Smart on Rail with Transport for the North

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

Transport for the North is currently leading the rollout of smartcards across the region’s rail network. Programme director, Alastair Richards, shares the customer insights on choices behind the successful passenger take-up, and reflects on how the project is informing the programme’s wider plans for smart travel across the north.

A sign of things to come

The launch of ‘Smart on Rail’ across the whole of the region marks a major milestone for Transport for the North (TfN). It is a first step in our ambitious 30-year plan to improve regional connectivity, drive economic growth, and make the north of England an even better place to live.

We had a clear challenge to prove that we can deliver for customers, and do it well. Looking back on the first few months of operation, I think we can say that by working in collaboration with our partners we have done that.

‘Smart on Rail’ is the first phase of TfN’s Integrated and Smart Travel Programme. Its focus is to introduce durable smartcards to replace paper tickets across the network. We are delivering smartcards to season ticket holders first. We will then introduce ‘flexible’ season tickets onto smartcards later in the year to suit those customers who travel frequently, but in more irregular patterns. These, in-conjunction with smart barcode tickets, make it possible for us to work with our partners to plan the withdrawal of paper tickets.

For the customer, this will make journeys on rail easier and more convenient to pay for, as well as speed up their passage through stations as they will be able to simply tap through and even collect a pre-purchased ticket at the gate line.

Smart tickets are currently being promoted to customers on a route-by-route basis across the north and I am pleased to report we have seen fantastic early take up. As I write, 30% of season ticket holders on promoted ‘smartcard’ routes have already made the switch from paper tickets to smartcards. That’s a fantastic result.

Sales show we have also been able to crack the difficult weekly season ticket market, proving people are enjoying the offer and renewing their seasons on to their smartcard regularly. Already, smart is becoming the new normal.

Collaboration is key

There is no doubt that it has been a truly collaborative effort. We are delivering and enhancing smart ticketing in partnership with the north’s three regional train operating companies: Northern Rail, TransPennine Express (TPE), and Merseyrail.

The project sits alongside the Department for Transport’s plans for smart ticketing on rail and Transport Scotland’s smart ticketing initiatives, and we have worked closely with the Smart Ticketing on National Rail programme and the Rail Delivery Group.

Early in the project, we established a joint train operating company project board to bring together the rail operators that function in the north. We have worked collaboratively throughout planning, technical delivery, and rollout. This has enabled us to share best practice, and everyone has worked to a set of shared commitments to deliver the best and most joined-up proposition for customers.

Importantly for the customer, the team has also taken a joint approach to marketing and communications. If you see any advertising at stations, you’ll notice the shared and consistently recognisable key messaging between TPE and Northern. The train operators have kept their own brand identities, but we wanted to ensure a clear, consistent customer message. The smart ticket is the hero.

This type of collaboration on ticketing, acting as a single united operating company, is not the norm in the rail industry. We are really pleased with what we have been able to achieve.

We have developed a blueprint for successful cross-operator collaboration and we are already applying this model as we develop our plans for the delivery of an account-based smart travel system for all modes of public transport across the north.

Not smart for smart’s sake

While it would be easy to say the project’s success all comes down to teamwork, it’s also been fundamental that we got the product right for the customer. At TfN, we like to say it is not about transport for transport’s sake. Investment and innovation should be guided by people’s needs; an ambition to make their lives easier and deliver change in a way that makes it a natural, easy choice for them. And smart technology is no different.

Smart tickets must work for the passenger. We have conducted a great deal of research to understand the north’s rail passengers’ preferences. We now know there are many different types of users and their behaviours are driven by a number of factors.

Commuters who use season tickets are the most receptive to smart ticketing initiatives. For them, introducing smartcards didn’t have to mean transformational behaviour change on their part. Indeed, we actually made a conscious choice to just gently nudge them along the journey from paper to smart tickets.

We did this with a booking-office-first approach, whereby those season ticket customers who buy at the station as part of their normal routine were asked if they would like to make the switch from paper to smartcard at the point of purchase. After being told the process would take just 30 seconds, the majority were very happy to switch.

Online and ticket machine retailing are also being implemented to offer greater flexibility and choice to customers about what channel they use to purchase. But rather than having to apply for a card and wait to receive it by post, booking-office regulars, traditionally the hardest to switch to digital channels of purchase, will already have a smartcard in their pocket.

Measuring the benefits

Smart tickets should offer passengers more flexibility, convenience, and durability. To continue the successful trend of high passenger take-up, we need to ensure they fulfil their promise of being ‘easier, quicker, smarter’ for customers.

We continue to work closely with the train operators and are listening to staff and customer feedback to make sure we iron out any initial teething problems. TfN has also begun a multi-year programme of customer insight and benefit realisation. This is providing us with baseline data and enabling us to measure and record passenger behaviour change.

‘Smart on Rail’ also provides the basis from which we will introduce our pan-Northern Account Based Ticketing system and Pay As You Go using contactless in 2020. It has set us on a path to a new era for travel and ticketing in the North. It looks set to be a rewarding journey.


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