If you book a UK train ticket online, for most routes, you're given a 8 character code. You then head to a UK railway station, go to the ticket machine, tell it you want to collect a ticket, give it a bank/credit card, then enter the reference, then the tickets are printed. Loco2 have a handy pictoral guide to the process

The bit that I'm confused about is why it asks for a card during the collection process?

If you put in the card you'd booked with, and it then printed out your tickets without asking for the booking reference, I could see the reason. If it was a security thing and would only let you print if you entered the same card you booked with, I could see the reasoning. However, it doesn't seem to matter what card you put in, it will still prompt you for a booking reference, and then still print your tickets once you've entered the correct booking reference. Doesn't seem to matter if it's the same card you booked with, one of your other credit/debit cards, someone else's credit/debit card, or even just a supermarket loyalty card with a magnetic strip in the same place as a bank card. Behaviour is all the same, prompt for a card, apparently ignore it, then ask for the booking reference.

Edit OK, so only certain Supermarket loyalty cards work identically to bank/credit cards, accepting the card then prompting for the reference, many other loyalty type cards are actually rejected, but by no means all!

So, what's the point in asking for a card at all? If it doesn't matter what card you use, and if a supermarket loyalty card is good enough (which it was earlier today when I collected some tickets!), why do they even bother requiring you to put in a card before you can enter the booking reference to collect your tickets?

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    I'm suprised that a supermarket card worked. Always imagined that they checked for a chip... Way back when, I did collect tickets a few times just by entering the card, no need for a code. So maybe it's a legacy thing?
    – CMaster
    Nov 11, 2015 at 17:53
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    @CMaster The interface to enter a code wouldn't come up until after I'd given it a card. I guess it doesn't require a chip, otherwise visiting Americans wouldn't be able to collect tickets? Not sure I've ever had one just give me the tickets when I put in the chipped credit card I'd booked online with, so you might be special!
    – Gagravarr
    Nov 11, 2015 at 17:58
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    Looks like a glitch to me!?
    – Ulkoma
    Nov 11, 2015 at 18:15
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    @JoErNanO The point of the question is that it does not need to be the right card or even a credit card at all.
    – Relaxed
    Nov 12, 2015 at 11:41
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    @CMaster Yesterday's GWR booking confirmation said Please collect your ticket from the ticket machine at the station. You will need to use your original payment credit or debit card for collection. but despite that it still let me collect tickets with a Nectar card and the booking reference!
    – Gagravarr
    Nov 12, 2015 at 12:20

3 Answers 3


This answer is only speculative.

The first thing to note is that train tickets can be quite valuable. For instance an "Anytime" fully unrestricted first class return from London to York is £365. This is not even close to the most expensive ticket on the network either, but in this case (unlike say unrestricted first from Penzance to Aberdeen, £660*) London-York is a key trunk route and no doubt many of these tickets are sold and collected each day. Since these particular tickets are refundable, they could in principle be worth close to their face value for cash. I am not sure if you can purchase carnets for delivery by machine, but if you take advantage of the five-for-the-price-of-four offer, that would be a delivery of value nearly £1500 on London-York.

It makes sense to me, particularly given the politics at British Rail and its successor companies, that further identification is required when collecting pre-bought tickets. ISO/IEC 7813 standard globally mandates that payment cards, including credit cards and perhaps some supermarket loyalty cards, store the name of the cardholder in a specific place on the magnetic track. Therefore, the cardholder's name can at least be verified. Have you tried collecting using a card registered in someone else's name?

It may be that the problems caused by expired cards, forgotten cards, or other such matters, particularly at unmanned stations, make it (quietly) preferable that the machines not enforce full validation of the card number. It may be that the information on the card is merely recorded so that in the event of a stolen ticket, there is at least a paper trail potentially leading to the culprit. Or it may be pure theatre, as elsewhere suggested.

*This ticket isn't even the most expensive, since it doesn't allow travelling via London, but I was unable to force the via-London route.

