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17 April, 2012  ▪  Dmytro Shapovalov

Train Tickets: To Buy or Not to Buy?

Innovations at Ukrainian Railway are good for nothing and passengers suffer

At 18:50 on day one I got to the extra-long hall of the advanced ticket sale department, located near the Kharkiv Railway. Lucky enough to buy a ticket without having to stand in a queue? Fat chance…

The ticket clerk I approached told me to first deal with the electronic queue management system and added with a mysterious smile: “If it's working.” It turned out that I had to first get a slip with a number indicating my place in the queue from an ATM-like terminal. “Why do I need a queue slip if there is no queue?” I wondered. The answer was indisputable: “That’s the procedure.” That’s the railway – what can you do about it?

But the machine was not going to issue any slips for me. Its working day was over. Ticket clerks, not surprisingly, refused to help out, because they are “not allowed” to sell tickets without these slips. They recommended using the ticket office at the train station but warned me that at this hour of the day I could only buy tickets (through advanced sale) at the Belgorod terminal rather than at the central one.

As I marched toward the right terminal, I was genuinely happy to be a native Kharkiv resident, because I knew from some source where the Belgorod terminal was located. Will the guests of the city easily find it? I am not so sure. On the way to the terminal I did not see anything even remotely resembling information signs in any language – unlike the Euro 2012 symbols which were all over the place.

When I reached my destination point, I began to grasp the sense of the “European” innovation. I saw a slip-issuing device with a touch screen. The system works like this: a computer system automatically assigns passengers to ticket windows. People see the results on special monitors that show their number on the queue and the number of the ticket window to which they are supposed to go.

The only problem was that there was only one ticket window open at the moment! Those who did not believe it could prove themselves wrong by looking at the monitor which showed only one ticket window number in a continuous column. My slip had 756 printed on it, while the electronic queue showed that number 704 was being processed at the time. In other words, under the most optimistic scenario, if it took only one minute to sell a ticket, I would have bought mine after waiting for about an hour. After a moment's hesitation I decided not to test how quickly the ticket clerk was working. Time was more valuable, and tomorrow is a new day, as they say.

Day two, advanced sale ticket office. I am now a passenger well-versed in super-modern ticket sales technology. I make a beeline for the ticket machine and then look for my number on the monitor hung up high. After 20 minutes of waiting I learn the number of my ticket window. I come to it and see an ordinary, human rather than electronic, queue there. Seven people means another 25 minutes of waiting. I ask them whether everyone has a slip. The last man in the queue, a man aged around 50, seems not to fully grasp what I am talking about. A queue is a queue, he says.

Well, he was severely punished for his simplistic approach. The ticket clerk did not even want to listen to him and demanded to see his slip. There is no point in recounting the discussion that followed. It was emotional and had the completely unsurprising ending: the man was forced to acquaint himself with the slip-issuing machine. It was easy to gather from the remarks made by the ticket clerk that this man was not the first “ignorant” passenger that came to her window. The lack of passengers' awareness seemed to genuinely outrage her.

The most important thing happened when it was my turn to buy the ticket. The woman took my slip and without checking it against any computer system simply tossed it into a drawer!

Who really needs all these innovations? The management – to report about progress in preparing for Euro 2012 and modern technology? Money launderers who were involved in the purchase of the equipment and software? Scalpers who will be able to make money out of nothing by reselling slips with “good” numbers, UAH 5-10 apiece, to holidaymakers who hate to waste time waiting in the queue? My experience rules out the assumption that it has all been done to increase passenger comfort.

What are we trying to prove, and to whom, with this imitation of civilization prior to Euro 2012?

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