Virgin Trains East Coast are rolling out new ticket machines across the network replacing the FastTicket machines that are commonplace in their stations.

The FastTicket machines were for immediate travel only, most machines only could sell tickets departing from that station. This meant that if you wanted advance tickets you either needed to book online, by phone or from a ticket office. The machines were also used to collect tickets that had been booked online or via Telesales.

The new machines will allow you to book tickets for advance travel and it seems to offer the full range of fares (although I've not extensively tested this), it also seems to have the capability to sell parking tickets but this feature was disabled when I checked.

I think the user interface needs some minor tweaks and I'm happy to give further comment on this but when at a busy station I don't want to spend too much time experimenting with the machines when other people need them to buy tickets so I'll try and experiment more in a quiet period.

So far I've noticed the following issues:

  • It's not possible to buy catering vouchers from the new machines. As I've explained in a previous blog post buying catering vouchers is a good way to save money on on-board purchases which is particularly useful if you're a fan of Hop on Board.
  • The machines have contactless readers but it's not activated even for purchases under £30. Ideally it should be active on all purchases as Apple Pay and Android Pay can be used for higher value purchases (unless your bank restricts this).
  • There seemed to be no way to purchase rover or ranger tickets (the London Overground ticket machines have this facility).

I'm hoping the catering voucher issue will be rectified, although the method on the current machines is a bit of a workaround (you have to know the secret to issue them) the new machines have an 'other products' section where these would fit perfectly.

The overall aim seems to be to remove the reliance on ticket offices. When Stagecoach announced the winning of the East Coast franchise they mentioned they planned open plan 'Customer zones' to provide combined ticket purchase and information. This would rely more on machines for the ticket purchase with staff around to provide assistance. This means that ticket machines must be able to provide as much functionality as possible otherwise it'll cause inconvenience for customers with more complex needs. Reducing the need for ticket offices is a common aim among most operators as technology reduces their importance. The previous government owned East Coast franchise moved the ticket office in Newcastle from a prominent location to a rather out of the way location when they redeveloped the station so the current plans would probably have happened whoever won the franchise.

Will this be a good thing? We have to see, it could simply be a cost cutting exercise to reduce ticket office staff but if done right it could benefit the customer experience. The key is to ensure everyone who prefers to interact with a person can do so while allowing the machines to serve those who know what they're doing. TfL handled this badly on the London Underground promising that the former ticket office staff would be redeployed in the ticket halls to assist passengers but in many stations finding staff can be difficult for long distance travel it's important that there will be people around to help as not everyone is familiar with the different fares and what the rules are around each one.