Rail firm to test Uber-style mobile payments system

A Southern Rail train Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Removing paper tickets could provide a "seamless customer journey", the RSSB has said

Smartphones could soon be used instead of rail tickets if an experiment by Chiltern Railways is successful.

The rail network wants to pilot a ticketing system that scans people's phones to detect when they get on and off a train.

Each journey's fare is calculated and deducted from the user's bank account.

The tests are scheduled for 2017 and the technology could be available nationwide by 2018.

But one analyst claims the tech would result in only a modest improvement in convenience for passengers.

Using a smartphone's Bluetooth signal, the app allows passengers to open ticket barriers automatically, as well as get on and off trains, all without needing to hold a ticket.

Bluetooth sensors at the gates will detect when passengers enter and leave stations, and from this, calculate the journey each passenger has taken. The app will be connected to each user's bank account and charge for train fares in a manner similar to Uber does with taxis.

A design brief, written by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) and seen by the BBC, suggests that the tech could eliminate consumers' problems in choosing the most affordable ticket.

It could also eliminate long queues at ticket machines, as well as provide a "seamless customer journey", the RSSB said.

A further benefit of the tech would be to track each train's performance, potentially leading to real-time journey and delay info, as well as simplifying the compensation process for delays.

For rail firms, each customer's smartphone could provide rich data on which journeys are most popular, potentially allowing them to reallocate trains to suit demand.

However, one analyst is not convinced that the tech is much of a breakthrough in terms of convenience.

"It's not too different from tapping an Oyster card on a ticket gate and tapping out the other end," said Ian Fogg, principal analyst at IHS Technology.

"All this is really saving is the trouble of taking a smartcard out and tapping it at the gate. That's a fairly small improvement."

But he said that simpler ways of proving a train has been delayed, as well as congestion tracking, would be a distinct advantage.

If Chiltern Railways doesn't provide phone charging services on the trains that will pilot the scheme, then it is overlooking a key drawback, Mr Fogg added.

Image copyright Barclaycard
Image caption Contactless payment methods are already in use on the London Underground service

Potential to revolutionise

This technology "has the potential to revolutionise ticketing on the railway in Britain through the use of an app", the RSSB said.

Chiltern said it would test the technology next year on journeys between five stations - Oxford Parkway, Islip, Bicester Village, Bicester North, and London Marylebone.

The two primary goals of the pilot are to see whether the technology works on a practical level, and if it is adopted by the public.

Dave Penney, managing director at Chiltern Railways, said the tech "could be the next evolution of rail ticketing".

He said: "We know passengers want to purchase tickets easily and travel for the best price; this app-based concept eliminates the need to pre-purchase a ticket. Bluetooth sensors and geolocation tracking are used to open ticket gates and determine journeys taken, then the customer is billed at the end of the day with a best value guarantee ensuring they are charged the appropriate fare for their journeys."

It remains to be seen whether the UK's other 27 train operators adopt the technology.

In a statement sent to the BBC, Virgin Trains said: "We always want to be on the side of passengers and make their experience with us the best it can be." It didn't specify whether it would adopt the RSSB's Bluetooth tech.

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