Smart ticketing has been made a key priority for UK rail, according to recent announcements from industry leaders. At its annual conference on 02 February the Rail Delivery Group (“RDG”) set out its vision for the future of ticketing across the UK rail network. The RDG represents both the train operating companies and the rail infrastructure provider, Network Rail. Speaking at the same conference the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin MP set out parallel plans currently being formulated by the Department for Transport (“DfT”).

What are the plans?

  • Integrated national mobile ticketing system

Following on from last year's pilot of barcoded mobile ticketing across multiple train operators within defined zones in the North and West Midlands (together covering over 230 stations), RDG now want this technology to be available nationwide as soon as possible - potentially within the next three years.

  • Extension of contactless payments to the National Rail network

Separately the RDG is also working with the card payments industry to look at extending contactless credit or debit card based payments beyond London to the wider UK rail network. In particular UK train operators plan to fund a joint project with the UK Cards Association, the trade body for the cards payment industry in the UK, in order to work out how contactless cards and devices can be used for long-distance and season tickets.

  • Delivery of improvements through forthcoming rail franchise re-lets

The UK Department for Transport has also made smart ticketing an integral part of the franchise competitions, with the Transport Secretary stating that the rail industry can expect to see exciting proposals from bidders in the months and years ahead - starting with the competitions for the South Western and the West Midlands franchises in the spring. 

Why does this matter?

Technologically mobile ticketing is not new. Back in 2011 Chiltern Railways were the first UK operator to introduce it within their own network. Rolling out technology nationally across multiple operators, however, will involve finding solutions to significant commercial and system integration issues. That such issues can be effectively addressed and is illustrated by the success of Transport for London in extending the Oyster pay as you go payment system across the London suburban rail network.

Delivery of the plans may involve challenges, but the benefits will be significant indeed. For nearly ten years now UK rail has been focused on the 'four Cs challenge' of improving customer experience, cutting costs, increasing passenger carrying capacity and reducing carbon consumption and other environmental impacts. Smart ticketing has a key role to play in all four of these and especially the customer and cost dimensions.