Train tickets

“Everybody has the same objective, in that digital is the way forward,” says Trainline retail director John Davies. His – and Trainline’s – desire to further advance the cause of mobile ticketing has brought to the fore a new way of thinking in how to get passengers from A to B.

No longer will they be required to download a rail specific app on to their devices – “we're going to take that out of the equation”, explains Davies. How? Those travelling with Virgin Trains West Coast on advanced purchase tickets are now able to download the barcode ticket straight to the Apple Wallet.

John Sullivan, chief information officer at Virgin Trains, has described it as an “e-ticket which brings airline-style ticketing to UK rail customers for the first time”.

Those at Trainline are presenting this as “next generation” technology, not just incremental change. Davies explains why now and how the m-ticket – which itself is only a few years old – is likely to change rapidly in the near future.

Gary Peters: Can you explain the thinking behind this ticket-to-wallet concept?

John Davies: We've worked with Virgin for many years on different projects around mobile ticketing and this seemed like the obvious next step.

With mobile there is a requirement that the customer downloads a rail industry app.

But, now we've said we're going to take the rail industry specific part of that out of the equation and give passengers their tickets in a way that is consistent with how they choose to do business in other aspects of their life.

We will email you your ticket and from there you can show it on your phone as a PDF, print it, or, as of now, show it in the Apple Wallet.

GP: Why now?

JD: We're on the cusp of something really special in rail. The government has said it wants everyone to have a digital alternative by 2018.

At Trainline, more than 50% of the network is now served by m-tickets. The focus now is completing that work. But as we do that it shouldn't prevent us finding better ways to deliver m-tickets, so stepping it forward to the next generation and demystifying ticketing for passengers.

GP: Is that 2018 target feasible?

JD: Yes, absolutely.

We've seen the benefits of m-tickets. About 80% of our customers are choosing the digital option and for an industry that can be slow to change, that's huge.

GP: What are the benefits for passengers and train operators?

JD: For passengers, you can get your ticket in the way that best suits you. Even if you buy your ticket online, you still have to go to a ticket machine with a reference number.

And, with m-tickets in an app, you still have to have the app and go through that process.

This, therefore, is all about flexibility and convenience, and not being prescriptive as an industry in how we tell people to get their tickets.

For operators, it gives additional retail capability. Most of the major stations suffer from huge congestion problems at ticket offices, so if we're going to double in size in the next ten years, where is that growth in a retail capacity going to come from?

Ticket vending machines are fixed formats. All of this anxiety around getting the right ticket, you can kind of make go away as far as mobile retailing is concerned.

Also, ticket machines are hugely expensive.

GP: How does it work from a technology point of view?

JD: There's the retailing part of it – the browsing, the buying, journey selection and the presentation of that in a way that is digestible in a mobile format. This is where the magic is and we spend a lot of time honing this. It's about the 1% gains here and there.

The other side is ticket fulfilment. Working in the Apple framework has been quite challenging, as it is quite prescriptive. I don't think when Apple invented their format they considered the specific needs of the UK rail industry with respect to things like reservations.

What we have with the e-ticket in its Apple Wallet guise is good enough, although there's a challenge for us – as an industry – to engage on this and work on refining. I think we will see engagement coming quite quickly.

We are there to do the heavy lifting for the industry.

GP: What’s been the reaction?

JD: Huge. We're now selling 60,000 a week between us and Virgin Trains. It's still early days, though, and the option is only available on Virgin Trains West Coast advanced purchase fares.

However, it now makes up about 3% of what we sell.

GP: How long has this been on your to-do list?

JD: The move from the existing m-ticket to what we refer to as the e-ticket was pretty rapid by any standard – very rapid by rail industry standards.

We helped Virgin roll out m-tickets to their whole franchise and that took 12 months. We then spoke about the next phase – using everyday technology, not just rail technology – in March this year and it was delivered by August.

GP: I presume you have plans to expand this to other operators?

JD: We approached this in an industry collaborative way. This isn't about inventing bespoke initiatives that only apply to one train operator; it's about building things that have relevance for the future.

So, we have worked out standards and specification with the Rail Delivery Group and even though we've been the first to market, it’s been done in a way that has created a standard that others can follow. I'm hopeful that others will use it.

I expect to see much more of it in the next six months.

GP: Do operators truly back digital as the future?

JD: Everybody has the same objective, in that digital is the way forward, but yes, some find it easier than others to contemplate what that means and how fast they can move forward.

One of the major issues is what I call franchise blight. At any given moment you have a number of franchises that are entering the last year or two of their existence.

I meet train operators and they do get it but upgrades require significant investment and it can be hard to make the case to do that in the remaining life of a franchise.

The industry recognises it needs to make the move away from cardboard. Yes, it's quite complicated but I think there is a common sense of purpose around it.

GP: Lots of questions and work to be done, then…

JD: There's a big question for industry about merging the different types of ticketing present in UK rail today.

I think everyone is agreed about the death of the tangerine ticket. What is being proposed is that m-tickets are available across the UK, but that's the not the same thing as saying everyone agrees mobile barcode is the right functional choice in every context.