Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, May 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
Dave Richardson traces the evolution of the train e-ticket
E-ticketing is universally accepted for scheduled and low-cost airlines, and is now starting to be delivered on mobile phones as well as paper. So it's natural that buyers and travellers want the same for rail travel, but it could prove a lot more problematic.
With air travel you need to have an advance reservation; you are also required to check-in and have your identity verified. That's not so with rail services in the UK and most other countries, and although you do need a seat reservation on Eurostar, you can turn up just before departure and book, subject to availability.
Three emerging technologies will make rail easier to ticket in future: plain paper ticket printing; a ticket sent electronically to your mobile device; and a touch-in smart card like the Oyster card used for tube, bus and local rail services in London.
Plain paper ticket printing, including a barcode that can be read at ticket barriers or by inspectors on board trains, is already a reality. But only a few train operating companies (TOCs) are using it, and then only for advance reservations for journeys made wholly on their services rather than connecting with other operators.
That rules out most business travel, where the need for flexibility means an open or 'anytime' ticket is often booked for the return journey, if not the outward leg, too. The problem with making these tickets available for self-printing is that there's nothing to stop a dishonest passenger buying one ticket and then using it repeatedly. Heathrow Express has invested in technology that recognises if a ticket has already been used, but other TOCs have not. In the meantime, they only allow self-print tickets when a seat is reserved on a particular train.
The need for major investment in scanning technology at ticket barriers and on trains is also holding back development of mobile phone ticketing. The Department for Transport is making acceptance of smart cards a condition of some franchise agreements with TOCs, but this mainly affects commuter routes into London.
Commuters might soon be able to buy a season ticket loaded on to a smart card, but it could be many years before long-distance journeys are included, especially when they involve more than one TOC.
But is there really much demand for these new technologies? Thetrainline.com and Evolvi have both revolutionised the ticket delivery process in recent years, meaning users can collect tickets from machines at over 700 stations. They can also have tickets printed on a desktop machine or (for large corporates) collect them from a walk-up kiosk.
Thetrainline.com is more upbeat about new technologies than Evolvi, but both are reliant on the rail industry generally making the necessary investment. Thetrainline. com has enabled self-print ticketing for Virgin Trains, CrossCountry, Grand Central and the Manchester Airport services of First TransPennine Express, and is working with suppliers to get standards in place for barcode scanning.
Thetrainline.com business development director Richard Rowson says: "I estimate that the rail industry has spent £25 million on ticket machines at stations, but the investment needed for barcode scanning is only a fraction of that. Most TOCs want to move forward, as they want to reduce queues at stations. They also recognise that more people would travel by train if ticketing was simpler."
He admits that trials of mobile ticketing were conducted before people were ready, but the rapid take-up of BlackBerry and the Apple iPhone is changing the picture. People are now getting used to cinema tickets being delivered to their phones - so why not rail tickets?
"The whole end-to-end transaction is starting to happen on mobiles," says Rowson. "A passenger can make a reservation using Thetrainline.com's app, and have that ticket delivered, as a barcode, in less time than it takes to queue at the ticket office. This can be linked to a corporate account so there is no need to reclaim on expenses."
Evolvi feels that while there is demand from businesses for self-print technology, there is much less interest in mobile ticketing or smart cards. The ticket delivery process is already highly efficient, and it has now delivered over 1,500 desktop printers producing the same type of magnetic stripe tickets as station ticket machines or booking offices.
Evolvi trade relations director Jonathan Reeve says: "Businesses would like to print tickets on plain paper, but there's a lack of understanding of the complex issues and investment needed by TOCs to make that more widely available.
New technologies will be applied to a narrow range of journeys and fare types in the medium term, but the day when all tickets can be delivered by new technologies is a long way off." He adds: "I'm not sure about mobile ticketing. How many people can really be bothered to book using a BlackBerry keyboard? And with smart cards, there are so many issues to be resolved."
Smart cards would mean enhanced management information for corporates, who could track which trains their people use even when no advance reservation is made. But what happens if the technology fails? That's easily resolved at a London Underground station, when you've only paid a couple of pounds on an Oyster Card journey, but what about a rail fare costing over £100 involving two or more TOCs?
As with any new technology there will be many false dawns, but let us remember that it was only a few years ago that there were no station ticket machines, little advance booking and most tickets were delivered to corporates by post - how times change.
CORPORATES AND TRAVEL MANAGEMENT COMPANIES (TMCs) are now haggling over who will absorb increased costs from July 25 when the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) cuts commission. The rate is dropping from 5 per cent to 4 per cent for TMCs providing a financial guarantee or bond, and to 3 per cent for TMCs who are not bonded.
Bonding - which can be costly - will be compulsory for all TMCs from March 31, 2011. The new rate was agreed between ATOC and the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC), and is significantly better than first proposed. But ATOC can be expected to move further towards zero commission when the new agreement expires in three years.
Evolvi is investigating covering the bonding requirement itself, as already happens with Thetrainline.com. Management fees charged by TMCs will inevitably increase, and some TMCs who conduct little rail business might decide to drop out. Corporates who don't need the extra services offered by TMCs will find it more cost-effective to deal with train operators directly, who can book journeys nationwide.
Thetrainline.com's direct corporate customers are also affected as the online retailer is also suffering a commission cut, but the company's director of sales and distribution, Adrian Watts, says: "Inevitably an increase in fees won't be welcome, but we hope corporates will see this in the context of the average 41 per cent saving they can make compared to buying tickets at the station on the day they travel."
A NUMBER of global distribution systems (GDSs) have forged partnerships with Evolvi and Thetrainline.com rather than build their own UK rail booking systems, and are now building closer links with European rail networks.