Practically Redesigned: British Train Ticket

The United Kindom, or Great Britain in this case, is well known for the oldest railway system in the world. Although facing numerous C R I S E S nowadays, it is still iconic and influential just like other great inventions from this country.

This year, I rotted through a white Christmas here alone redesigning the oldest train ticket with a pint of cider, which is, in terms of miserableness, British to the very last.

The journey of the UK train ticket

Train tickets can be more symbolic than people have realised, it’s the first ticket many visitors see after arriving in a new country. They represent the average expectation on public designs from the people, similar to banknotes in that regard.

APTIS Design

This format is surprisingly well-thought for a design from more than 30 years ago – The APTIS (Accountancy and Passenger Ticket Issuing System) format ticket issued from 1986 to 2014 is highly readable with all relevant information carefully-organised, presented on the classic orange striped ticket face.

A punched APTIS ticket issued on 28/Apr/1989 in Newton-le-Willows (Credit: eBay)

Pre-2014 Design with APTIS format

The APTIS format is evidently beyond success, the grid layout allowed it to easily fit in new features and adapt to new technologies alone the evolution of railway system. It survived the privatisation of British rail and became the fundamental template for all ticket machine in Great Britain before 2014, such as FASTticket, ATOC XPress, and other railway ticket issuing systems. In fact, even after years of the introduction of 2014 National Rail ticket format, the APTIS-based design is still widely issued by machines and ticket offices throughout the UK.

An XPress ticket in APTIS format. Unlike the original APTIS ticket, all texts on this ticket are instantly (real-time) printed. 

Despite its popularity and beloved layout, the APTIS format is far from flawless.

One critical issue is the lack of hierarchy of information, the arrangement of the ticket does not honour the differences among its entries. Destination Station appears to be in the same hierarchy level of Number of Minor Passengers, while the information such as Serial Number that is unhelpful to the journey displays among the important dates.

In addition to that, many keywords are shown in unintuitive abbreviation, casting the whole reading experience extremely unfriendly if not impossible.

Another problem with this design is the terrible accessibility for different target audiences, neither the traveller nor the conductor could rapidly extract the information they want as everything is blended together.

National Rail 2014 Design

In 2013, Department for Transport (DfT) published a report acknowledging the issues with previous APTIS design, deemed it to be complex and confusing. As the result, a fundamental redesign – known as National Rail 2014 Ticket – was introduced in the following year, promising a ‘cleaner, fresher and updated’ design for the UK train ticket. However, the piece they created seems like none of these. As ridiculous as it sounds, the new design did not address any of the issues despite repeatedly highlighting them in the report.

A National Rail 2014 ticket, contains the same amount of information.

Admittedly, the new design has taken out a handful of repeated or unrelated information and focus on what matters to a train journey. Additionally, although not shown in this example, it packs all reservations into one single ticket, whereas the previous format requires an extra ticket for each journey that was booked in advance. But all that weights a little against the significant flaws of this layout, almost every problem with the Pre-2014 Design is still there. It’s unbelievable that this is the outcome of a thorough investigation by the DfT, there are even fewer hierarchies of information, no font variation to categorise items, and the layout is absolutely a joke.

What worked on paper doesn’t work on ‘paper’

What happened to this 2014 remake is a story many designers have encountered, our work fell short of expectation when transferring from the screen onto the paper. Originally, the mind behind the makeover proposal – Rail Delivery Group (RDG) – delivered their design to the public that looked decent and indeed twisted well to meet the aforementioned objectives.

Top ten betrayal in the designing industry.

The mockup released in the government consultation is astonishingly neat, it is simple and precise just as their promise. It’s unfortunate they had printed out to be some abomination that holds no regard for rider experience. Apparently, the redesign was so obsessed with cleaner ticket that they did not attempt to organise nor categorise information on the ticket. As a result of poor layout and the absence of formatting guideline, the manufactures of ticket machines took the matter into their own hands.

Guess which version of the new version will you get for next journey?

So, depends on the manufacturer of the ticket machine, you might have to look at different font sizes, typefaces, locations, capitalisation rules, and descriptions just to find out the date of travel (Give it a try with the 3 examples above). The chaos in formatting has prevented passengers from swiftly getting the information they need, it now takes more than just a glance to find out a specific detail of journey. Combine with the fact that the pre-2014 format is still actively issued by many machines, the accessibility of the ticket is severely limited as key data can’t be efficiently extracted from the inconsistent layout.

To top it off, the supposedly industrial design failed to appreciate the current printing technology in-use, while the majority of tickets are still printed by the low-resolution thermal printer that creates matrix pattern, the redesign had boldly thrown in lines of text in tiny size. Senior citizens and people with visual difficulties might be having some hard times finding out where their reserved seat is.

Getting things back on track

It is not a piece of piss to work out a satisfactory design, the NR2014 remake had shown just that. That being said, we now know what not to do for a better, clearer, and more friendly ticket design.

There will be some limitations in the issuing system that we couldn’t change, and these limitations will be the baseline of our redesign. There will also be things that we try to accomplish, starting from what went wrong with the current design.

