[Dave Birch] Foreign visitors, used to travelling by rail in First World countries such as the Netherlands or Germany, are often shocked by the expensive and chaotic British railway system. The 1% have long-since switched to chauffeurs and private helicopters, leaving us suburban squeezed-middle wage-serfs behind in second class.We are forced to endure the appalling services from which there is unfortunately no escape, leaving us to the vagaries of the massively-subsidised semi-privatised half-baked rail “system”.

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Traditional Woking Street Scenes, no.97

If you live in an advanced nation, you probably buy your train ticket on your mobile phone before leaving home. This is considered a normal, civilised state of affairs if you are travelling to a world city such as Mumbai or Boston. In Woking, however, you have to go to the station and stand in line to buy a paper ticket, much as you would have done when the station first opened during the reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Now, when I wander toward the station and see the queue to buy tickets snaking out of the doors and down the street, I do not necessarily assume some catastrophe. This happens from time to time, and you learn to simply text your colleagues and tell them that you will be 15 minutes late for your first meeting, put on an interesting podcast (in this particular case, I was listening to This American Life) and chill. But this time, there was something different in the air. The normally placid and resigned folk were definitely agitated. I could feel it. The chap in front of me said (I paraphrase) “Goodness me, this really will not do”. When the line had reached the door, I noticed that a number of the ticket machines were out of service.

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No wonder the line was so long. Most of the ticket machines were not working. But a couple of them were. How odd, I thought. What bizarre presumably IT-related cock-up would take some machines down, apparently at random, but not others? While I was mulling this over, a very upset young lady turned back from the machine that was working and, using more robust language than I feel able to trespass on reader sensitivities with, pointed out that the machines would not accept card payments. Aha! Now I understood the pattern. Some machines take cards only — these were all out of service — but some take cards and cash. The latter were in service, but not accepting cards.

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Now, at this point I realised why everything was taking so long. Messing about feeding money into the machines takes ages and a lot of people didn’t have any money anyway so they had to go over the road to the NatWest cash machines and then come back. As it happened, and much against my usual policy, I had some money in my rucksack. Only enough to buy a single ticket to Waterloo, but good enough to get going. Pausing only to post some abuse about South West Trains on Twitter, I strolled on to the platform. I’d now missed all of the pre-9am trains so I was going to have to wait for the 9.13am instead, so I went to the cafe to get some breakfast. They take contactless, so I paid with my watch. Apparently, some terminals at the station could take cards, so I knew that the banking system hadn’t collapsed and that Woking had not gone off grid, perhaps as the result of aliens landing on Horsell Common.

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By the time the train came, I had discovered that other commuters at other stations were facing similar problems. Something had gone wrong with South West Trains’ network so they couldn’t take card payments. I knew this would lead to people telling me “how’s that for your electronic money future then”, so I began composing a pre-emptive blog strike…

The chaos at Woking station wasn’t testament to the limitations of electronic money but to the limitations of South West Trains. Think about it for a moment. The network has gone down, so the machines cannot contact the acquirer. Since the country as a whole spent something in the region of a billion quid to shift to chip and PIN (ie, offline authentication with on-chip risk management) why does this matter? Well, bizarrely, despite the money spent on the technologically-advanced offline payment system, most transactions are authorised online. I’m not entirely sure why this — it may be something to do with management consultants — but it causes a real problem. Remember the embarrassment in the London Olympics when there was a similar problem at Wembley Stadium. There was the ridiculous situation where journalists armed with Samsung smartphones found themselves unable to buy drinks because the terminals couldn’t go online despite the fact that the smartphone application was specifically designed to work offline. The ticket machines at Woking station could simply be told to work offline if they can’t go online for transactions under, say, £100 but instead they have a fixed floor limit of £0 so that without online authorisation they won’t accept cards all.

I should point out to foreign financial services organisations thinking of investing in EMV that in the UK the proportion of transactions authorised online has actually gone up since we switched to the chip and PIN solution. Despite the money spent on offline PIN, the overwhelming majority of card transactions are now online. What’s more, almost all unattended points of sale have their floor limit set to £0, so South West Trains ticket machines are not alone. In the pre-EMV days, a good proportion of terminals ran APACS 30, which meant that the retailers set a reasonable, risk managed floor limit (typically £30 or so) and only went online above that floor limit. Now that communications are much cheaper and generally more reliable, the retailers and the acquirers find it easier to use a zero floor limit and APACS 70 online (so they don’t have to mess around with deny lists). This sort of makes sense, but it sidesteps the EMV risk management parameters: the cards can carry their own (bank-set) rules for whether to approve without online authorisation and these parameters can be adjusted through retail terminals (the process known as scripting).

Incidentally, since I sit five feet away from the UK’s leading expert on acquiring standards and terminals, I asked Gary Munro about this and he told me that this is all because the terminal standards date back to the dinosaur era of magnetic stripes and had chip and PIN bolted on. (In my opinion, we should have taken the SEPA Cards Framwork seriously and switched to ISO 20022 XML five years ago – just think what we could do with those data fields in our new mobile-centric world).

There are plenty of other contingency options. I bet that all of the station staff have a smartphone, so why not issue them with an m-POS solution to use if the network fails? At the ticket office, why not just take a photocopy of the card and have the customer sign it, then give them a week to come back and pay and have it torn up (if they don’t come back, then manually enter the card details for a card-not-present transaction). There are plenty of ways to deal with the problem. A natural disaster that stops card payments in Woking does not mean that commerce halts. I think customers have every right to expect South West Trains and their acquirer to work together to make more effective use of the risk management capabilities inherent in EMV.

I have to say this kind of organisation, lack of contingency planning and absence of backup solutions does not bode well for the coalition government’s vision of the future…

Norman Baker, the junior transport minister, wants people to be able to use the same smartcard to take a bus to Euston, a train to Manchester and then a bus at the other end, for example.

[From Really getting somewhere | Smarter Cities | guardian.co.uk]

How realistic is this prospect in technologically-sophisticated Britain? Perhaps more joined up thinking is required – given the Chancellor’s vision for a Britain where you can buy a ticket on the £32 billion HS2 using a cheque, I think the Birmingham Bullet Train will be able to survive if the card network goes down for an hour or two.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of 
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers

2 comments

  1. You got me confused there, Dave. Are you talking about offline authentication or authorisation? PIN relates to the former.

    As for transit payments, the good approach is to offer registered customers PAYG facility. Then all you have to do is to (remotely) ID such customers (CHYP recently consulted us on such a project).

    [Dave Birch] Yes, I know Alexander, but it’s considered good blog etiquette not to give away customers’ business ideas in posts!

  2. Dave,

    This reminds me of another joined up travel experience I recently had travelling to the Olympic stadium last month for the Athletics. At St.Pancras in order to reduce the queues at the machines, LUL staff were trying to publicise the fact that you don’t need an Oyster card any more but can use contactless bank cards. Great I thought got one of those. However, they aren’t accepted on the swanky Javelin trains so can you imagine how long the queue was to get a ticket for the train to Stratford ! Derr !

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