burned by a hot drink they sold her?

    Second, there are many people employed to make machines do exactly what people want them to, and it’s definitely not always a good thing. One of the side effects is that people now interact with many things they have no understanding of. For example, the Windows operating system has become more and more oriented to the lowest common denominator, meaning that you need to know very little about how it works. For many people this is great most of the time, but as soon as something goes wrong they have no idea how to fix it, so have to call a Microsoft Certified Engineer or similar. So who benefits from ‘appropriate interfacing’ (or should that be ‘ensuring machines take account of our desire to do as little/take as little responsibility as possible’)?

    So, in summary, what concerns me is that people want less and less to do with – less and less responsibility for – the things they want and/or need in their life. And when they get something wrong because they didn’t pay enough attention, they automatically blame someone else.

    Finally, there are many things that private companies do that should be opposed, such as targeting children with advertising, avoiding tax, exploting workers and simply lying about their products. I would like to think people could raise some passion in opposition to these practices, rather than turning their shame at their own inability to take account of what they’ve bought into anger.

  2. Hi Dan

    Well, the ticket does indeed say ‘valid only with…’, but (a) your photo is larger than real size – I know, as I travel with a similar ticket to London (sadly, not Plockton!) almost every week, and (b) it doesn’t actually say you have to PRESENT both parts of the ticket, just that you need to legally posses both parts.

    In essence, as I watch the regular confusion and worries of people who don’t travel as frequently as you and I, the sense is that they see the reservation as like a seat reservation for a concert or whatever, and the other part of the ticket as the equivalent of the receipt (and yes, I know there’s also a summary receipt for all the tickets sold at a particular time).

    I don’t think people are usually being irresponsible in this particular case; they’re simply unaware that regular practice in other circumstances where seats are reserved on the same ticket as the seat number is NOT observed in the issue of train tickets – no reason indeed that they should particularly know differently unless they already travel, so they’re not expecting it to be different. (That’s why little old ladies with poor eyesight etc are so vulnerable, I suspect…. Is this a disability issue then?)

    And since sometimes the ticket and reservation are indeed printed on the same longer piece of card, this is also where some of the confusion lies.

    I’d also suggest that technical procedures which become obstacles to comfortable / easy train travel are not in the wider public interest. This particular thing upsets the relevant customer, the train staff (however polite the customer is), and of course other fellow-travellers…. all for the sake of a miniature piece of paper. Surely we need to make it easier, not complicated, for people to travel by train, rather than in their cars?

    It’s not just about private companies which could be more concerned to keep their customers onside (you’d find that a lot of train managers really do not enjoy the double-ticket system, gives them extra headaches too). There’s also a serious issue around persuading people, if they must travel, out of their cars…..

    And we should add to this that no ‘offer price’ tickets can be bought on the train, as you’ll know – so the replacement can cost a great deal more than the original. Is that really fair, or is it opportunist?

    Surely embarrassment and big unanticipated extra cost is not the way to ensure people become more eco-friendly when they travel?

    As you say, the ticketing system is clunky; and it really needn’t have been, if a bit more thought has been put into how to develop it – which is a long way from the other issues you raise such as the genuinely important question of personal responsibility for consciously chosen actions.

    Thanks for joining in the debate.

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