18 November 2015

The Key to Inconvenience

Many of you will be familiar with London's Oyster contactless ticketing system that lets you 'pay-as-you-go', or use a season ticket on the capital's transport network, with little effort on the part of the user - just wave the card over the reader at the ticket gate, or on the bus, and off you go.

In an attempt to follow this convenience, Govia, the operator of Great Northern, Thameslink, Southern and Gatwick Express services (GTR), has introduced its own version for use on its services: The Key. It's advertised as a more convenient way of travelling, although having used the system for a few weeks the convenience seems to be more for the operator than for the passenger.

It's currently only available for point-to-point season tickets, yet you are still required to touch-in and out at each end of your journey. This is fine in concept, but there are some difficulties in doing this when the gate-line barriers are not in use.
With a paper ticket, if the gates are pinned open it doesn't matter if they are set for entry or exit as you can just walk through: no action is required. With The Key, you still need to touch in or out even if the gates are pinned open, but if there's a red 'X' showing on the gate it’s set for the opposite direction and you cannot use it.

At some stations, such as my local station in St Neots, the ticket gates are not used all that often and are mostly left open. If they are all set in the same direction then you can't record your journey's start or finish. And although you have a valid point-to-point ticket the terms and conditions threaten a penalty fare for not touching in or out.

Even when there is a correctly set gate available, if you are arriving on a busy train and amidst a throng of people, you often need to fight your way across the flow of people at the gate-line to use it.

It was pointed out to me by a member of station staff that there is a separate reader at St Neots that will allow you to either touch-in or out, but it isn't in an obvious place and isn't signed. The reader is only visible if arriving on platforms three or four from Huntingdon; it isn't visible if you're arriving on platforms one or two (trains from London), or if you're walking to any of the platforms from the booking hall.

Gates at St Neots all set to exit only

At Kings Cross, a station that is very poorly laid out for passengers intending to catch a train, most of the ticket barriers are permanently set to exit only, and as they are located where people arrive by bus, Tube or taxi you cannot walk straight to your train through the open barriers but must search for an entry gate in order to avoid the threatened penalty fare and benefit from the 'convenience' of your contactless ticket.

Fair enough, the smartcard won't wear out in the same way as a paper ticket, and if you happen to lose it the company will cancel it and issue you a new one (subject to paying a fee), but as for most people neither of these events are regular occurrences the benefits of the new system are somewhat difficult to fathom. It is also harder to know when your ticket will expire as the date doesn't appear on the ticket gate displays, so you either need to remember it or log-in to the GTR web site to check to avoid being inadvertently stranded at the ticket gate.

It's also worth noting that if you also use an Oyster card you cannot keep the two cards in the same wallet as presenting both to the reader at the barrier may result in the wrong one for your journey being read.

So whilst the concept of having your season ticket on a smartcard is great, the execution of it by Govia is poor. When the ticket gates are not in use care needs to be taken to locate a suitable point to either touch-in or out, which may not be on the route to the platforms, or if the gates are all set the same way, might not be possible at all. And if you make a mistake, the company can charge you a penalty despite having a valid (and expensive) ticket for your journey. Sounds like they've found the key to inconvenience.

I will be reverting to a traditional paper ticket at the next opportunity as it’s a lot more convenient.

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