My My My… My Get Me There – A Travel Ticketing Travesty

There have been a few blogs and articles written in the past year or so regarding Manchester’s erstwhile attempt at Smartcard travel but having now battled with it for around six months, I thought it was high time to share my thoughts. If nothing else I need to for my own sanity…

Firstly, a bit of background. Back in 2007, yes over 10 years ago, trials of the Bolton Citizen Card were apparently that successful that Transport for Greater Manchester thought it would be worth rolling out a Smartcard system to the already-complex Greater Manchester public transport network. In fairness, it actually seemed like a good idea with so many companies operating across the network, both Victoria and Piccadillly Station began to install more and more barriers and ticket prices rose year on year, so getting the most cost effective ticket quickly and easily seemed like a plan.

Unfortunately we should have all seen the signs when the sack-the-marketing-agency levels of clunky “My Get Me There” name for the system was revealed in 2013. There was still a grand plan though, a way to shorten horrendous Travelshop queues and also a way to combat the variety of different companies, all with their own individual ticketing systems and prices that it was possible to encounter on a single, relatively short commute. A case in point, my 425 bus was run at one time by FirstBus during the day and Stagecoach in the evening, meaning I couldn’t get a cheaper First-only ticket, just in case. Anyway, we digress.

Fast forward to 2015 and disaster strikes! It turns out that Atos, the company charged with designing and managing the system are next to useless and can no longer do their job for the money TfGM were giving them. Having already installed smart readers at tram stops, TfGM pressed ahead with using concessionary pass holders as guinea pigs whilst quickly knocking together an app that allowed stop to stop, weekly and monthly tram tickets to be purchased; this might have also been a reaction to Metrolink ticketing machines located at tram stops being notoriously temperamental, but that’s pure speculation, of course.

The app was and is actually pretty good. Although you still officially needed to buy a ticket before boarding, you were now able to jump aboard an approaching tram rather than miss it and quickly buy a stop-to-stop ticket there and then rather than being stuck in a queue on the platform behind doddering dullards fishing through their purses for the right change as numerous trams come and go. Obviously people grumbled when caught by inspectors that they didn’t have any battery left and so couldn’t show their ticket, but that’s the general public, not Metrolink’s fault.

Get Me There Website

ttps://affs69.wordpress.com/2018/01/12/my-my-my-my-get-me-there-a-travel-ticketing-travesty/get-me-there-website/” rel=”attachment wp-att-1216″> What the Get Me There website professes the system can do.

[/caption]The only downside to all this was that you could only get tram tickets on the app so for me, it wasn’t that useful for my regular bus and tram combi-commute. Fast forward again to 2017. The My Get Me There card is unveiled and upon visiting a Travelshop to buy my normal bus and tram combination monthly pass for £112.50 I was informed I could get a whole Metrolink network card along with my bus pass for only £3 a month more rather than the named stop to named stop one I had currently. This sounded good on non-paper; I took the odd journey to Chorlton or on another tram line so this would save me the extra money in one trip. I could also renew it online each month so I wouldn’t have to visit a Travelshop ever again. Bonus! There must be a catch. Well, yes of course there was. In fact there’s more than one as I’m about to explain.

Firstly, despite my card having full network validity, I am still required to tap onto and off my tram. Not a huge hassle I suppose, but something I didn’t have to do with my paper ticket and an utterly pointless task when I’m not having money taken off me depending on the journey I’ve taken a la Oyster.

Secondly, what happens if the card or a reader fails? I soon found out when a bus driver told me my card was “empty” despite it having another two weeks or so to run. I phoned the Get Me There helpline after this embarrassing incident to be told the best thing to do was to keep my paper receipt with me at all times to prove the card’s validity. Yes, that’s right, keep a piece of paper with a new shiny paperless transport ticket. The mind boggles.

Thirdly, picture the scene. It’s January. The month when you’ve eked out the most cost-effective tickets in December to get you through the odd days you’re working. Remember kids, for no good reason you need to buy your new My Get Me There pass the day before you need it! Okay Dad, I’ll go online and buy it on the 2nd so I can use it on the 3rd. But wait! I’ve bought it, and now it says it will only be valid once tapped on a Metrolink card reader? But I use my card to get the bus to the tram stop where the readers are? What am I to do? Onto customer services again, “that’s something we’re looking at in the future”. How about looking into such a fundamental flaw before launching such an inept system?

