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Technology comes to rail passengers

11 January 2017  •  Author(s): Graham Ellis

Regular European Railway Review blogger Graham Ellis discusses the impact of the industry embracing new technologies and the resulting benefits for rail passengers…

How many times have any of us been travelling when we’ve been asked for our ticket and then spent several anxious minutes searching pockets/wallet/purse for said ticket? I know that it has happened to me several times, normally just after I’ve sat down in my seat and started working. However these days with increasing digitisation why are we still relying on paper tickets when most of us are carrying smartphones, tablets, kindles etc. Surely it would be better for the customer/passenger if they could store their details electronically, that gives them ease of access and one single place to store all of their travel documents.

For the transport operator there are large benefits to digitising their customers, you can close ticket offices and move staff out onto the concourse to become visible customer service assistants (CSA’s).  The sales of tickets can be handled by automatic ticket dispensers and where necessary the CSA’s can help with purchases and, the reduction in cash handling costs can more than pay for staff retraining. The withdrawal of paper tickets also allows operators to provide plastic rechargeable cards which do not require disposal and the associated waste disposal costs. Allied to this, various different travel options can be loaded onto the card, e.g. daily/weekly/monthly tickets or special offers such as buy one ticket get another half price etc. The withdrawal of paper tickets means that the cost of providing tickets can be significantly reduced due to not having to produce individual disposable tickets for each journey.

In addition, there is an ability to add cash value to the card, so a parent could purchase a student travel card and add a cash value that can be used to purchase food and drink from partner organisations such as school canteens or fast food outlets. Alternatively employers could provide travel tickets to employees along with the ability for the staff member to add cash amounts to the card so that they can purchase goods and services at discount from partner suppliers of their employer.

Data stored on the card also has significant value to the operator that the paper ticket just cannot provide. For instance a paper ticket will tell the operator where the passenger started and finished their journey but cannot tell them which one of a number of alternate routes a passenger actually took, nor in most cases will it tell what time of day the journey was made. In addition where the paper ticket is multi-modal it will not tell the operator which other modes were used, what time this was and what routes were taken. This can be significant, where the passenger may use the services of several operators to complete one single end-to-end journey and the revenue has to be allocated fairly to each operator.

The travel data can also be provided to local authorities in simple electronic formats so that operators can secure funding for socially required services. The data can also show service usage patterns allowing operators to ensure services are operating efficiently and cost effectively. The same data can also allow operators to modify existing services or to plan new ones where an early indication has been shown by the data that a need either exists or is developing.

There is however a downside to digitising the customer, the operator can abuse their position in regards to passenger access. I tried to check in for a flight home after the New Year only to find that the check-in time had been reduced from seven days to four, now that isn’t really a problem for me as I have Wi-Fi access but for holiday makers it becomes difficult to check-in without incurring extra cost. I will not name the airline that is imposing this restriction but it is well known for being non-customer friendly.

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