Train firms to adopt Smart ticketing

13 Feb 2008 by Mark Caswell

Smartcard rail ticketing will arrive in the UK in 2009. Leading train firms are set to adopt this paperless technology over the coming years, but online agent The Trainline will be first off the mark.

The Trainline reckons that over 50 per cent of all its rail ticketing will be based around Smartcard technology by the time of the London Olympics in 2012.

According to Adrian Watts, Trainline’s sales and distribution director, this shouldn’t come as a surprise “because all new rail franchises must commit to the government that they will adopt Smartcard ticketing”.

Smartcard ticketing will make the booking process simpler and more flexible. Passengers should also find it easier to use the trains. Trials with The Trainline will begin later this year with, says Watts, “the big roll-out starting with Southwest Trains [a train firm operating commuter and regional routes in Southern England] in February 2009.”

Passengers will be able to load their Trainline Smartcards through their PCs or laptops or via a “Smart target” at the station. The ticket is then validated in the normal way by Smart-enabled ticket gates or by onboard staff.

In time, the main train firms are expected to introduce their own versions of Smart ticketing. But it is not clear at this stage whether tickets will be restricted to their own systems or (as in the case of The Trainline) will offer the convenience of ticketing across other networks.

Train firms are keen to adopt Smartcard ticketing because it will enable them to accommodate more passengers at their stations. It’s a similar scenario to the airlines, who found they could process more passengers when they introduced e-ticketing and airport self-service machines.

Watts says: “The train companies don’t want to win another 25 or 30 per cent of passengers and find that the queues at London Euston lengthen by a similar amount.”

Train firms have no option but to boost their business, otherwise they will be unable to afford their hefty franchise payments to the government. 

To illustrate the task they face, consider that a couple of years ago the late GNER committed itself to paying the government £1.3 billion over ten years for the right to operate the flagship East Coast train franchise. In the end, passenger growth never materialised and GNER couldn’t meet its franchise payments, resulting in it having to surrender the franchise.

National Express, the new franchise holder for the East Coast, has even more onerous terms. According to the industry magazine, Today’s Railways, “National Express has to pay [the government] a £1.4 billion premium bill – £100 million more than GNER and over a shorter period [seven rather than 10 years] – so it will have to attract still more passengers [than GNER].”

Interesting times are ahead.

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Report by Alex McWhirter

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