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Social Innovation

All aboard… No tickets, please!

Digital ways to pay will make transport barrier-free. Welcome to the smart stations of the future

Until recently, wallets and purses stuffed with cash and tickets have been part of everyday life. But digital technology is transforming the way we pay to travel.

More and more of us are ditching paper money and tickets, first in favour of contactless payments and increasingly for smart technology, using our phones to pay and get around. Over the coming decade, smart ticketing is set to evolve even further, potentially eliminating the need for ticket barriers at stations by using sensors to connect to an app which will deduct the correct fare from a passenger’s phone as they enter. Not only will it make travel more convenient, it’ll help to ease congestion in our towns and cities.

For those used to travelling in London, the concept of contactless transport isn’t new – Transport for London (TfL) introduced the Oyster card in 2003, and rolled out contactless payments using bank cards in 2014. Now half of all pay-as-you-go journeys on TfL’s services are made with contactless payments; around 17 million journeys a week. Chiltern Railways was the first train line in the UK to introduce mobile tickets in 2007, and this year, Eurostar introduced paperless tickets on Google Pay - a world first for an international train company - as part of its plan to reduce paper usage by 50 per cent by 2020.

It’s an evolution that mirrors changes in the way that consumers pay for things. In 2006, 62 per cent of all payments were still made using cash, yet by 2018 this had dropped to less than a third. As many as eight in ten young adults don’t carry cash, and the UK is the leading market in Europe for the volume of contactless transactions. In the first six months of 2017, mobile and watch payments grew by a massive 336 per cent, and now just over a quarter of the population have made a transaction using their phone. If these trends continue, UK Finance estimate that by 2028, only 9% of all transactions will involve handing over physical money.

Nevertheless, swift as these methods of paying are, touching in and out at station barriers can cause queues and busy station concourses at peak times. Hitachi Rail is testing smart ticketing technology which uses sensors on trains to detect an app on passengers’ smartphones as they board. People wouldn’t have to remove their phones from their pockets or bags to show a ticket, or even to buy one before travel. This would make it easier for passengers to access the trains, as they could head straight on board without fumbling for their ticket.

This payment method could also lead to significant savings for travelers, as the correct, and best value, fare would be automatically charged to them as they catch the train. Currently, fare prices are often confusing and can lead to overpaying - one study found that over half of British travellers felt it was a lottery as to whether you found the best price for a rail journey.

Smart ticketing has potential beyond just rail transportation. “This technology has the ability to transform our experience of using public transport, from buses to trams to city-centre train stations,” says Andrew Barr, Group CEO of Hitachi Rail “We’re now beginning to roll-out this technology and are looking at the possibility of an app working across large areas – a passenger could take a bus in their local town, then a train to elsewhere in the country, and hop on a hire-bike for the last part of the journey, all using the same app.”

Having one app for multiple forms of transport is more convenient for travellers, and more cost-effective. And the benefits are cyclical, since the data collected from passengers can then enhance the information available to them about the busier and cheaper times to travel.

Hitachi have already partnered with Italian firm, Trentino Trasporti, to explore how a new digital ticketing solution like this could work for trains and buses in and around the city of Trento in northern Italy. Work on the proof of concept started earlier this year, and once this is complete, the service will be launched. It is hoped a similar trial will soon start in the UK.

As has already been seen with existing smart and contactless technology, people are keen to experience smoother and swifter public transport systems, and as cities grow, removing more barriers – literally and financially – to using public transport can only make urban centres efficient, easy, and more pleasant places to live.