Tuesday, 22 December 2009

eTicket to ride

Enjoy a recent interview I did for a rail industry magazine
The advancement of technology has revolutionised the way in which railways around the world now operate. One area of this is revolution is the emergence of digital ticketing, reports Richard Mackillican

The advancement of technology has revolutionised the way in which railways around the world now operate. One area of this is revolution is the emergence of digital ticketing, reports Richard Mackillican
The last few years have seen rail companies taking the plunge into a totally new area of customer service which enables passengers to forego the normal system of buying a paper ticket at the train station.
“In terms of mobile ticketing the industry is on the edge of a breakthrough,” explained Steve Reynolds, Chairman of the Mobile Data Association, “However, as an industry, rail is a little behind others in regards to using mobile technology to issue tickets.
“Of course there are some great examples of it working, such as Transport For London’s Oyster card, which perfectly illustrates how mobile data can be used to enable a more flexible way of travelling.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that everyone travelling on the rail network in the future would want to top their card up then waft it on top of a terminal as they go past, but then again buying a ticket on the internet is not a simple process either.
“It means that you either have to have the tickets posted to you, which given recent events can not be completely reliable, or pick them up at the station - meaning more printed paper tickets.
“Of course then you have to insert that ticket in the gate, which may not be accepted if it is an advance ticket and requires guards to be standing by barriers checking tickets. So the rail industry has a long way to go in terms of ticket issuing and could learn a lot from the airline industry.
“British Airways issues electronic tickets these days, and Lufthansa use text ticketing, which is even better. This means that if you want an e-ticket , Lufthansa send it straight to your mobile phone, which is scanned when you check in.”
Of course this kind of approach is far more environmentally friendly than continually printing off single-use paper tickets which require wood to be cut down and a huge amount of energy to be expended processing the pulp into tickets.
“Aside from its environmental benefits, this kind of technique also helps to stop littering.” added Steve. “If you look outside train stations now, you often see tickets strewn across the floor if the machines aren’t working properly.”
“Mobile ticketing on the UK rail network is between five and ten years behind where they should be. Though this isn’t necessarily true of Transport for London, who have gone along way to resolving these kinds of issues.”
Bringing the rail industry in line with other transport sectors would take a lot of time, effort and investment to achieve; Steve believes that it is certainly achievable.
“If you consider British Airways as a case study,” he continued, “They use e-ticketing and have around 40,000 employees in 30 to 40 countries around the world. Millions of people travel with them every year and they still manage to make the system work, so why not rail operators too?
“If on trains you have many season ticket holders, mobile ticketing could be used to provide better levels of service. The whole concept of issuing tickets on trains must be considered.”
Implementing such systems requires a huge amount of planning for the companies involved; therefore it would be important for them not to rush into anything.
“Initially it would have to be a phased approach.” explained Steve, “But to go from the situation as it is at the moment, to being able to receive a text message barcode ticket would be great.
“Of course this would mean a change in the infrastructure used, but if you compare it to the one already in place, then it’s going to be more financially efficient in the long term.
“If you go to any train station throughout the length and breadth of the UK, there will be around five or six extremely expensive ticketing machines in each one, with queues of people. Then there will also be a ticket office issuing paper tickets, so all of these costs add up both financially and environmentally.
“But, if you consider that nearly everyone who travels by train will have a mobile phone on their person and will be reasonably savvy with that technology, then there is certainly room for efficiencies to be made through simply texting tickets through to those phones.
“One would have to consider the elderly when implementing these types of systems, so it would be important to have dual systems to begin with, with more traditional ticketing options still available.
“Therefore I think that the first step should be to give passengers the option to print their own tickets, which requires scanning infrastructure in place. From there the industry could move onto electronic ticketing using mobile technology. Then further down the line, once mobile payments become pervasive, the industry could look at mobile payment methods, so that they can buy the tickets as well.”
The rail industry, like other sectors, is enduring the tough economic conditions which have a negative affect on passenger number growth. However, if the industry embraces the use of mobile technology, then it will be able to reap huge financial rewards from no longer needing much of the current infrastructure. It would also make the system run more smoothly according to Steve.
“Having bar code readers at the barriers rather than ticket readers would mean the whole process runs more smoothly for the rail industry,” He said. “It would also mean less demand for staff at ticket offices and less paper used in tickets, so it’s better for the environment.”
Of course this kind of technology will take a long time to come into full scale use and will need a lot of testing.

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