A “nation-wide” problem

You wait ages and then three buses turn up at once

The old joke that you wait ages for one bus, then three come along at once, is bordering on cliché. But, according to City Monitor, it also turns out to be true and not just because of bad planning, but also because of maths1.

The phenomenon is so common, in fact, that it has a choice of names. Bus bunching, clumping, convoying, platooning – all relate to the depressing reality that, over any length of time, buses serving a single route are likely to end up tootling along directly behind each other.

John Elledge, City Monitor

Hoping that three payment incidents don’t turn up at once

The past few weeks have presented the Nationwide Building Society with a few operational issues in processing Faster Payments – two processing issues in December followed by a post-New Year queuing of inbound payments.

Nationwide suffered Faster Payments delays for incoming payments on the first working day of the year, following similar glitches in December. Nationwide advised that they had decided to temporarily queue inbound faster payments due to extremely high transaction volumes. This resulted in over 10 million payments processed overnight. 


Given the significant year on year growth in Faster Payment volumes (+20% p.a.3) and the clearing cycles / banking dates being ‘mixed-up’ over the past couple of weeks due to Bank and Public Holidays it is, perhaps, not surprising that payment scheme participants will have incidents to deal with over the course of a year.

Fortunately, as far as I am aware, there is not an old joke about four buses….

A “Nation-wide” problem

The Faster Payment processing incidents experienced by Nationwide over the past few weeks reminded me of a payment processing incident over a New Year period a few years ago during my time as Bacs’s CEO.

Travelling down the A1 in dark, snowy conditions on a late December evening my phone rang – it was someone from my press office saying that a national TV broadcaster wanted me to appear on their flagship evening news programme to discuss the “nation-wide” payments processing issue that was unfolding.

My initial question was “what incident” – as the CEO of a systemically important payment system I ought to have been aware of a nation-wide payments processing issue. 

Then the penny dropped it wasn’t a “nation-wide’ issue, it was a “Nationwide” issue and so the TV request was duly passed to the building society’s press office. My journey back south on the A1 continued without an appearance on a national news programme!

It might be you tomorrow

In a real time payments world processing issues will have a very immediate and direct impact on the impacted payment service providers customers. A delayed credit to an individual’s account will very quickly lead to unpaid Direct Debits, declined ATM withdrawals and no means to pay for fuel at the filling station or mild at the supermarket.

In the melee of a payment processing issue it is very easy to forget two very simple facts.


Every debit has a credit.

It is incredibly unlikely that a payment processing incident will be contained within a single payment service provider. An individual not receiving their money when they expect or need it means that the business sending the money is also affected – resulting in customer dissatisfaction, servicing issues or increased administration.

and secondly:

It might be you tomorrow.

Whilst the “nation-wide” / “Nationwide” decision I made on a snowy A1 was the right one the fact that every debit has a credit means that a Nationwide (or any other bank / building society) processing issue is really a “nation-wide” payments issue.

Having led many payment processing incident rooms over the years it is clear that the UK’s payment professionals fully understand the impact that a payment processing issue has on both sides of the payment (“every debit has a credit”) and rather than gloat on another payments processors issue do “roll up their sleeves” and work together to sort the issue out. 

Why? Because “it might be you tomorrow.”

Mentioning the “I” word

Fortunately, unlike buses that often turn up at once, payment processing issues across the our payment schemes and their participants are few and far between and reflect the robust and resilient payments processing environment that we have grown to enjoy here in the UK.

However, mentioning the “I” word (“Incident’“) can be a bit like actors using the “M” word:

If you’ve ever had a career in the arts, or know someone who has, you are likely aware that saying the word “Macbeth” inside a theatre is strictly taboo unless one is rehearsing or in the midst of performing Shakespeare’s dark tragedy. Doing so is almost universally believed to bring about bad luck or even disaster. To avoid the portentous curse, actors refer to the play by a variety of euphemisms such as “The Bard’s Play” or “The Scottish Play. 


But when an “I” does occur it will pay well to remember that “every debit has a credit” and “it might be you tomorrow”.

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