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What's wrong with that old orange cardboard rail ticket?

Guest blogger Andrew Steele

You're familiar with that piece of orange card that train companies have been using for well over 30 years - but is it time for ticketing to get smart? And what would truly smart ticketing mean for passengers? Guest blogger Andrew Steele is Director of Corporate Strategy at SilverRail. He's spent 18 years working with digital technologies to help improve the passenger experience across brands including National Rail, Traveline, Trainline, Arriva, Go Ahead, Stagecoach and Virgin. 

"We are all passengers on the UK rail network from time to time. Some of us commute, day in day out, some of us make journeys for business or pleasure more or less regularly, but all of us have to make sure we have a valid ticket. The chances are that if you are like the majority of other rail passengers in the UK, you still buy that old orange cardboard rail ticket from a station ticket office or a ticket vending machine a few minutes before you board your train (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Gross receipts by retail channel, 2003/04 to 2013/14 (% of total receipts). From Office of Rail Regulation Retail market review consultation (September 2014). Acronyms: TfL = Transport for London; TOC = train operating company; TMC = travel management company; TVM = ticket vending machine.

You may think making your purchase at the station is the best way to buy a ticket. You are familiar with that piece of orange card that train companies have been using in the UK for well over 30 years. It gives you comfort and certainty that you have a right to travel and what price you paid, and you trust the person in your local station ticket office to find you the best price for a journey to any station in the country.

But in 2017, when seamless technology has removed the stress from many travel experiences, from taxis (think of Uber) to airlines (think of mobile boarding cards), is the old orange cardboard ticket still fit for purpose? Consider when you last bought one...

  • How long did you queue? 
  • How much extra time did ticket purchase add to your journey time?
  • Are you sure you got the best value fare?
  • Is the ticket valid on the journey you are taking? 
  • If you lose your ticket, is there any record to enable you to get a replacement?
  • Are you confident about being dealt with fairly?
  • How often does the magnetic stripe fail to read in the gate (particularly if it is a season ticket?)

So, is there a better way? Over the last 10 years individual train operators have been trialling a number of new technologies, but the variety and complexity of choices can be overwhelming for anyone but the most sophisticated, enthusiastic and technologically minded rail experts. In addition to that old orange cardboard ticket, you might be surprised to discovered that you are actually now able to use as many as 11 (yes that is ELEVEN!) ticket alternatives.

  • Train Operator's Mobile phone app 
  • Third Party Retailers Mobile phone app
  • Print at home barcode
  • Till roll barcode
  • Mobile wallet barcode 
  • Train Operator's ITSO Smartcard
  • Local Authorities ITSO Smartcard
  • Oyster Smartcard
  • Contactless Bank Card
  • Apple Pay 
  • Android Pay

Initially, you may think this is fantastic choice, until you discover that the availability of each is not universal. Each one is limited by a variety of different factors including Train Operator, route, ticket type, origin and destination, and who sells you the ticket. If this is not bad enough, some retailers (such as some station ticket offices) cannot provide after sales customer service, such as refunds, replacements, or delay compensation on some products bought on some mechanisms (such as Train Operator's own ITSO Smartcard). Further still, the best value way to make a journey may be only one specific combination of each of these ways to buy, and often this is not easy to discover. 

What was initially seen as a 'Smart' revolution in ticketing has become the death of the universal and interoperable products enshrined in legislation at the time of privatisation. The whole rail industry is currently implementing plans, through the DfT Smart Ticketing on National Rail programme, to increase the interoperability of many of these new forms of ticket, but these plans are likely to initially make things worse before they get better. 

Some of the 'new', 'smart' technologies that are being proposed for wider roll out are already between 10 and 20 years old, with issues of their own. Is it now time for a re-think about the possibilities that new technology can deliver to the rail passenger? Should the rail industry consider leap-frogging investments in already out of date solutions, to move straight to technologies that will be fit for purpose in a digital society? 

Digital technology can be used to hide the complexity of ticketing media, operators and product offers into a single mobile phone app whilst both simplifying and improving the customer experience. For example, one train operator is trialling a system that can, in the same ways as Oyster does in London, automatically calculate the best value fare for a national rail journey but in addition gives travellers real time information while they are on that journey. Minor changes to industry rules could see this same digital technology easily deliver flexible season tickets together with a daily, weekly, monthly and annual price promise across the UK rail network, encouraging us all to make better use of trains."

SilverRail is powering global rail with its next-generation retailing and distribution platform. SilverRail's technology is purpose–built for rail. Its product suite spans the full customer experience: journey planning, inventory management, scheduling, pricing, booking, payment, ticketing, reporting and administration.

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