No play on words

Knowing the UK, many ticket machines are literally from the last century, they are so old that if they last few more years they might be listed together with their stations. Forget about the emojis and letters with åccént mãrk, we have to limit our printable items to the 128 characters from the ASCII table, with three extra characters: the pound sterling sign (£), the euro sign (€), and the dagger sign (†).

A good reference would be this test ticket above, which has all printable characters on it. It appears that in addition to the ACS-II letters, the machine can also handle inverted text (🅻🅴🆃🆃🅴🆁🆂), straight lines (┠─┐), bold font weight, and allow more than 3 font sizes.

It’s quite common to see a design went beyond what a printer could actualise, the bad practice can even be found in the NR2014 mockup presented by the RDG during government consultation, where they put down Arial font in the demonstration for matrix printers, built up the hype it could never meet in at least 30 years.

Keeping the information

We believe everything is on the ticket for a good reason, and it would be naïve to remove an item just because we do not understand its purpose. However,  inconsistent information that changes from format to format will be considered as redundant and had their value reevaluated.

Since they went overkilled with the ‘no abbreviation’ feature in the last redesign, some items have become too wordy and we will attempt to fix them.

Universal format for all ticket types

There are two general layouts at the moment, one for Anytime journey and the another for Advance booking journey, the major difference is that seating and time reservation are printed on the advance tickets. It will be the greatest challenge for the redesign just to cater so many variations in one unified single layout.

Previously, the design had either used extra tickets for reservation information (APTIS style) or developed different formats to fit reservation information (NR2014). The short story was, if you want fewer tickets, you have to read harder because it’s hard to fit them all in.

My answer to the Grand Question

My UK train ticket redesign

When designing my solution, I had this mindset of ‘instantly usable’, that means any current ticket machine in the UK is capable of delivering this design without any upgrade. Same thermal printer, same orange cardstock, and same typographical demand for the software.

Like all public design delivering information, it’s straightforward to view but sophisticated to build. Let’s walk through the features onboard.

Rapid access to all stakeholders

Like I have pointed out in both APTIS and NR2014 design, there was a lack of concern of target audience, they always require more than just a glance because the information is not grouped by the type of reader. It’s fixed as we have grouped information by the ‘stakeholders’ – people that read with different objectives.

Not only are items categorised, different ticket types are now structured the same way. Readers will be quickly shaped and habituated with the layout, an expectation of information will be unconsciously formed, so they will automatically start with the allocated area when glancing a ticket in the future.

One ticket format to rule them all

Being a former web designer, I learnt all about edge cases the hard way, the cruel experience really enables me to be practical about my designs. Don’t just think differently, think about differences.

The railway system in Great Britain is full of lore just like the country invented it, with all sort of possible extremes and special needs on the ticket, extensive research was carried out to make sure the format could cope with all wacky edge cases.

Visualise with non-graphical stimuli

Visual aid is a great way to speed up information process, the top-down mechanism of the brain prioritise symbols and geometrics over words. Applying visual distinctions is also a shortcut to establishing the hierarchy of information.

With only ASCII character set at disposal, my hands are tight, but I found just a way to make the best out of them.

In addition to text styles and ideographic symbol, I placed emphasis on the geometric location between different items. Such as putting ‘Origin station’ horizontal to the ‘Destination station’ and therefore simulate train’s horizon movement from one point to another. The benefit of doing that is forcing different ticket issuing systems to comply with a basic layout, such that when other means of visualisation had failed (like we saw in the NR2014 ticket), this could act like a fallback to hold the basic structure.

Recode and rephrase

In the NR2014 redesign, issue of over abbreviations was tackled to avoid confusion. This is definitely a welcomed move, but they rather went to another extreme and made everything out of a complete sentence. This part explained how have we dialled it back to the sweet point.

Some of the features that used to prevent fraudulent alternation are discarded in the NR2014 design, such as the asterisk (*) that used to end station names is no longer printed, even when there is space and possible station for the destination to be changed.

We had honoured this move and took a step further by changing back the unconventional month abbreviations (JNR, FBY, MCH, JLY, DMR) since the purpose of using them was also to prevent alternation, non-standard abbreviation could be even more confusing than over-abbreviated terms.

Plus, fare dodgers these days don’t even touch the real ticket, everyone has access to the internet and a perfectly functioning printer. It’s time to throw away the concept from the 70s and embrace the dark future.

Gallery

UK train ticket redesign 1

UK train ticket redesign 1

  •  
  •  
  • 16
  •  
  •  

18 Comments


  1. Can you then suggest why we now increasingly have the bog-roll tickets that are massively a) less durable b) incompatible with the railcard and credit/debit card used for their purchase and the handy wallet you can place these and the regular tickets.

