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.

3 responses to “Technology comes to rail passengers”

  1. David Colgan says:

    I fully agree with the sentiment here, Graham, to digitise the travel experience, as you point out, most people nowadays carry smartphones or tablets. My question is, why replace the paper ticket with a smartcard, as all of the functionality you describe above, and more, can be delivered directly from a smartphone.

    Why add another card to an already bulging wallet ? Adopt the green approach and reuse the technology that passengers already have in their pockets and purses. With a smartphone, you can plan your journey, buy your ticket and use your ticket all from the same app. Nothing to reload, no TVM queues to wait in, just a few taps on your phone and it’s done.

    At ByteToken we have a whole range of different smartphone solutions that encompass multi-modal and multi-operator travel. With our app you could take a single journey that requires visual validation, 2D barcode and NFC, something that would simply be impossible using a smartcard.

    When you add the significant costs for implementing a smartcard infrastructure, we believe that mobile is the real future for transport ticketing.

  2. Martin Hill says:

    Have travelled extensively across Europe where for some years I’ve been able to store my tickets on my smartphone. So much more convenient to buy tickets when I want and not have to find a ticket machine to print them off. We always seem to lag behind in the UK.

  3. Emily O'Dowd says:

    Interesting article, this is definitely the biggest area of growth in the industry – the passenger has been neglected for too long! I found this article about the same sort of advances taking place in India too.

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