Train tickets have served railways well for the 150 years or more that they have existed. Until relatively recently, there seemed no better option for ensuring that passengers have paid the correct fare. But the inexorable march of technology, coupled with exploding passenger numbers prompting new demands for a faster fare system, has brought a new innovation to the rail market – paperless ticketing.

Under these new systems, which are now in operation at many metro and light rail networks around the world, fare information can be stored on convenient smart cards, with contactless technology allowing commuters to pass through ticket barriers without any need to insert and reclaim a paper ticket. This is a boon for overcrowded metro services that need to speed up the ticketing system to reduce congestion.

Ticketless systems are predominantly found on city subways and light rail networks, which are smaller and easier to manage than national rail lines. But with an increasing amount of sophistication being packed into smart card devices, it seems only a matter of time before the world will bid a fond farewell to traditional paper tickets for good.

Indra, an international technology firm with its headquarters in Madrid, has a great deal of experience in developing, implementing and maintaining contactless ticketing systems for the rail transport market. The company has carried out ticketless projects in cities as diverse as Barcelona, Athens, Austin and Shanghai, with current projects currently underway on the metro and light rail networks of Kuala Lumpur, Mumbai and Delhi. We interviewed Indra’s transport and traffic director José Benito García Cuéllar to find out what makes a good ticketless system, and where this technology could be taken in the near future.

Chris Lo: How popular are ticketless systems based on smart cards for metro and rail systems around the world?

“The main challenge is to offer the user a friendly system that is easier to use and full of new functions.”

José Benito García Cuéllar: Contactless technology is spreading rapidly over many cities, small and big, and is the principal option chosen by operators installing a new ticketing system from the beginning of a project. In addition, many of the cities that previously had a traditional ticketing system are now in a period of transition between the old magnetic system to the new contactless system in order to finally work exclusively with contactless technology in the near future. This new system can be used in all transport systems, both on metro / underground and railroads as well as buses and is extremely popular with end users all around the world.

CL: What are the major challenges of putting a contactless ticketing system into place?

JBGC: The main challenge is to offer the user a friendly system that is easier to use and full of new functions. Users can forget about introducing a small ticket into a tiny slot and waiting until it comes out again, making access time much faster. It also allows passengers to select from a much higher variety of fare systems, as a smart card adapts to their needs and are often able to have more than one fare type in one card, with the system able to decide which one should be used.

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The challenge with these systems is the change from a traditional system to contactless technology. There is no technical problem, but the operator and the passenger must change the traditional form they are used to for using the system and adapt to the new possibilities that these systems offer them.

CL: What are the benefits of a contactless system for rail networks?

“This technology allows us to integrate all of a city’s transport systems, allowing them to work in an intermodal way.”

JBGC: For operators, there are several important advantages. The use of this technology makes for much better data collection and the ability to offer more products and more opportunities to customers. Operators get much more information coming from every transaction realised with a smart card, allowing them to understand the real needs of users.

There is also the reduction of maintenance cost of the contactless systems in comparison to traditional magnetic systems. Eliminating the mechanical components which process paper tickets, combined with the reliability and sturdiness of the contactless readers and the elimination of elements that need to be replaced periodically makes the maintenance of these new systems much cheaper.

CL: Do you think ticketless systems are right for all public transport systems, or are traditional ticket systems better for some networks?

JBGC: As I said before, contactless systems offer many more opportunities and are much more adaptable to each operator’s needs, and valid for any public transport system. This technology allows us to integrate all of a city’s transport systems, allowing them to work in an intermodal way so that the passenger only needs one card to access all public transport. From the operator’s point of view, they can have a centre of compensation that distributes the trips between each of the operators depending information coming in from the individual validators.

CL: What can be done to make sure that contactless systems are robust and fair for travellers?

JBGC: During the processing of a contactless card, many readings and recordings are built into it to ensure that the information is correct before deducting money from a passenger’s balance, and all the parameters needed for the correct assignment of the trip are taken into account. In addition, the information contained in a contactless card is much more than in traditional systems, which allows us to develop many more control mechanisms to avoid fraud or overcharging.

The information in the cards is going to be protected by a system of keys and encryption as well as the design map of the card itself, which will guarantee the security of the information inside. The readers can be equipped with a SAM [security authentication module] that can manage all these keys, meaning the system developer doesn’t have any kind of inside information from them.

CL: How can other devices, like mobile phones, be integrated into the contactless system to make it more convenient for users?

JBGC: Contactless technology allows us many possibilities. A contactless chip may be integrated into different devices to avoid having to remember just one transport card. We are not only talking about cell phones but watches, keyrings and credit cards as well.

“A logical evolution will be the integration of the bank credit card as a contactless card.”

CL: What do you think could be possible with this technology in the next 5-10 years?

JBGC: We can arrange two chips inside the same card, a contactless one and a contact one, allowing users to make a choice between them depending on the operation and the security required. For example, one could use the contactless one for the transport system and the contact chip to make purchase with a bank card, with EMV II security.

A logical evolution will be the integration of the bank credit card as a contactless card so that we do not need to have an exclusive balance for transport but take the payment for journeys directly from the associate bank account, with the advantages that this carries for the passenger since he does not ever have to recharge his card. The possibilities offered by these systems are so wide that evolution in the next few years will be huge.