German railway tickets: identity management done wrong

Deutsche Bahn, germany’s biggest railway company allows you to order tickts online.

They require you to own a customer card, which will also give you several kinds of discounts, depending on the type of the card. This card is mandatory to be able to order tickets online at all.

What they do then is to calculate a hash value that gets printed on your online ticket, and this is what the conductor checks in the train. This of course means that the number of your customer card gets tied to the ticket, the purpose being easier checks in the train.

But, what happens if you decide to be an even better customer by upgrading to the more expensive version of the customer card?

The answer: you may get arrested (at least temporarily) by federal agents:

“I was thinking about going to CeBIT yesterday to meet Nico and Heiko, but I didn’t have a babysitter (or a suit), and besides, I can meet Nico and Heiko in Hamburg anytime I want (at least when I have a babysitter).

Good thing, since on the train back to Hamburg Nico had a small disagreement with the conductor about his ticket, refused to pay full price, and ended up being handed over to federal agents at the next station. There were witnesses.

The stories are in German, but the short moral is that if you upgrade your BahnCard, the Deutsche Bahn may consider tickets booked with your old BahnCard to be invalid. Or not. You might be better off driving. Or flying.”

This is a prime example of customer service gone wrong. I have witnessed on several occasions that the technical process still has flaws (for example, you can book a higher discount than your card allows, this is not easily reconisable by the conductor). There are also two versions of the hash on the online ticket, a short one and a long one, obviously with different levels of security – this is maybe intended for conductors with little time – I don’t know…

The error in the case mentioned above happened because the upgrade of the customer card changed the number of the card, rendering former tickets invalid.

Possible solutions?

  • Don’t change the card number when upgrading. There is a minimal risk involved by people giving their old cards away, but as they usually have a picture of the subject on them, this is not a huge risk.
  • When upgrading a card, check for tickets in the system, and re-issue the tickets. That’s the technical solution, slightly increasing the risk of mentioned above (now they have a second card *and* a second ticket).
  • When upgrading, remind customers to keep carrying the old card if they still have valid tickets for them. This is the simple solution.

All of these solutions still require a bit of people skills when dealing with errors in the system.

And let’s face it, Bahn AG: your customers sure aren’t the only ones making mistakes. Did you complain about me having paid too much for first class tickets while your air conditioning in the trains was broke for WEEKS during the last hot summer?

5 thoughts on “German railway tickets: identity management done wrong

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  3. Just a minor correction:

    >This card is mandatory to be able to order tickets > online at all.

    Not quite true. You need either the customer card or a credit card to book online. If you use a credit card then this counts as an Id in the same way a customer card does.

  4. Just a minor correction:

    >This card is mandatory to be able to order tickets > online at all.

    Not quite true. You need either the customer card or a credit card to book online. If you use a credit card then this counts as an Id in the same way a customer card does.

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