05 January 2008
Train User Interfaces
Rob Fisher

Overheard on a train yesterday:

Passenger:  Can I have a ticket from North Sheen to Reading please?
Guard:  This train doesn’t stop at North Sheen.
P:  Oh, I changed at Richmond.
G:  Why didn’t you buy a ticket at Richmond?
P:  There wasn’t enough time to make the change, I’d have missed my train.  And there was no-one selling tickets at North Sheen.
G:  It’s your responsibility to buy a ticket before you get on the train.

And with that the passenger was made to sign a slip of paper and got booted off at the next station.  I don’t know the rights and wrongs of the situation.  It seems a little harsh to me but perhaps the guard knew that North Sheen is well staffed.  On the other hand the passenger didn’t look like one of the ticket dodging kids I frequently see who hide in the toilet.

But all this is just another user interface problem.  No-one would put up with software that threw away half an hour’s work because they didn’t have time to click the right button when they first loaded it up.  Being thrown off a train half an hour into a journey because you didn’t have time to buy a ticket, or there was no-one there to sell it, is a similar problem.  Being too late to buy a ticket but not wanting to miss the train is a dilemma I’ve faced.  Another is forgetting to extend my return ticket and, having hunted the train for a guard who won’t sell me an extension, choosing between breaking my journey half way to buy one or risking getting in trouble at the end.

The solution is a better user interface.  Oyster pre-pay is better than paper tickets, although not without its own UI problems.  The best idea I’ve heard of is buying tickets by text message.  This has the advantage of working wherever you are, so no queuing and no missing trains.  Happier customers and less aggravated guards will result.


  1. Few unregulated private sector businesses would survive if they behaved like rail companies or the Undergound. Indeed, on Gatwick Express, which competes with Southern, they let you buy the ticket on the train.

    Posted by Alex on  26 January 2008 at 06:50 am

Post a Comment

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.