Lastly, what happens when it ALL breaks down? Having had my card for about three months, it started being a bit temperamental when tapping in and out at Metrolink card readers. I spoke to customer services again and they could find nothing wrong with the card. I took it to a Travelshop (remember I thought I’d never have to do THAT again) and the woman scanned it and said it was fine. It may well have worked for her on that single occasion but there was no getting through to her that it only worked on about 50% of scans for me. Taking the hit, I asked to transfer my pass to a new card in case the physical item was the issue, and here’s the good bit; to do so would take a week. So, for that week, I’d not be able to use the pass I’d already paid for and would have to buy a separate weekly ticket. What on Earth is “smart” about that? Where do they send these cards to transfer an ELECTRONIC balance, Gibraltar?!?!?!? Obviously, an easy way for Get Me There to get around this would be to keep it all electronic, right? Then I could tap my phone or watch on a reader instead. The apps already live and working after all. No, that would be too easy – the app and the physical card are on two separate systems. You cannot see your card in the app, and you even need a completely separate account to use the app and the card’s top up/renewal website. Whoever dreamt that one up honestly needs taking out the back and putting out of their misery.

App hoverer

A Get Me There app hoverer in action.

And these are just my issues, believe me there are plenty of others. Take the exploiters. I’ve now lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people cue up a ticket on the Get Me There app, getting it all the way into their basket before hovering over “buy” in case of inspectors. Judging by my experiences too, inspectors have no way to scan a physical My Get Me There card for validity either so in theory you could just carry an empty one and wave it in their faces and get away with it time and time again. Oh and did I mention you can’t use it at all on trains? Yeah, that…

To be fair to the staff of the Get Me There/My Get Me There helplines and social media accounts, they are responsive and they do their best, but you can’t help but think they’re battling in similar ways to us commuters. As for the Travelshop staff, they seem so bitter that someone’s taken away their 1980s inkpads, they’ve reverted to computer-says-no levels of idiocy and denial just to make things even worse.

So, what are we left with? A system that doesn’t make sense. A system that was designed in 2007 FOR 2007. A system that leaves Greater Manchester public transport even more disjointed than before, and in a similar state of underfunding and complexity that the card was meant to eliminate. Hopefully there will be improvements, or it might be an idea to scrap it and start again, accepting contactless payments at readers instead. After all that seems to work okay for London, right? Either way, Manchester is a bit of a laughing stock over the whole thing and with 2018 price rises again, it seems only more and more frustrating to those of us having to deal with it day in, day out.

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Northern “Epic Fail” Rail

Well, it’s a been a long time in the offing but after yet another train-based debacle, I can’t keep it all solely to Twitter and Facebook anymore – the Northern Rail rants are going large.

For those of you who aren’t aware of Northern Rail, here is the intro on the company’s Wikipedia entry:

“Northern Rail (often referred to simply as Northern) is a train operating company that has operated local passenger services in the north of England since 2004. Northern Rail’s owner, Serco-NedRailways, is a consortium formed of NedRailways (the British unit of Nederlandse Spoorwegen) and Serco, an international operator of public transport systems. When it won the Northern England franchise, the consortium had already secured the contract to operate north-west England’s Merseyrail network in 2003.”

All sound okay so far? Well it didn’t get off to the best of starts. The new owners didn’t actually start to operate the franchise immediately, as they were expecting extra trains to be freed up by the extension of Manchester’s Metrolink tram service, which itself was hugely delayed.

The majority of my experience of Northern Rail is on the relatively short (15 minute) trip between Stalybridge and Manchester Victoria. A season ticket between these two stations currently costs £68 per month. I also have the choice of using TransPennine Express trains from Stalybridge to Manchester Piccadilly, but Manchester Victoria is generally a more convenient destination for me, for both commuting and social purposes.

The trains I get are typically British – old, tatty, smelly rattlers, some of which were built as far back as 1981, making them nearly as old as myself. The fleet of TransPennine Express trains used to be pretty ropey themselves in all their maroon glory, but following a complete overhaul of the fleet about four years ago, these trains are now a lovely, quiet, shiny transport heaven.

