Railways, ticketing and digital technology

The second article is from BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent on the implementation of a new ticketing system on the Swiss railways. People in the UK will be familiar with a general diversification in ticket purchasing over the last few years, and you can typically buy in advance online or via smart phones. This alongside the traditional methods of both purchasing tickets at the station and on the train itself. However, the latter method has been abolished in Switzerland, which has led to some annoyances. Imogen Foulkes who writes the article gives three examples of the resulting confusion:

Take, for example, the young man with a ticket which must be date-stamped by a machine on the platform. The machine is out of order, so he carefully writes in the date by hand, gets on board, and is fined by the conductor for not having a valid ticket.

There is the pensioner, out for a day with his grandson, who kindly bought both their tickets on his mobile phone, but it turns out you are only allowed one e-ticket per person, so poor old granddad is fined.

And then, there is me. One frosty morning I arrived at my local station to find that the ticket machine was broken. No matter, I thought, I have got a smartphone, and I hurriedly set about buying my ticket that way.

In her own personal example she discovers a significant set of obstacles:

This was not as easy as I had hoped, fiddling between credit card and phone with freezing cold fingers, but, by the time I got on the intercity to Geneva I had an e-ticket and I proudly showed it to the conductor.

Unfortunately she was less than impressed and told me in no uncertain terms that my ticket was not valid. Why, only became clear several weeks later when a letter arrived from Swiss railways euphemistically named “revenue protection service”.

The good people there tell me the formal payment for my ticket from my credit card company arrived four minutes after my train left the station. That means, they say, that I bought my ticket on the train – and that is not allowed.

So, in using a mobile device to purchase her ticket she sidestepped the queues at the station – a reason many people are late for trains, and a general annoyance for all. But in doing so she also shifted the work of finding and paying of it back to herself from any clerk or collector. Coupled with the rather chilly Swiss weather, this wasn’t – it seems – a particularly easy task to perform. After being left to ponder why her ticket was invalid, she finally discovers that due to a delay in the processing of the payment her ticket was technically bought after the train had left the station. The administrative inference being that she had bought the ticket on the train (although actually impossible). Although Foulkes doesn’t go into the details I’d guess there was an issue with having a ticket for a specific train (the 11.10 rather than than 11.23) and that there was a price difference between the two. Thus she was ‘cheating the system’ by buying a cheaper ticket for the later train than the one she was travelling on. In effect then, she was travelling on the train without the correct ticket and thus liable to be fined the rather extortionate amount of 190 Swiss Francs (£133!).

The reason why I found it interesting was two-fold. Firstly, it was her use of a mobile device to purchase a ticket. Secondly, it was a technological delay outside of Foulke’s control that created a very real and financially problematic effect. Both point to the distributed mechanics and agency of everyday mobility. Would it be at all within Foulke’s rights to blame her debit card processor for the fine she received? Presumably Swiss Federal Railways would require evidence for this delay. But how would she provide evidence for this? Could she contact her card processor and trace the temporal  actions of her ticket purchase? Say, by linking the exact time she pressed specific icons (‘conclude payment’, ‘confirm purchase’ etc.) to the time it took for her to receive her e-ticket. Presumably most payments process within a certain timeframe (4-5 seconds?) – so what if her’s took longer than expected? Where would the liability lie? At the door of the card processing company? Swiss Federal Railways for commissioning a clunky ticket application? Or the software company who coded it? Or, of course, with Foulkes and similar train passengers, who in her own words have simply ‘done their best to buy a ticket’.