Online ticketing: a smarter, more transparent and digital future for rail?

Written on 22 Feb 2016

Back in October 2013, the Department for Transport concluded its consultation into rail fares and ticketing. The report outlined a key aim for the government – to provide passengers with a better, modern and more flexible deal on fares. One of the key ways that this can be achieved is to improve the current online ticketing system, whilst in parallel building the smart ticketing system of the future.

Whilst the online sale of rail tickets has progressed, there are still fundamental issues which the industry needs to face before any real, substantive changes can be made. This article looks at how the market has progressed, what has prevented greater progress, and what is likely to happen next.

Progress so far

In the not-so-distant past, buying a rail ticket was easy – you went to the station and asked the ticket clerk what you wanted. The clerk would then sell you a ticket that met your requirements. Technology has revolutionised this process, and ticket sales have now shifted towards both automated vending machines and internet sales.

As more people have become proficient in purchasing goods and services online, the use of websites such as thetrainline.com and mytrainticket.com has risen. We’ve also more recently seen moves towards smartcards, print-at-home tickets and the ability to use apps on your smartphone. This aligns with the government’s overall objective to ensure that buying rail tickets is a quick, convenient, and straightforward process. It also reflects the increasing confidence that people have in using self-service channels in other parts of their lives (such as at supermarket check-outs or when applying online for television or driving licences).

In line with the push to increase data transparency, both the rail industry fares database and timetabling database are now accessible for free through the ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies) website. The hope is that by putting this data in the public domain, more price comparison websites and mobile apps will enter the market, allowing passengers to benefit from improved ways of researching ticket information.
ATOC has also taken steps to enhance the pre-journey information available to passengers, in the hope that they will have a better understanding of the terms and conditions of tickets purchased online. This includes requiring online ticket vendors to include pop-ups which highlight ticket restrictions before passengers make final payment, and sending pre-departure emails to remind passengers of these restrictions.

Issues with online sales of rail tickets

Buying a ticket should be a simple process. Passengers need to have confidence that they have bought the most appropriate ticket for their journey. Despite the progress that has been made, rail ticket retailing has not kept pace with other transport modes and there are a number of key issues when buying rail tickets online which will be familiar to anyone who has tried to do so:

  • it can be very difficult to find the most appropriate ticket for your journey, and passengers may lack sufficient knowledge on how to find the best value tickets (for example, misunderstanding the term “open return”, not checking if two singles are cheaper than a return, or having no knowledge of alternative, cheaper routes);
  • the method of calculating the cheapest route can be extremely difficult – especially on longer journeys. The rail industry is notorious for having complex tariffs and product conditions, and the ease at which passengers can deal with issues such as rebooking and refunding can vary significantly between different rail companies;
  • there is no easy way to check whether tickets are cheaper to purchase directly from the train company’s own website, or other third party websites (for example, thetrainline.com); and
  • there can be issues when ordering the tickets online and collecting them from a station. For example, most ticketing machines will require the same card that was used to purchase the tickets to be used to collect the tickets. And most online booking services advise passengers that it may take up to two hours for the transaction to be processed, which prevents the ‘turn-up-and-go’ service which the government is trying to achieve. One notable exception to this is the online ticketing service offered by CrossCountry Trains, which allows online ticket purchases of lower-cost “Advance” tickets until just fifteen minutes before departure, and for online seat reservations to be arranged separately online up to 10 minutes before departure.

A number of online third party ticket retailers have entered the market (such as thetrainline.com, raileasy.com, redspottedhanky.com and mytrainticket.com), but these websites are often subject to restrictions, such as not being able to sell season tickets.

The future?

Passenger train operators will need to take steps to improve ticketing information available to passengers, making full use of new technologies to develop further innovative proposals to provide improved service-levels for passengers. For example, the current generation of ticket machines were designed to reduce queues in ticketing offices, and not necessarily designed with the printing of online-bought tickets in mind

Undoubtedly, the future of rail tickets is smart ticketing. This wide definition encompasses print at home tickets, using mobile phones and smart cards as well as contactless cards (using NFC technology). Over 40,000 tickets have been bought using applications on smartphones (known as ‘m-tickets’), with passengers able to switch between different train operators’ services on a single journey. M-tickets also allow passengers to have ‘live journey support’ such as real time train running updates and connections, which gives the facility an edge over contactless or other smart cards. The current issues with purchasing tickets online – namely the vast array of choices and unclear ticketing options – will still need to be resolved so that passengers can utilise these smart ticketing systems.

One recent initiative backed by both the rail industry and the Department for Transport is HackTrain, a platform whereby software developers, designers and entrepreneurs are being invited to come up with innovative solutions to make the rail network and infrastructure more efficient. The best ideas will receive a £25,000 investment fund to help turn the ideas into reality. It is rare that the major players from across the network come together to try to improve passenger experience and operational efficiency, so this drive to encourage new technologies should be welcomed.

The government is clearly focusing on moving the rail industry into the digital age, and improving the online ticket experience will form part of the strategy to create a world-leading railway network. However, the vision of a smart enablement of the rail network in England is scheduled to take between 10-15 years, and if the history of rail network development is anything to go by, it may take considerably longer.