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Call to overhaul 'bewildering' rail ticket machines

Rail firms were urged today to overhaul ticket machines after a new study found passengers were paying more than they should to travel because of the "bewildering jargon" they faced.

Some passengers would rather join a long queue and speak to a member of staff at a ticket office after being "defeated" by machines, the research revealed.

Passenger Focus said people risked missing their train because they would rather queue than buy a ticket from a machine.

Queues at ticket offices often exceeded the industry requirement of five minutes during peak hours, with the worst stations found to be Guildford in Surrey, Winchester and Basingstoke.

At these stations at least a third of queues at the ticket office were longer than recommended by the industry standard, despite ticket machines standing empty. Researchers found that passengers were more likely to face queues at off-peak times.

Anthony Smith, Passenger Focus chief executive, said: "Passengers catching a train for the first time or buying a different type of ticket from their normal one may well be defeated by ticket machines.

"This stress adds unnecessary pressure to buying a ticket. However, many passengers who buy a particular ticket often or use a familiar ticket machine may have less trouble.

"Ticket machines can present bewildering jargon, a barrage of information and choices as well as incomplete information about ticket restrictions. As a result some passengers would rather queue to speak to a member of staff, buy more expensive tickets than they need to or just give up and join the ticket office queue.

"Passenger Focus's research on ticket queuing times confirms that at some stations industry guidelines on queuing times are not being met - as pressure to reduce staff numbers increases it is even more important that the industry sorts this out soon.

"As a result of this research some changes have already been made to machines and Passenger Focus is now working with the train companies to radically simplify what should be the straightforward process of getting a ticket. Most important is clear information about when off-peak and super off-peak tickets are valid."

Passenger Focus called for ticket machine improvements to give clearer, better information and said staff should be on hand to help people with transactions.

Gerry Doherty, leader of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association, which has been campaigning against ticket office cuts, said rail firms preferred ticket machines to station booking staff because they could sell more expensive tickets by offering a much narrower range of options.

"Staff are obliged to offer the cheapest ticket to passengers. A machine can be much more expensive, particularly to the young and the elderly who might need advice about the least expensive way to travel."

Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: "Here we have yet more evidence that plans to close or downgrade 90% of ticket offices will cause complete and utter chaos on London Underground and that similar plans on the overground are already a shambles."

A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said: "Passenger Focus's own figures from a survey of more than 30,000 rail users show that over seven out of 10 people are satisfied with ticket-buying facilities at stations.

"This suggests that most people use ticket machines with no problem whatsoever. They are there to cut queue times and make the process easier and faster for passengers.

"The research looks at queuing times at fewer than 1% of stations, and where issues with queuing had already been identified. This gives a selective and unrepresentative picture of how long people have to queue at stations.

"Train companies are in the business of keeping their customers happy. They invest a huge amount of time and effort in improving the choice that people have at stations when it comes to buying tickets.

"But operators are constantly looking to improve services for customers, and will continue to work hard and listen to feedback to ensure that passengers have a range of straightforward and simple ways to buy tickets, be it at stations or online.

"We will look at this issue with train companies to see whether any changes could be made that would benefit passengers further."

Anna Walker, chairman of the Office of Rail Regulation, said: "Passenger Focus' valuable research shows that buying a train ticket is not as simple as it should be. Ticket machines are often confusing, the best available fare is not always clear, and queuing times can be too long.

"We welcome Passenger Focus' commitment to work with train companies towards radically simplifying the process of getting a ticket. Alongside this work, the regulator is undertaking a review of how tickets are purchased with a focus on reducing complexity and looking at what more the rail industry could do more to improve passengers' confidence in planning journeys."