Does TfL deliberately profit from user error? | April 15, 2013

Today I got a 20 penalty fine from TfL (Transport for London) because it turned out that I didn’t have enough credit on my Oyster card. I typically use the underground so when this happens you’re stopped at the barriers, giving you clear feedback and preventing you from making a costly error.

However I rarely use the DLR/Overground which is barrier free and have never had a situation where my credits had expired. It turns out when this happens the machine beeps twice rather than once. Unfortunately (for me) I wasn’t aware if this so I simply heard a beep and assume everything was OK and got on my train.

I presume there was also a message on the machine, and if I was to complain would be told that it was my duty to read the display. Of course we all know that the context if use (busy platform, unfamiliar surroundings, contact less payment and rushing for a train) makes glancing at a tiny display unlikely.

Sure this was user error, but a user error that could easily be avoided if the system was designed correctly. For a start it would be very easy to change the tone if the error message from a friendly and encouraging beep to a low toned culturally understandable buzz.

Secondly it would be easy to put the card into debit and allow users to top up on their next trip. This is what many other transit systems around the world do and what I thought the underground did as well.

Sadly TFL make user errors extremely easy and as they profit from this error I suspect there is little incentive to change.

I’ve experienced similar issues when booking rail tickets at train station kiosks. They always seem to present the most expensive ticket first (one way peak fare to London) rather than the most popular fare, presumably in the hope that a percentage of people will succumb to human error in their rush to buy a ticket and end up spending more money.

In most customer facing jobs, when user error happens you only need to look towards a friendly customer service representative to get the issue resolved. Sadly with TFL it seems there is an immediate assumption of fare evasion so rather than assistance you get slapped with a fine.

Even this would be OK if the treatment you received was friendly and apologetic. But in my experience its usually the opposite - cold, rude and unsympathetic. So what started as a small and easy to dismiss error ends up leaving you angry at an institution you spend hundreds if not thousands of pounds with, while casting a shadow over the rest of your day.

Privatisation (the legacy of Margaret Thatcher) was supposed to give us consumers better customer service and more choice, it instead it feels like we’ve inherited the worst of capitalism (profiteering) and the worst of state control (poor customer service) instead.

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