    Equally the messy 2-types provision of tickets in one format and receipts in another (yet more bog-roll)

    To some extent the move to m-tickets with Q/R code patches changes the scenery even more, but in my book the the card ticket has a key advantage in the the battery doesn’t go flat at that crucial moment

    Oh and my other real hate – why (now) do I have to do a transaction for every single ticket booked for a journey as a separate complete cycle of the TVM at the station as the queue behind gets fidgety (as my train travel is usually closely timed to minimise any waiting for the train to depart (there is ONE TVM at the Virgin Train departure platforms (heaven help you if it breaks down))

    Reply

    1. Hi Dave,

      I have not yet encountered the ‘paper roll’ style train ticket, but I have heard people discussing it (almost always unpleasantly) and it sure isn’t making passengers’ life easier.

      Like you say, these bog-roll tickets with QR code are great for ticket inspection and less likely to be tampered (mag stripe may be demagnetised), but I don’t really see the point of switching the medium, cardstock could have QR codes printed just fine.

      Based on what I’ve found, it seems that paper roll tickets are only issued by mobile issuing device, mostly when onboard, or act as a temporary measure when the station is overcrowded or TVM being unavailable. But some operators might be doing it more frequently simply because it saves them cost. We will have to dig in to find out.

      Reply

      1. Paper roll tickets have been issued since the BR SPORTIS. Designed for mobile ticket staff at a time when there was a move towards ungated open stations, and indeed unstaffed stations in more rural areas. I would imagine at the time that the majority of tickets issued on it would have gone nowhere near a ticket gate. In fact it included a function for a ‘Travelcard exchange’ ticket which could be swapped at a ticket office for an APTIS ticket in order to operate ticket gates which would have mainly been found on London Underground.

        The new generation mobile machines such as Avantix were able to combine lightweight thermal printers with APTIS style card tickets. I’m pretty sure the only reason for the move to rolls again is to cut the cost of the blank ticket stock. More inconvenient for passengers & reducing throughput at busy gatelines.

        Reply

  2. What a cracking piece of design. We can only hope the motley assortment of train operators, ticket machine manufacturers and the Dft are listening!

    Reply

  3. Agree – recently I made a return journey London – Liverpool.
    This “required” EIGHT pieces of paper, only two of which were the Out-&-Return actual travelling tickets.
    At both boarding the train & on-train inspection, I could not find the one-out-of-eight that was needed at that specific point … unamusing for both me & the two inspectors – who were equally familiar with the ridiculous nature of the problem.

    However, you have missed one possibilty:
    Return to the Edmonson Punched Card?
    Here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmondson_railway_ticket
    They worked & worked well for 140 years …….

    Reply

  4. A facesious typo report follows…

    Woah, they had dot-matrix printers in 1898 in Newton-le-Willows!

    Reply

    1. Thanks for pointing out, we all indeed make ‘facesious’ typos now and then I guess.

      Reply

  5. Really enjoyed this article, they’re some great designs. As someone who uses trains a lot, I’ve never thought about just why the information on my ticket was so… strangely structured.

    PS. you should consider putting a sharing feature on your posts, to make it easier to get the audience this post deserves!

    Reply

    1. just got the sharing plugin enabled, thanks for the love and the thought to spread it

      Reply

  6. “A punched APTIS ticket issued on 28/Apr/1898 in Newton-le-Willows (Credit: eBay)”

    I’m not sure the dot matrix printer was invented whilst Queen Victoria reigned.

    Rather wonderful article. I did wonder what happened to the RDG’s designs.

    Reply

  7. I agree with the above comments – some really interesting points and a good article. I would like to have a annual ticket that (a) had a durable enough print to last the 12 months of barrier abuse and (b) a ticket where the magnetic strip on the back could last more than a two weeks without failing.

    Reply

  8. In any kind of design-heavy website, where typography matters, it is inevitable that there will be some typographical errors — and they will really stand out.

    I noticed “conneting services” and “Travel Restricoins”.

    I hope this information is useful, and I hope that they pay some attention to your hard work in this redesign.

    Thanks!

    Reply

    1. Thanks for pointing out, just got them fixed.
      Really made me think about how writing nowadays relies so much on the spell checker.

      Reply

  9. Fantastic read and (despite what some might think) really interesting insight and info on the humble rail ticket. Have shared on my twitter and found a couple of other articles on a ticket redesign (https://www.cxpartners.co.uk/our-thinking/uk_rail_tickets_are_loosing_travellers_money_and_need_redesigning/ and http://www.roberthempsall.co.uk/uk-train-ticket-redesign/) but i think yours goes into the most detail and importantly considers limitations of ticket machines. Thanks for the hard work – be amazing to see this go somewhere.

    Reply


  10. A brilliant idea and fantastic new design but, please make the bottom line a bit more bolder/brighter (DARK ARIEL) if possible. At the bottom right, the Ticket number/NLC/Station code/Window number/Time and Date of issue are too small and very tiny to read when using these information for Refunds, SE exchanges, Non-issue and Excesses. More bolder and in italics should do the tricks.
    Thank you for listening and making it more easier to read.

    Reply

  11. Wow! What an incredibly detailed article. Your version is much clearer, if only it would be implemented.

    One question, what is the font that is used on all of these tickets? Assuming it’s some sort of thermal printer font, not certain but I think you’ve used DejaVu Condensed?

    Cheers,
    Karl

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *