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Train firm offers phone-based ticketing across UK

Chiltern Railways leads the avalanche to a ticketless future

Build a business case: developing custom apps

Train passengers can now buy a ticket for any UK train journey from a mobile phone, without paying any additional commission and with the ticket displayed as an on-screen bar code.

The service was developed by ticketing specialists Masabi, and has been available for about a year from TheTrainLine.com which provides an easy booking service for a small additional fee. But Chiltern Railways has deployed the same technology with no fee, and put readers into (a handful of) ticketing gates at London Marylebone and elsewhere to make using a mobile phone ticket as simple as an Oyster card.

The application is available for all the popular phone platforms, with the notable exception of Android which is promised real soon. A J2ME version ensures that all but the most basic handsets are supported. Customers can buy a ticket on the phone, for any UK train journey, then wave the 2D bar code in front of a gate-mounted or guard-wielded reader, the guard can also check tickets without a reader through the reference number though that's not shown in the demonstration video:

The readers, which we saw demonstrated at Mobile World Congress, really do work fast and accurately. Masabi has tried using normal bar-code readers but found mobile-phone screens to be too reflective, so is using slightly-more-expensive 2D readers which appear to work just as fast as any other proximity system such as NFC.

Travel outside the Chiltern Railways region and you'll need a paper version, which can be picked up from any ticket machine though that rather defeats the object of the whole thing. The point of the project is to reduce the number of ticket machines, and windows, and thus save money.

Chiltern does make commission on tickets sold for travel on rival networks, but until those networks start accepting the tickets electronically there's little reason for customers to bother.

If, and how quickly, those networks adopt the system will depend on how much money Chiltern saves, which is in turn dependent on how many people make use of the system. It's no coincidence that Chiltern is owned by Deutsche Bahn AG, the German national train operator whose Touch&Travel (NFC-based) system is currently being integrated with local operations to create an integrated, proximity based, ticketing network.

The new deployment has addressed a couple of issues - receipts are sent to a registered e-mail address, for those claiming expenses, and you can only buy a ticket up to ten minutes before the train leaves, so no frantically tapping on the phone as the inspector makes their way down the carriage towards you. ®

Build a business case: developing custom apps

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