Rail ticketing goes digital

Last updated: 11 April 2014

Eight months ago, my colleague Tim Cawsey published this post about the environmental benefits of the NFC paper trail to ring in the New Year. Fast forward five months and fellow contributor Axel Hansmann published his thoughts on our M2M participation with Deutsche Bahn’s new dynamic passenger information system in Germany – providing millions of rural users with up-to-the-minute train information.

Combine the two stories and we arrive at the current Amtrak rail evolution in the US, outlined by Paul Taylor, in the FT recently. As Paul alludes to, Amtrak is one of a growing number of companies that are piggybacking on devices originally designed for the consumer market and using them for business benefit.

In a move that will be the envy of most train conductors all over the world, by the end of summer 2012, all 1,700 Amtrak conductors are being issued with modified iPhones supplied through Amtrak’s partner AT&T. Quite a step up from the old hole punch, eh?

Using the new system, passengers booking tickets online can either print out a PDF file containing a barcode or download the barcode to their smartphone, which can then be scanned by the conductors using their iPhones and a custom built app.

Anecdotally, Amtrak’s CEO Joe Boardman has stated that the new system could save the company “tens of millions of dollars” by reducing the number of passengers on board with the wrong ticket and providing real-time information about who is on board, using which route, and at what time of day.

Back in April, Juniper Research published a report on the bright and profitable future for etickets, claiming that they may be the first m-commerce platform adopted at a mass market level – and realistically, why wouldn’t they be? When commerce meets logistics, the ability to book and pay on-the-move fit perfectly.

Low cost airlines, for example, offer testament to this process. It’s taken some time – it’s now eight years since the International Air Transport Association (IATA) was tasked with managing the digital conversion among the 240 airlines it represents, covering more than 90% of international flights. Today, online check-ins and etickets have revolutionized air travel as we know it.

The business ramifications of embracing m-commerce are huge. If a paper travel ticket costs $10 to process; and an eticket costs just $1, you don’t have to be a mathematician to realize that outgoing expenditure on iPhones (Amtrak are embracing Android later this year too) will not only save companies big in the future, it will help win custom and help protect the planet too. So, when will you be traveling with your cell as your ticket?