We must not deprive anyone of public transport, or offer them an inferior service, because they can’t or won’t use technology

Barcode ticketing is great for those who want it – but don’t force us to use technology

Last month, I mentioned to my 15-year-old niece that I am worried about growing up in a world where I am unable to facilitate my life because I can’t keep up with technology. I was shocked when her face lit up, almost in unburdened relief and she replied: “Do you know, Uncle Alex, I’ve been really worrying about that too – I thought it was just me!”. I felt relieved though somewhat concerned that a Zoomer/Generation Z, such as her – and a savvy one too – was similarly fretting.

My conundrum has been caused by my Crystal Palace FC season ticket now being only available in an ‘Apple wallet’ now. As recently as a month ago, I had no idea whatsoever what a wallet on a phone was and I’m still confused by it. Unless you can prove a medical condition, Crystal Palace won’t issue you a plastic ticket.

Transport is not so different to all the other customer service providers. If technology hasn’t gone as advanced as sport, there’s always that stressful threat that it will. Already, the number of ticket machines has diminished and ticket offices are on death row. We can posture the passing of paper tickets, but the end is inevitable. We’ll all be forced to buy online, and if your printer has enough cartridge, paper and actually works and if you’ve downloaded Acrobat Reader and have PDF, you can print your ticket at home or bung it on your phone – if you have one. Thankfully, this isn’t actually too challenging, but the problem is that innovators think they’ve got to constantly innovate and before long, they will insist on these wretched Apple wallets, requiring you to remember your Apple ID. I’m getting sick of being told all the time to fill in a Google or Apple ID, placing a defiant barrier to entry on everything in life.

Even buying online and picking up your ticket isn’t fool proof. Recently, a client of mine bought me a ticket for a trip to visit him but because I was picking it up from the station and not using his credit card to prove my ID, no ticket was issued. For the first and only time ever, I travelled ticketless – the conscience clear as the ticket had been paid for anyway. Then, as I indicated, last issue, the one machine at my local SWR station, Shepperton, hasn’t enabled tickets to be picked up for weeks now and you can only do this at the ticket office – which is open only in the mornings and not at weekends.

Transport bigwigs and particularly youngsters don’t realise how disorientated old-timers get when they travel. I’ve witnessed my dad completely bamboozled if you try and deviate him from his set ways. The array of tickets with their various restrictions isn’t designed to give us choice as customers but instead hinders and confuses. Then there are all these supposed pay-as-you-go schemes and a proliferation of ‘readers’ at stations. Why in 2022 have we not achieved a universal nationwide smartcard?

Back to Shepperton where there’s been what looks like an Oyster reader for years on the entrance, but we’re not in the system, so I am still utterly clueless as to its purpose in life. There’s nothing to tell us. All these devices, signs, physical objects and ticketing schemes just make us feel even more overwhelmed about the complexity of travelling with a ticket.

If I hear the words, ‘you can download the app’ one more time I will break down in sorrow

Then we have apps. If I hear the words, ‘you can download the app’ one more time I will break down in sorrow. I am not seeking to expand the number of apps on my screen anyway, as the more there are the harder it is to find anything of use and also, apparently, it drains my battery. But most importantly, I don’t want to look at a phone screen any longer than necessary – there’s a whole world out there, of people, scenery and spectacles to be watched. Why would I want to miss out with my head shoved in a phone?

In Crystal Palace’s exciting ‘welcome to the new season’ email telling fans stuff to titillate them for the coming months ahead – a fans zone, better food, swanky replica kit, a star signing or two – they also thrillingly said that charging our phones was ‘part of the matchday experience’. Such fun eh? But, if transport is making our journey experience more reliant on a mobile phone then they will need to up the game, by installing plugs and charging points on all trains and buses – maybe even give the driver or on-board conductor a few spare chargers to loan out for those who have left theirs at home and can’t show their ticket properly for inspection. The plug sockets should work too and not be a ‘nice to have’ or ‘the last thing to fix’ when the engineers go through their vehicle defect log. Station waiting rooms should have sockets everywhere. Wi-Fi needs to be improved if the use of a phone or ‘mobile device’ is the ‘be all and end all’ – yet there are now wholesale inter city routes emanating from London that are almost bereft of an internet signal.

Last month, I travelled from London to watch football at Liverpool and I’d received an email in advance telling me the tickets for the game in my wallet had been deactivated and not to bother turning up! My mate sent me a couple more, but I spent hours perusing IT websites to understand the ins and outs of NFC barcodes to see that they would still work and everything would be fine – which it was. Imagine if transport customers had this level of stress added to the already onerous experience! There must also be very high profile reassurance that if technology fails then staff will be sympathetic.

