Merseyside deserves better than these outdated public transport systems – Liam Thorp
‘You’re not talking about train tickets yet, are you?’
These are the words of my long-suffering wife as she heard me launch an impassioned rant to visiting friends this weekend about the limitations and frustrations of Merseyrail’s ticketing system. She put up with a lot of that conversation to be fair, I’m not sure she imagined this was what marriage would be like.
If there is a correlation between being in your early thirties and having a passion for public transport, then I am a classic of the genre. The truth is that I have always found the Merseyrail network to be generally reliable, helpful and even – dare I say it – fun to ride, but that network – and the people who use it – are seriously let down by painfully outdated ticketing and inconvenient system.
READ MORE: Merseyrail’s fine for the train line’s ticket show system is ‘how not to welcome visitors’
Lo and behold, I had barely finished my rant when a blatant example of this ridiculous system stopped at my proverbial station. I’ve been copied in a number of tweets from former Labor MP and cabinet minister Sir David Hanson, who told a story of transport frustration and misfortune, the type of which has become about as regular as a Merseyrail train itself (if the normal timetable permits).
Mr Hanson explained that his youngest child, on a trip to Liverpool, was fined for not having his ticket printed, despite paying for it and being able to prove that he had paid for it on his mobile phone. The ticket had been paid for on the third-party app Trainline for travel from Chester, but because it hadn’t been physically printed (which would completely defeat the point of buying tickets on an app ), the upset youngster was hit with a £20 fine.
It is painfully obvious to anyone that this is a totally inadequate and unacceptable system for the large public transport network in a world famous tourist city like Liverpool. Sir David said the experience had “ruined a day in a big city” and suggested others might be put off by similar experiences. And he’s probably right.
We should do absolutely everything we can to encourage people to visit our city and region, which is so heavily dependent on a vibrant tourist economy that has been devastated over the past two years of lockdown. We should also do absolutely everything we can to encourage everyone to ditch their cars and use public transport to get around this beautiful urban region. If either of these ambitions is diminished by a comically outdated system, then that system needs to be replaced, so why hasn’t it been?
I asked Merseyrail to explain why we haven’t seen upgrades from other cities and regions. In response, Commercial Director Suzanne Grant said: “Currently we don’t have the technology to validate e-tickets, and unfortunately this opens up the risk of a customer simply refunding their ticket once they have finished his journey. For this reason, we cannot accept them. .
She added: “We understand that the pandemic has accelerated the demand for smarter ticketing options, and in January we introduced new systems to allow tickets purchased through third parties to be printed and collected at our stations. This is already proving popular and is the first step in what we hope will be significant future enhancements to our ticketing offering.”
While talking about “significant future improvements” is positive, there is no suggested timeline for these improvements and I understand that significant funding will also be required. It should be noted that while some other transport operators have received direct government funding for these types of upgrades, Merseyrail operates under a different system where it is overseen by the Liverpool City Region transport arm.
For his part, Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram has expressed his desire for an integrated London-style public transport system since being elected to the post in 2017. Reacting to Sir David Hanson’s story, Mayor Rotheram tweeted: “It’s another symptom of our fragmented transport network. The London-style system I’m building isn’t just about making our transport cheaper and more reliable, it’s also about improving ticketing. It should be as easy as tap and go.
And he’s right, the problems with our not-so-smart ticketing systems on Merseyside go well beyond third-party payment lines. A few weeks ago I sparked something of a conversation on Twitter when I posted an image of a long queue spiraling out of the gate of St Michael’s station during the morning rush hour. It’s a scene I see most mornings, with unnecessarily stressed commuters missing their crucial morning train or jumping off in the hope that the staff member at the gate at the other end will believe a purchase in timely was impossible. To be frank, its nuts.
Anyone who has spent time in London, Manchester or other major cities will have been able to use their bank cards to simply get in and out of their public transport journeys at any time, to any destination and in any mode of public transport. It’s a simple idea that’s been in place elsewhere for quite a while now, but looking at those morning queues, we seem pretty far from that right now.
So while it’s good to hear local leaders and transport bosses acknowledging the frustrations faced by passengers here in the city area and those traveling from further afield, it’s high time we had a little more details on these improvement plans and, most importantly, when they will occur.
The only thing I can guarantee is that this particular public transport bore will continue to pressure the case.