Following on from participating in the panel discussion The future of ticketing and fares: from centralisation to digitalisation at the recent Accelerate Rail conference on 21st March 2023, Sue Walnut, Product Director at Vix Technology, distils 5 ways digital tickets and fares help the UK rail industry deliver new benefits to rail passengers.

1. Simplifying ticketing and fares in rail

As the title of the panel at Accelerate Rail indicates, centralisation has been a key talking point around the purpose and goals of Great British Rail (GBR).  However, much of ticketing and fares in British rail has already been centralised:  the systems we already have allow any Train Operating Company (TOC) to sell journeys anywhere in the country, which are amazing assets. What is important is simplification. That’s a simplification in flow pricing logic, as well as a simplification of data, including the use of open standards and architectures. This is a key area where GBR can support passengers and the industry in managing standards.

2. Utilising ticket and fare reform intelligently

As an established supplier into UK rail, Vix already has the accreditations and ability to interact with the industry data sets. However, newer technologies that incorporate Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) would be welcome as that is a natural fit for software product ecosystems.

How the rail industry implements fare reform is also important. In particular, clearly identifying who is responsible for specifying and purchasing which elements of the retail network. If fare reform means a future with only one Ticket Issuing System (TIS) across England, this will impact choice in the market when that contract expires. We know good ticketing becomes easier to support if the pricing structure is clear to the passenger. If fare reform entails one set of journeys and fares, that is easier to manage than proliferating sets across local sets in PTE areas and long-distance carrier schemes.

3. Ensuring digital tickets are transparent for passengers

No customer will miss the pile of orange cards a TVM ejects for a multi-leg booked journey. The move to digital tickets (such as transit cards (Oyster, ITSO), contactless EMV cards, or barcodes – anything that provides a unique token ID for a back office) should have no impact on the passenger. Any long-period magnetic ticket could be converted into a card-based product or barcode, like the S-Ticket, and a turn-up-and-go ticket can easily manifest as a printed barcode on paper. This could even be orange paper, if it helps long-standing rail users make the transition more seamlessly!

As an industry, we need to accommodate cash and anonymous passengers through ticketing channels as well as take advantage of mobile and card, but Rail’s biggest challenge in supporting passengers’ move to digital ticketing is transparency. It needs to ensure customers have an easy way to “see” and trust what is on their smartcard, what has been charged to their bank card, or what their transit account entitles them to. The industry may know that it will work, but reassurance is key.

In a fully digital world we also need to consider our staff and our inspections. Without the printed ticket, gateline and on-vehicle inspection staff need to be equipped with trustworthy and fast interpreters of tickets and passes on mute cards.

4. Maximising the benefits of dynamic pricing

Practically speaking, there’s no reason dynamic pricing can’t come to UK rail. It’s accepted in air travel and already works on UK coach journeys. The variety of peak and off-peak products in UK Rail already to some extent price dynamically, but only based on historic travel pattern expectations and yield management modelling. Adding split ticketing into the mix means there’s an argument that dynamic pricing couldn’t be any more random to customers!  

One benefit dynamic pricing could bring is allowing early birds to choose what turn out to be busy trains at a lower price, and help the industry organically price for new post-covid travel patterns.

A challenge for the industry is to find enough operational stability to utilise the longer booking horizon window to make dynamic pricing its most natural, and to establish processes to easily handle any passengers displaced in a schedule change. 

I believe, however, that there also remains a role for a fixed price walk-up product for intra-city journeys and areas serving local markets. As an industry, we should make sure these tickets are easy to access through digital information channels.

5. Don’t be afraid to appeal to digital natives

To ensure inclusion, we in the transport industry spend a lot of time on channels and products for all ages and abilities of passengers.  Transport Focus’ Rail User Survey for 24 February 2023 noted 29% of passengers were in the 18-24 age group. That is by far the highest usage by age group. According to the same survey, at least 47% of all rail journeys were made by people under 35.

We should offer products that are flexible and still good value. We should not be afraid of offering discounts and pushing intelligent offers based on behaviour and personalised loyalty. We shouldn’t worry that these offers will be digital first. Digital natives accept this is the way things are done and this is rapidly becoming the norm.