Overcoming the challenges of e-ticketing

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 17

Justin Stenner, head of technology for Heathrow Express, considers the  benefits and drawbacks of implementing e-ticketing on rail services.

Setting up e-ticketing should be easy – right? Make an app, get users to sign up, job done. There are many successful examples from other industries. For instance, when a customer wants to buy their airline or concert tickets, or even a taxi, they can go online or download and app and bingo. Within a few taps they have booked their flight, entertainment and travel home. 

So why is it so fractured in rail and what is the way forward? 

Part of the problem may be the byzantine nature of rail fares, already recognised by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and Rail Delivery Group (RDG). Part of the problem may be the nature of ticketing itself. RDG does a good job of building and supporting the ticketing reservation and settlements systems to allow interoperability, but there is no centralised barcode issuing system to go with the reservations and settlements system, so if I go out and buy a shiny new digital Ticket Issuing System (TIS) for Heathrow Express, there is no guarantee that the multi-segment tickets “my” system issues will be recognised on another TOC’s trains. TIS are procured by the TOC and the procurement point in each franchise will mean each TOC has different priorities and each vendor’s TIS has slightly different capabilities. 

Crystallising the business case for additional sales channels can be difficult. Although it seems obvious that we need to service our customer’s needs via digital, especially in such an advanced digital economy, any additional sales channel costs money and it would be useful to demonstrate when we can start reducing costs by switching off the legacy systems supporting ticketing offices and ticket vending machines (TVMs). Although we will all be spending significant sums on improving digital channels, they do not enable us to switch off the old ones yet. 

What can we learn from other industries? 

Air travel, where barcoded e-tickets are now the norm, took 10 years from issuing the first electronic ticket to launch a transition programme for the industry globally. The programme took four years to move to all the International Air Transport Association’s 250 members to 100% e-ticketing. Low-cost carriers did it quicker because they did not have to worry about interoperability. 

Air travel has the advantage that it requires a significant amount of personal information in order to get on a plane – name, email address, passport number, etc. and customers were used to providing this even before the advent of e-ticketing. Rail is different. Why should a customer give over their (valuable) personal details to get a ticket from Bath to Chippenham when they can happily wander up to a TVM in the station, get their ticket and board the train? There has to be a case for them do to so. That case may most easily be made with price. When Oyster launched, it was priced much more cheaply than a paper ticket and that helped drive significant market penetrations, but there are other ways. 

Air also doesn’t have to worry about operating an open-loop system where tickets are validated or even purchased on the train in areas where there may be no 2G, never mind 4G connectivity, and payment service providers now strongly prefer, if not mandate, that transactions are authorised online if possible. 

So core customer proposition, interoperability, and even national infrastructure are the areas we need to consider for a successful e-ticketing roll-out. 

How to do individual TOCs and an industry resolve these? 

To convince the customer to give us their valuable data, we have to create pull factors to draw them to using our new e-ticketing services. Like the Oyster, this can be with price, but we can also do this with service information. An account registration can give operators the ability to tailor service information to the traveller’s regular journeys and also apply refunds automatically – a much improved service offering. 

Interoperability is where the industry as a whole needs to come together. Various TOCs use barcoded tickets on routes, but TOCs can only automatically scan another company’s barcode if they have a bilateral agreement and have done some work to interoperate. This is an area which may really be helped by some leveraging of centralised systems. 

We also have to think about how we validate tickets. In this article I have written predominantly about barcoded e-tickets and potentially scanning on train. A complete e-ticket solution for national rail may be on the horizon; individual vendors and TOCs are making good progress in implementing at least partially interoperable schemes and, with the RDG driving a simplification of fares, the future looks bright.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email 


John Davies   23/03/2017 at 11:28

Justin makes some good points although I would highlight that all TOCs and retailers use the same RDG-specified barcode standard, and this applies whether mobile ticket (to app) eTicket (to Apple Wallet) or self-print, thus providing the basis for future network-wide interoperability. There is a significant amount of collaboration working towards this by Trainline, TOCs and RDG. As far as I am aware, though Heathrow Express does not use the same standard adopted and accepted by the rest of the industry?

Gabriel Oaks   04/04/2017 at 12:18

I find purchasing a ticket confusing at the best of times and don't get involved in e-ticketing /smartphones etc. Many are in the same position. E-ticketing may be fine as an option as long as simple straightforward ticket purchasing remains available (particularly for those with disabilities etc).

Ian   04/04/2017 at 14:23

I must agree with Gabriel's comments. I do not "do" so called smart phones as I have no need for them. In fact I often do not carry a mobile phone. My partner has a learning disability so she cannot use them and the lack of Guards on trains already severly disadvantages her. This headlong rush to everything "digital" needs to be tempered with care as it is not for everybody. Above all, and based on my own engineering experience, please remember digital means it nearly works as it should and no number of incomprehensible fancy ersatz business speak phrases will change that.

Mike   10/04/2017 at 16:42

There are two other benefits to e-ticketing (from the consumer's perspective) which weren't mentioned in the article: security and access. With an e-ticket you don't have to worry about losing your ticket or leaving it at home by mistake; It's there on your phone. And even if you do lose your phone (or don't have one), you can still access your ticket online and print it off. Customer Services will do that for you at a station, but try getting them to give you a replacement for a lost / stolen paper ticket and see how far you get.... I travel on rail for business all the time and the ability to store multiple tickets on my phone (for Virgin West Coast) is great - it's also less of a faff when claiming back on expenses. The security aspect is huge for me. My paper season ticket for Cambridge to London got nicked a few years back and the process of replacing it was a total nightmare - financially and administratively. Had my TOC enabled an e-season-ticket for my route, as some others do, it would have spared me a tonne of stress. Bring 'em on I say!

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