How the not so humble mobile is set to bring the rail industry up to the minute with futuristic advanced e-ticketing. FRED MARTINEZ explains

The railway industry has long been a cornerstone of British society, from its invention by Scotland’s James Watt, up to the proposed plans for the HS2 line. But while the industry has been an integral part of our work and home lives, it has found itself falling behind other industries that are modernising at a much quicker rate.

One area seeing big transformations is the taxi industry, most notably through the emergence of Uber. The key to Uber’s dramatic rise has been around one thing – convenience. Eliminating the need to wait long periods for a taxi, lower prices compared to most alternatives and taking away the cash element have all made life easier for the commuter.

What Uber and other disruptive companies have shown is that new technologies can transform industries by improving the service for the user without being detrimental in other ways. Convenience is key – even more so than saving money.

Rail’s answer to Uber
Step in Chiltern Railways, whose mobile ticketing pilot could improve the experience of getting a train and disrupt the industry. While the scheme is only at the testing stage, the concept aims to scan participating people’s phones to detect when they get on and off a train. Every journey will be calculated, with the corresponding fee deducted from the passenger’s bank account. Tests are scheduled for next year and, all going well, the technology could be available nationwide in 2018.

While this is good news for the UK, projects like this already exist in cities in many European countries such as Spain, France and Finland. The UK is not far behind in realising the benefits of mobile ticketing, whereby a ticket is sent to the commuter’s phone, but remains a long way behind when it comes to more advanced technology used in the schemes just being rolled out by Chiltern.

The business case
But as the UK prepares to join this ticketing revolution, what are the benefits?

  • It’s cheaper: One of the biggest benefits, certainly for the commuter, is the cost savings. There are multiple ways commuters will be able to save, from avoiding the cost of having tickets delivered to their address to the reduction in service fees associated with producing a physical ticket, which are then passed on to the commuter.
  • It’s a time saver: Without the need for a ticket, commuters can simply just walk on the train with no delays and no need to queue up at the ticket machine or the barriers, taking away the hassle of having to wait. In the future, we could even see barriers being removed completely.
  • It’s accessible: Removing the need for a ticket, dramatically improves the accessibility for commuters. Physical tickets can be lost far more easily than a phone, which can result in long delays in a ticket being re-distributed and even e-tickets can be accidently deleted if they’re simply exchanged through e-mail or SMS. Train companies can even refuse to send across another ticket, resulting in missed commutes or expensive outlays purchasing a new ticket.
  • It’s greener: Lastly, as more checks and balances come in over each industry’s effect on the environment, it’s important to consider the impact this can have in reducing commuter and the industry’s carbon footprint.

There are a number of challenges though in implementing a solution such as advanced e-ticketing. In order for it to be successful, the most important thing is for it to be secure. Public transport is used by millions of commuters every hour, so any failure or hacking can have dramatic consequences.

Tackling security
With a solution like this, security has to be of the highest regard, given commuter financial information is being accessed and stored. Public perception towards security is changing, backed up by our recent finding that 80 per cent of consumers prioritise security as a leading feature in smartphones. Train companies need to consider the security solutions available that can help protect these details such as two-factor authentication and encryption. Two-factor authentication is about allowing only those who are authorised to access something to do so, creating two elements to verify the user – among something they have, something they know or something they are (ex: biometrics). In the case of the train industry, this could be accessing the ticket itself through an email address (something they have) and a one-time password generated separately (something they know), which expires immediately after being used.

While this is a good first step, encryption is a necessity when it comes to protecting the most valuable thing, the data. Hackers are only after one thing when they strike, which is the data, especially where financial information is concerned. Encryption renders the data useless to anyone that is not authorised to access it.

The train industry needs to understand that it’s not a case of if, but when a system is breached. In order to combat this, encryption must be at the heart of any solution that is deployed. Once this has been implemented, the focus switches on to the encryption keys that are created, which can decrypt the data only to those authorised to do so. Any breach of a train company’s system would be catastrophic from a reputational point of view, as customers are unlikely to trust that company again and indeed the technology.

Making it work
It’s not just security that is an issue for the industry though, in implementing a solution like this. The speed and convenience of the experience is paramount. In order to be successful the flow of passengers must not be slowed down or disturbed beyond very strict limits. This means ensuring the network infrastructure at each station is sufficient to handle the data that is sent across it. Projects like these only work when they are adopted across a wide range, rather than when they are targeted to specific individuals.

Of the technology available today, mobile NFC appears to answer most of the criteria required for this type of solution. NFC is currently being supported by more devices and provides an optimal user experience. With the security built within and on top of this, expect to see it form a key part of the solution moving forward.

The train industry has seen itself being taken over by more innovative and fast changing sectors, but with the introduction of advanced e-ticketing, this is its chance to catch up. In order to realise the benefits though, security must be at the top of bill, with the network infrastructure not far behind. Imagining a world where a train journey is as seamless and convenient as hailing an Uber may have seemed a long way away even just a few years ago, but the reality is it’s closer than we think.

Fredric MartineFredric Martinez is head of transport & ticketing at Gemalto