What you pay for today is often a service rather than an item. But we are not always informed about what exactly the service we are purchasing is. Often as not, that lack of information is intentional.
As a small example, in the Czech Republic an new rail system was recently implemented that allows private companies to run trains on the Czech railways. These trains usually run at the most lucrative times of day and on the most frequented routes, leaving the less profitable village routes to the national rail company and causing some bitterness.
For passengers, the problem is that for most of our lives we have been buying tickets at the ticket office and using them for any and all trains on the purchased route.
The only possible exception used to be express trains requiring an upgrade payment, but even those trains still utilized the base ticket you bought. It wasn't worthless. You just had to pay for an upgrade if you wanted to use the express train.
But now these private trains pull in to the same stations and travel the same routes and once you get on board you are told that your ticket isn't valid and you are required to buy another one from another company.
I have more or less mastered this system after a couple of confusing encounters. But many people, especially those who only travel at special times of the year, such as the recent holidays, are not yet aware. Recently I met an elderly woman on a train platform with frosty mist rising all around us. I wouldn't have noticed her at all, except that she helped me read a sign that was a bit too far for my shortsighted eyes.
It was a brief, polite encounter and would have ended there, except that later I noticed her colorful hat in front of me boarding one of the private trains. She sat down in the set of seats I wanted to sit in, so we sat together. I also noticed her pull out a Czech National Railways ticket. I was half expecting it and even with my eyesight the blue logo was clear when she laid it on the tiny fold-out table right between us.
"Excuse me," I said, my words rushed with urgency. "That ticket won't work on this train. Another train will be here in just five minutes. You've got to--"
But the train jolted into motion before I could even finish my sentence.
The older woman started to rise from her place, her eyes going wide with anxiety. "How was I supposed to know?" her voice teetered on the edge of panic. "And what do I do now?"
I'd seen it plenty of times. She would be humiliated. The conductor would come and scold her for boarding the train with the wrong ticket. Then he would attempt to get her to buy a new ticket for the same price she had already paid. And if she couldn't or had the gumption to simply refuse, she would be put off the train at the next station.
That was the most reasonable response. I happened to know that another train where her ticket would be good was following just behind us.
But being legally blind, I am well accustomed to missing inconspicuous notice boards and being publicly shamed for it. It might not bother a lot of people. My husband sneers over such things and calls me "thin-skinned." But I just do not like being scolded. It's very unpleasant and I could tell that the older woman across from me felt the same way.
I heard the snap of the conductor's stamp on tickets just a few rows behind me and there was no time to explain.
"Sit down," I hissed at the older woman. "You helped me on the platform, remember? I'm legally blind and my pass says a guide can travel with me for free. You're my guide."
It's the law here. Even private companies have to honor it. I don't generally need a guide to get around, even though I only see about ten percent of "normal." But that primarily comes from a lifetime of adaptation and a lot of good mobility instructors. I know people with similar eye conditions who are very disoriented and do often need a guide. So the doctors and bureaucrats who certify such passes have little choice but to assign them based on technical measurements rather than subjective abilities.
I couldn't explain any of this though, not with the conductor suddenly right behind me. The older woman sat back down, her eyes wide and her jaw trembling just a bit. At the last minute I nudged her incorrect ticket under the map on the table.
The conductor turned toward us and I produced my disability card and paid for the private train ticket, giving a nod toward the woman to indicate that she was included. She never had to say a word. And the conductor moved off.
I explained it all afterwards and sure enough, she was one of those people who rarely rides the train. She had been doing some rare holiday visiting and was confused by the dizzying new variety in trains. She didn't appear to have the energy for one of those spontaneous autobiographies that strangers exchange on trains or airplanes, so we sat mostly in silence for an hour and a half, until she got off at the stop just before mine.
I had to wonder whether my action was ethically correct by current standards. She did help me but only in a very minor way. But to me the greater issue was that she had paid for a ticket and the companies should be responsible for providing adequate information for passengers. More than my right to adopt her as a guide, I felt she had a right to a transparent and fair system of payment that would not result in either extra charges or humiliation for understandable mistakes.