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Train ticket machines -- UK vs. Germany (Part 1)

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 24 Jul 2007.

I reveal a shocking comparison between ticket machines in British and German railway stations. The average traveller in Germany needs to press 4.5 times as many buttons as the British traveller to purchase a simple return ticket! Part 1 of my series on ticket machines.

One of the things which unite the British and the Germans: both love to complain about their respective trains and rail networks. In both countries, very few people have a positive opinion about trains, stations and everything that belongs to them. I think that some of these complaints are unjustified, and I do not want to support a general condemnation of what is basically a pretty good service.

Still, there are many differences between the British and the German rail systems. In Britain, there is a whole host of different companies involved, while in Germany rail transport is dominated by a single company, Deutsche Bahn AG. The fare structures in both countries are completely different; for example, in the UK, cheaper advance fares are only available on single journeys, while in Germany advance fares exist only for return journeys.

One aspect which I want to examine today is one particular way how customers get in contact with rail operators: through ticket machines. Ticket machines are getting more widespread in both countries, and in Germany you even have to pay a surcharge if you don’t want to use a ticket machine and would like to speak to a human being instead. At many small stations you don’t have any choice but to use a ticket machine. It is therefore crucial that ticket machines are accessible and usable by absolutely anybody: regular commuters and occasional travellers, children and senior citizens, locals and foreigners, geeks and technophobes. Quite a challenge!

Last weekend I was in Germany, which gave me an opportunity to compare the ticket machines there to the British ones. I took photographs of the screens, which I will present in detail in two separate articles. Today I will compare just summary views of the two contrasting system.

The comparison

Some of the points to consider: How long does it take an average user to buy a ticket? Can the machine quickly serve common requests, as well as cater for occasional unusual requests? How usable are the machines for visitors, who are not familiar with the fare structure and other national particularities?

In terms of speed and ease of use, the German machines performed shockingly badly compared to the British ones. On a British ticket machine, you need to press four buttons (four clicks) to buy a return ticket to a common destination. On a German ticket machine, buying a return ticket requires a minimum of sixteen clicks – four times as many – and that’s if you know the machines well and and find the “fast track” screen!

If you have a railcard in the UK, you need two additional clicks to tell the machine about it, increasing the process to six clicks. Not so with the German machines. There, an average BahnCard owner will make a whopping twenty-seven clicks or more to buy a return ticket. 350% more than the British equivalent!

Even the most seasoned and quick-fingered rail traveller will need at least a minute to buy such a ticket in Germany. And if you are not familiar with the system, it is not at all surprising if you get lost in the depths of the menus and need 10 minutes or more. In fact, while I was photographing the screens of a German ticket machine, I was approached by a group of Bulgarians who couldn’t work out how to buy a ticket from Stuttgart to Ulm, a very common route. And I had complete understanding for their difficulties!

The biggest difference between the two systems is that German ticket machines have an integrated timetable service, while British machines simply sell you a ticket to a destination, and leave you to your own devices to find out which train to board and where to change. I prefer the British solution, because the majority of people know their route well and don’t need to click their way through lots of timetable information. However, the German machines can be extremely useful if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and want to find the best route back to civilisation – they even tell you where to change and which platform to go to at each station. The British machines lack timetable information even if you specifically want it.

Two other problems with British machines are that you cannot use them in any language other than English, and that they assume you know about different types of fare. If somebody comes from abroad with only rudimentary English, they will have difficulties telling the difference between a Cheap Day Return, Saver Return, Open Return and First Open Return, let alone a whole zoo of different advance and operator-specific fares. It will not be easy for them to work out that some fares are only valid at certain times of day, or carry other restrictions. This could be made a lot clearer at the expense of a small number of additional clicks (while still staying far short of the German navigational nightmare).

In summary, I think that British ticket machines win this comparison by a wide margin. However, there are also a few aspects which they could learn from German machines.

A few additions: what about people with impaired vision? Can they get the option of having the ticket machine read out loud to them, and controlling it via a tactile keyboard?What about people who are too short to be able to see the screen? What about people with motor problems, who have difficulties hitting the right buttons? These questions are not straightforward to answer, but I hope that they have at least been given some consideration when designing ticket machines.