Why is rail ticketing still going in the wrong direction?


Let me begin with the answer to this question and then work back to why I believe it remains elusive in being recognised. The answer:

Rail ticketing has always been about asking the passenger where they’re going, and then matching it with a train journey that gets them there. Simple, right?

However, in today’s world of AI, synced calendars and wifi, rail ticketing should not need to ask. It should suggest and advise, based on what the passenger is prepared to share about their lives and preferences (in a post-GDPR world!)

OK – that’s done! Now, let’s backtrack to why rail ticketing isn’t doing this currently, and why the latest ideas for the future still won’t either. (And what will fix it!)

Wrong Turning 1: Thinking smart tickets will fix everything

Smart tickets (in the style of London’s Oyster card) would certainly make life easier for regular travellers. They avoid the need to buy individual tickets, and automatically adjust for price advantages such as off-peak returns and day passes. However, smart tickets will not fix the issue of "elastic pricing" – in other words, the best fares are reserved for passengers who book well in advance, and an Oyster-style card will simply recognise that purchase and store it, rather than help you to find it in the first place. Smart tickets are more about monitoring where you go and charging retrospectively. They’re good at looking back at your day, and calculating the best fare type, but unable (make that unwilling) to look forward and suggest what ticket you should be buying in advance.

In some respects then, smart tickets are good for convenience, but bad for flexibility. By doing-it-all-for-you, smart tickets remove options – they don’t, for example, suggest that by waiting 15 minutes, you could take a cheaper off-peak train. So, are they really smart? Or just automated?

Wrong Turning 2: Thinking that railway stations are a destination

Rail ticketing systems in the UK are almost universally based on getting from one station to another. They don’t actually care where the passenger is ultimately trying to get to. In other words, the ticket system is built on an internal focus – about where we run trains, not where the passenger wants to go.

Compare this to planning a journey on Google Maps. It asks you where you actually want to end up, and then offers you a whole bunch of possible ways to get there, including joining up train, bus, walk, as well as suggesting footpaths and cycle ways. This is passenger-focused – it is not built to encourage you to take any given route. Better still, and unlike ticketing systems, it includes real-time information such as traffic data, which may influence your decision.

Technically, there is no reason why ticketing systems could not offer this same end-to-end approach, even if it meant embedding Google APIs into their software. The hurdle though is psychological, not technological.

So what is the right direction?

Actually, it really isn’t so futuristic. The model is already set by Apple (who else for thinking like a customer?) Apple Maps simply asks its users to tell them where home is. Then, it looks at your calendar to see where you’re planning to go that day. It then proactively calculates the travel time (driving) with when your appointment is, and advises you when it’s time to leave. Similarly, when you get in your car after the appointment, it uses the iPhone GPS to recognise the change in your travel speed, assume you’re headed home and advises you of arrival time.

The key here is that Apple has been given permission to use iPhone data along with personal calendar information and interpret from it. This was as important before GDPR as it is now. Add value to the user experience, and it will be positively regarded by consumers. Act in their interests, and respecting only the specific permission you have been given, and GDPR enforcers will smile on you!

Now, imagine that your ticketing app has been given the same permissions, and also some preference data around whether you want lowest price, maximum flexibility, no walking interchanges beyond 10 mins, and so on. Now, the ticketing app can start making suggestions for your trip, as soon as the trip goes in your diary, perhaps weeks in advance. Suddenly, advance fares become part of the ticketing choices, offering greatly reduced cost potential. And such is the proactive suggestion of this, that an increase in rail journeys might occur too.

The fundamental mind-shift here is to start thinking of the customer experience – (a passenger making an end-to-end journey), rather than a transaction experience, based on just the bit of the journey that you have responsibility for or make money from!

More importantly, it breaks down the entrenched belief that smart tickets are the future, even though they work retrospectively – in complete contrast to how all elastic ticket pricing systems work (the earlier you book, the cheaper the fare).

As customer experience designers, we are well aware that the integration and complexity of what we suggest for the future of rail ticketing is not an easy option. But it is an outward facing one – it is anchored not on the rail network, but on the passenger. It frames tickets as an enabler, not a barrier. And perhaps most of all, it’s envisaged as ‘trying to help’, rather than ‘permission to travel’.