For millions of travellers across the globe, many single journeys involve a series of individual legs encompassing heavy and light rail, metros and bus systems, often run by different operators. Despite visions of integrated future transport networks, where passengers will be able to flow smoothly and seamlessly across all these transport modes to reach their destination, the 21st Century reality remains largely mired in a 19th Century medium – paper.

Smart technology could, however, be about to change all that, with new ticketing initiatives designed to improve efficiency, promote rail travel and encourage properly ‘joined-up’ intermodal transport, perhaps finally making paper tickets a thing of the past.

Integrated ticketing

"Smart technology could, however, be about to change all that, with new ticketing initiatives designed to improve efficiency."

The goal of integrated ticketing is a simple one – the provision of a single ticket which is valid on systems run by more than one operator and, ideally, for more than one mode of transport. Nothing in that definition, of course, expressly precludes such a ticket being paper, but it is the move to ‘smart’ ticketing that really allows its full potential to begin to be exploited.

From the passenger perspective, while this translates, at least in part, into levelling the playing field between modes and operators, the principal advantage comes in terms of convenience.

Smart ticketing obviously brings a reduced dependence on cash and other methods of payment – which itself aids smoother transitions and improved journey times – but beyond that, it also opens up the possibility of benefitting from ‘best pricing’ and other similar on-the-day discounts.

For the operator, that all helps incentivise rail transport and increase ridership, but there are other gains too, in terms of improved efficiency and reduced operational costs.

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On a practical level, for instance, the dwell time at stops can be reduced, while on a strategic one, analysis of the travel data gained can enable major service optimisations to be made.

It is small wonder that the success and popularity of established metropolitan schemes, such as Hong Kong’s Octopus and London’s Oyster, has spawned a range of smart ticketing initiatives around the world – and some of them are ground-breaking.

Apps for Android

In September, for instance, Thales UK and the online ticket seller Raileasy launched what is said to be the first, and currently only, Android app able to give passengers real-time information, fare-searching and a live ticketing functionality. This new version of Thales’ Rail Planner Live system aims to bring unprecedented convenience and simplicity to the whole travel experience, offering timetables, fare information, regular delay / cancellation updates, live departure boards, SMS alerts and a homepage widget, alongside instant ticket sales.

"Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) has already pioneered e-ticketing on the Indian rail network."

The combination of Thales’ insight into the habits of rail travellers, gained while working with National Rail Enquiries to develop Rail Planner Live, and Raileasy’s application programming interface technology has allowed the ready potential platform for smart ticketing provided by smartphones to be exploited.

With a range of novel features, including a ‘Get Me Home’ function which lets passengers find their most direct route home from anywhere in the UK, and its ease of integration with customers’ existing online Journey Planner website accounts, this new app was designed from the outset to make life easier for users on-the-go.

If it does turn out to be "an app that truly improves the experience for anyone travelling by train in the UK" as Raileasy MD George Sikking described it at the launch, then other apps, other smartphone operating systems and more instant ticketing will not be far behind.

Go India

Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) has already pioneered e-ticketing on the Indian rail network, enabling bookings to be made via the internet, SMS and by the general packet radio service (GPRS) for java-enabled GSM mobile phones, but smartcards have proved less popular.

According to Indian rail commentator Vasanth Benjamin, although smartcards were introduced in two cities – Chennai and Mumbai – shortly after Hong Kong and London, in Chennai the lack of inter-network and intermodal integration had seen their use for ticket purchases fall. Two new initiatives may see that begin to change.

The first came in February, when Railway Minister, Mamata Banerjee, announced the introduction of a pilot scheme for a country-wide, multipurpose smartcard – named ‘Go India’ – "a single window package for passengers to seamlessly pay for tickets for long distance, suburban and metro journeys."

It is to be a contactless, automatic fare collection system, using high speed entry / exit validators to calculate and deduct travel costs from the stored value e-purse, and will initially involve the major stations on the New Delhi to Howrah and New Delhi to Mumbai routes.

The second scheme comes from Chennai itself, where a new GPRS-enabled ticketing system is poised to make significant improvements to the local bus service, leaving observers in India’s fourth most populous metropolitan area hoping that an integrated, intermodal transport system may one day become a reality.

London’s world first

"Smart ticketing obviously brings a reduced dependence on cash and other methods of payment – which itself aids smoother transitions."

Achieving that vision, however, currently has one major flaw. Around the world smart ticketing principally involves operators issuing their own cards, which inevitably introduces interoperability issues, which have often proven a limiting factor for integration. Now, with magnetic strip based bank cards increasingly being superseded by contactless EMV smartcards, that constraint may finally be about to disappear, as London becomes the first city in the world where passengers can access an entire transport network with just a swipe of a debit or credit card.

Since 2007, Transport for London (TfL) has been one of a group of city transport authorities, including Paris, New York and Sydney, investigating the potential of this technology. In 2012, it will roll out ‘open-loop’ payments to bring Pay as You Go travel to its bus, tube, Docklands Light Railway, tram and London Overground rail systems.

It has required TfL to upgrade their software to recognise the contactless smartcards issued by Visa, Mastercard and American Express, and in addition, accept near field communication (NFC) capable mobile phones running card emulation applications too. It remains to be seen if the slower transaction speeds currently provided by these technologies – around 500 milliseconds, compared with 350ms for existing Oyster cards – will affect peak time congestion, but ultimately the company believe the new system will make the city’s public transport far more accessible to domestic and international visitors.

In addition, if the discussions reported to be underway between TfL and the other rail operators that serve London over the scheme’s possible extension to those national rail services which currently accept Oyster do bear fruit, it would represent a further boost for London’s tourism and business appeal.

It undoubtedly is "tip top news," as Mayor of London Boris Johnson said – and it bodes well for the future of smart ticketing globally.