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    No, they don't (at least, Virgin-branded machines at Manchester Picadilly) do not confirm that hte name on the card matches the name of the ticket purchaser
    – CMaster
    Nov 12, 2015 at 11:45
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    I believe that online purchased tickets can only be refunded through the purchasing website, and not at the ticket office, so stolen ones would need to be re-sold rather than being refunded for near-cash. Certainly when I once needed to cancel an anytime journey booked online, the ticket office wouldn't do it and directed me back to their own companies website (where I'd booked it from)
    – Gagravarr
    Nov 12, 2015 at 11:53
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    @Calchas - my partner has used their card to collect tickets I've bought before, plus both myself and others have collected tickets with personal cards bought using company credit cards authorized to a different user.
    – CMaster
    Nov 12, 2015 at 11:58
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    I checked on brfares.com and the unrestricted anytime return PNZ-ABD allowing changes in London is £686. The most expensive fare I can find is the return from Penzance to Thurso (or Wick or Kyle of Lochalsh) at £705 via London. Nov 13, 2015 at 10:14
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    Having done a bit more testing tonight, a Nectar card (personalised, mag stripe) worked fine for collecting tickets. Tesco Clubcard (personalised, mag stripe) didn't work, nor did a Co-Op card (mag stripe also), nor did a M&S Sparks card (neither personalised nor magstripe), nor did a Caffe Nero gift card (mag stripe, not personalised). For all the "didn't work" ones, the machine just asked me to re-insert the card. I wonder if it is checking for something like a credit/debit card, but accepting too much (eg nectar)?
    – Gagravarr
    Nov 16, 2015 at 22:43

Often, it does need to be the card used in the booking - I've never noticed any obvious pattern to when it does and when it doesn't or which companies do and don't, but I think times when any card is allowed often involve tickets booked through 3rd party agencies.

As for why you'd ever require a potentially unrelated card, there was an incident at an old workplace of mine which might explain the issue - basically, it helped clear up confusion when multiple people were involved in one booking, which is the sort of situation that could happen often and be disruptive at a busy station.

There was a senior member of staff who was very good but a bit... absent minded. Her personal assistant was super-efficient. They booked some tickets in her name to go to some work event, using a company card. The super-efficient PA swung past the station that lunch break and picked up the tickets, using her own card as ID, and told her that she'd meet her at the station on the day of travel with the tickets, briefing papers, etc (an arrangement the senior staffer promptly forgot).

On the day of travel, the senior staffer turned up at the station in a rush, tried to print off the (already printed) tickets, which didn't work, and flew into a rage at the nearest member of staff. They checked that she was the right person and had the right code, and then gave her the time, date and name of the person who had printed her tickets. Embarrassed (I presume), the senior staffer muttered something like "Oh, that's my PA... oh, there she is, waiting for me... Sorry, excuse me", met her PA, and collected the tickets.

Key points:

  • People often need to collect tickets booked by other people on cards they don't have, especially for business travel or when booked through an agent or company travel centre.
  • People often won't realise someone else has collected their tickets for them (or might even forget they printed their own tickets), which can result in stressful confusion that can be easily resolved by telling the customer the name of the person who printed the ticket.
  • Scanning a random card is a non-foolproof but quick and easy way to (probably) get the name of the person scanning the card. It's not robust to someone trying to deceive the system, but (I believe) it's not intended to be. If this is indeed typical (and assuming I remembered it right), it's for clearing up common confusion, not preventing fraud.

Also, sometimes I've had tickets auto-print the moment I enter my card, without asking for any code. I don't know why this happens some times and not others - maybe it's only at peak times to reduce queues, or some train companies do it but not others... but it seems like sometimes, the system works on a "ask for code if card doesn't match, just print if it does" basis.

  • @Gagravarr you to be having fun testing different combinations :-) if you can do any more testing, can you see what happens when you try to print a ticket with card X you've already printed with card Y? And see how much if any info the station staff will give you about the previously printed ticket? I'd like to test if it is how I remember but I'm currently in the wrong continent. Nov 24, 2015 at 14:05
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    Whether "any card", "payment card" or "no card - number only" is determined by the ticket retailer, not the machine operator, and it's a measure to prevent fraud.
    – Owain
    Aug 23, 2019 at 18:22

I have read these answers extensively and can't really find a justification for having to use a card, whatever it is. I have travelled by train in other Countries and never have I had to swipe any card. I can understand being asked the same card as the one used for booking, but as some people have said, any card will do.

So the only reasonable option my mind is left with is that Network Rail collects information regarding who accesses train stations and where they travel to/from. One possible use for this information, apart from business intelligence, is tracking potential suspects, if requested by the police.

From a security standpoint, a reference number seems enough to me, and I don't see how swiping a card, whatever it is, could protect you from having your tickets printed and used by somebody else.

  • It does stop you buying an expensive train ticket online with stolen credit card details. Any anytime 1st class return in the UK can be very expensive....
    – Gagravarr
    Dec 20, 2019 at 22:06

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