For the elderly, transport companies should focus on the fine detail of the touchpoints that are really important to them when planning and embarking on a journey. National Rail Enquiries and operators, when specifying the trains for their journey, should advise on step-free access information, ticket office availability, provision of toilets on trains and stations, where to sit to be closest when alighting to your interchanging platform and train, who to contact en route for assistance, how a taxi can be pre-booked when alighting and so on. Of course, some of this detail is already available but it requires fishing around on websites with plenty of clicks, rather than a tailored, ‘one stop shop’ itinerary.

The number of clicks required is indeed a turn off for the non-tech savvy

The number of clicks required is indeed a turn off for the non-tech savvy. For anyone with elderly parents, you’ll know the tell-tale signs of brains feeling fatigued and frazzled with frustration creeping in when persistent decisions – such as what buttons to click and where – are required. So too, the feeling of being overpowered with garish colours, gizmo banners and funky images appearing randomly on screen. The size of screens is also important – most notably on ticket machines, seat reservation panels and visual information systems. For websites, text should be large and ‘less is more’ when it comes to content.

I think that transport company employees feel that to ‘stand still’ is to be frowned upon. Job applications, role specifications, corporate mission statements, vision, values and behaviours all obsess about being innovative and progressive, which is all well and good but sometimes this spawns a culture whereby folk are dreaming up ideas just for the sake of it. This irritates me – last week I was considering upgrading to First on LNER but saw something called Seat Frog and just got confused and didn’t enquire further. There are operators which insist on QR codes to access at-seat catering menus and service. Granted, I’m sure it is actually quite easy, but I have this stubborn, unadventurous streak that makes me shut down if I think it is going to be moderately complicated or a venture into the unknown. That’s just the way I am at times and I know I’m reflective of a not insignificant portion of transport’s customer base. Truly customer-centric companies will adapt to meet my needs.

Other elements of the journey experience that must not exclude those hesitant when using technology, include delay repay, accessing real-time service information (don’t assume you’ve done the job by putting it out on Twitter) and being able to see timetable details in full – too many websites have the functionality whereby customers put in ‘to’ and ‘from’ for their specific journey but many folk still like the reassurance of knowing which destination to look out for on the front of their train or screen. Maps, of course, are a dying art and with each passing year, they become fewer on websites. How I hanker for the days of my youth and my dog-eared London bus map that showed everything within the M25.

The ‘Passenger Assist’ service on the rail network should also be improved – currently, it can be fragile and break down quite easily. Not enough train companies, despite having dedicated accessibility and inclusion managers, pour over the detail to assess the service and feel the pain of any shortcomings. The majority of bus companies, meanwhile, don’t have a dedicated service or manager to deal with accessibility. How ‘Passenger Assist’ is marketed and perceived is also important – many folk assume that you have to be registered disabled to be able to use it.

Closing ticket offices is a dagger blow to customers who don’t have the patience or even the ability to pre-plan and book their journey

Help should be at hand. Closing ticket offices is a dagger blow to customers who don’t have the patience or even the ability to pre-plan and book their journey. The alternative of providing roving staff to compensate, eagerly on the look-out for disorientated old-timers is, as I’ve long contested, a dream. It just ain’t gonna happen. There should be Help Points close by, all with cameras, so that an assistant can identify and help guide customers. They should be staffed on the patch or nearby and not the other side of the world, because that local, detailed knowledge and empathy is crucial when a nervous customer is feeling confused and anxious, out on the network.

Transport should look to recruit a greater cadre of older staff on our networks and in call centres. I genuinely believe that experience and age make you more appreciative and aware of the specific needs of elderly customers and those with little or no grasp of technology. Call me a curmudgeon, but the problem of youngsters today is that they see the answer as always residing on their tablet.

We shouldn’t just focus on our own staff. Retirement and warden assisted homes, local community groups that attract the elderly and organisations such as Age Concern all have a part to play. We should engage with them so they can provide proactive assistance and information to elderly customers who wish to embark on a journey and want to know how today’s transport network works. For those who haven’t mustered up the courage to travel for some time because they think that transport has left them behind, they need to be shown that it is still designed for them and they haven’t been excluded. Confidence is key.

Finally, this situation could worsen further. Many senior citizens have low incomes and the cost of living crisis exacerbates this. Even if they had the desire to get online, the cost of a smartphone, laptop, iPad or printer could be prohibitive as it could be for all generations. How soon before the tech providers cotton on to the fact that they could hike their prices up as much as possible knowing that access to experiences that are previously part and parcel of our lives, such as travelling, now rely on them and their devices entirely?

It is morally wrong to deprive anyone of the ability to enjoy public transport or provide them with an inferior service just because they cannot afford or choose not to be equipped with technology. Shame on any transport provider that designs their customer proposition such that it propagates this inequality. This is a battle worth fighting, not just for us lot over 50 but my young niece and her generation too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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