The 7.30am Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria service is my main commuter train most mornings. I am not that naive that I expect a commuter train to Manchester to be really quiet, after all it’s called rush hour for a reason. I’m also not that stupid that I would expect trains to always be dead on time. Delays happen and I’m not blaming Northern Rail for idiots jumping in front of trains or other issues out of their control. Even so, I would expect to be able to actually get on a train if I had chosen a particular one to use. But since the closure of the Oldham line (to free up the route for Metrolink development) many commuters have chosen to travel to other nearby stations on the Stalybridge line in order to get to work. Surely, the closure of this line should have freed up more carriages to compensate for the increased passenger numbers? No. The 7.30am was still a two-carriage affair which was generally full upon arrival at Stalybridge.

Obviously there are a few definitions of “full” when it comes to Northern Rail commuting; 1)’Nearly’ full – each seat is taken and there is a single line of people all the way down the aisle and a few standees in the areas near the doors. 2) ‘Still room for a few more’ full – People are smeared up against walls and doors and wedged into each others armpits. This ensures they cannot fall over due to train movement as there is no physical space to fall into.

Eventually Northern Rail seemed to learn that leaving so many people behind at Stalybridge and Ashton simply wasn’t acceptable, and so started to run one of the larger two carriage trains on this service. Even so, it still became too full. On one occasion, the train did not even stop at Ashton as it couldn’t be risked that more people may have crammed themselves onboard. This must’ve been a tough break for those who actually wanted to get off at Ashton.

More recently, four carriages started to appear on the 7.30am service. This isn’t guaranteed however, and I would estimate it only happens 75% of the time. For the other 25%, it goes back to being the two carriage nightmare, and on these occasions, I find myself not even trying to get on, preferring to wait for the Piccadilly train. And here’s the rub: why should we, as the paying customer be forced to put ourselves out due to the inadequacies of such a vital service?

So, this is just my morning commute. The trains in the opposite direction are equally as bad, if not worse. I generally have the choice of either the 17.14, 17.27 or 17.57 trains back to Stalybridge each evening, but I have recently learned that the best bet is the 17.27, as the other two are full to bursting a good five minutes before they even depart. Again, I appreciate they are going to be busy as they are commuter trains serving all stations out to Huddersfield, but when I’ve had half days off I find trains in the middle of the day with only a handful of passengers are still the same size. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that you need more carriages at busier times does it?

I have had plenty of other shambolic experiences on Northern Rail trains too. Only last night, a Northern Rail train back into Piccadilly failed to materialise, with no warning or explanation. The next one was half an hour later, meaning I missed my connection to Stalybridge and I was forced to spend a small fortune on taxis in order to get home. I will be outlining to Northern Rail that this is unacceptable. I could even try invoicing them for the taxi, but to be honest I don’t expect to get a response. The company has a captive audience relying heavily on it for a range of commuting and social needs, and unfortunately it simply isn’t up to the job.

I should be free to choose which train I get – I pay enough for the privilege. I should be free to travel in some form of comfort. There are always those more deserving of a seat than myself and I don’t necessarily expect to sit down, it’s only 15 minutes after all. I would just like to be able to stand somewhere without another commuter grinding against me the whole way.

It doesn’t just appear to be Northern Rail customers that have these issues either – during recent Metrolink work to “improve” the service, I have heard numerous horror stories about how trams disappear, or are hugely delayed, or break down constantly, or are too full to board. Again, customers have chosen to travel in the wrong direction for a couple of stops so that when the tram turns around they can guarantee they will be on it.

So, is this symptomatic of this country? I don’t think so. I have no idea why TransPennine Express seem far more capable of running a train service than Northern Rail. If the Government really want to cut car use and encourage people to take public transport, should they not step in and force companies such as Northern Rail to adopt some of the good practices that other companies (such as TransPennine Express) have taken on board?

People are so sick of the shambles that is Northern Rail that they have taken to editing the Northern Rail Wiki entry to express their disgust. A disgruntled individual has even taken to setting up the Twitter account @northernfailorg to retweet everyone else’s hatred of the company and the “service” it provides. People are posting pictures online of the shabby trains and the rampant overcrowding. 

The problem is, it doesn’t seem to make any difference. Emails to the company are ignored. Comments to station and train staff are met with indifference. On some occasions, I have heard the train conductors encourage passengers to complain to Northern Rail in the hope that something is done. To reiterate, that is Northern Rail employees encouraging people to complain about their own employers. What sort of company is this that forces its own staff to take such drastic measures?

So, when will it change? No idea. Maybe if everyone refused to pay they would soon learn? But then Northern Rail would probably claim they couldn’t afford to run the services. All I want is a clean, efficient service that gets me from a to b in relative comfort. Is that really too much to ask?