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German railways merge NFC networks

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Frankfurt's regional travel authority is to merge its NFC infrastructure with the national rail operator, creating an interoperable network for travelling across Germany with a tap of the phone.

That's still some way off, but both Deutsche Bahn and Rhein-Main-Verkehrsverbund (the national and local operators respectively) already have Near-Field-Communication-based payment systems – though neither is widely used. Making the networks interoperable should drive adoption, especially with the plethora of NFC-equipped handsets coming out over the next year or two.

At the moment the companies are just saying they'll upgrade, and integrate, Deutsche Bahn's Touch&Travel system which requires used to tap when joining or leaving the network, and Rhein-Main-Verkehrsverbund's HandyTicket system which provides ticketing and travel information to the handful of Germans equipped with NFC phones. Both have been used in trials over the last couple of years, but with NFC going mainstream there's incentive to ensure interoperability.

In the UK travellers don't need NFC - thetrainline.com will already sell you a ticket that exists as nothing more than an on-screen barcode for your phone. In the next month or two, Chiltern Railways will be deploying the same technology (provided by Masabi) which will remove the premium thetrainline.com charges for tickets, making it possible to buy a ticket for any train journey in the UK on your mobile phone.

This is if you accept that those tickets will take a little longer, and that Masabi's app will ask you to pick up a physical ticket once you get outside of Chiltern's area, at least initially, but that's indicative of the differing aims of the deployments.

The German announcement is about creating an interoperable network, making life easier for customers and speeding the process of checking the validity of tickets. The UK deployment is about closing ticket windows and getting rid of expensive ticketing machines; expect to see Chiltern's service heavily advertised in ticket office queues and at stations.

Masabi is hoping to create a national network based on barcodes, relying on the premise that once Chiltern Railways can sell you a ticket on your phone, the other operators will leap on board. The company is happy to migrate to NFC when that becomes commonplace, and the readers being fitted in stations will read NFC as well as bar-code-based tickets, but Masabi sees no advantage in NFC beyond the cool factor, though the Germans don't seem to agree. ®

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