etickets – opening up electronic ticketing on UK rail


A turning point…

Last week we launched our new eticket proposition in conjunction with our partners at Virgin Trains West Coast. It feels like a point for reflection and celebration as rail ticketing takes a bold step into a new era.

Tickets in transition

The traditional concept of receiving a piece of paper to show that you are entitled to travel seems to be deeply ingrained in our journey expectations, with paper ‘tangerine train tickets’ being issued in their millions at ticket offices or ticket machines. Whilst other modes of transport – airlines, the tube, and even buses – have led the way and embraced electronic ticketing, well, now the rail is getting on board…

The green shoots of change

Despite the challenges, there have been green shoots of change working their way through the hardened earth of tradition. For around 8 years, we have worked with interested train operating companies to offer ‘Print Your Own’ barcode based tickets and for around 5 years, Mobile App based barcode tickets.

However, until recently the industry has not broadly deployed the scanning technology required to support the secure operation of a full roll out. Train operators have therefore limited the availability of barcode tickets to the train specific ‘Advance’ fares. The App based Mobile Tickets are further encumbered by additional security features (tickets locked to an App, ticket activation and lifecycle, visual security dynamic ‘watermark’) to mitigate the risk of fraudulent use in the absence of wide spread barcode scanning. These features have given train operators the confidence to expand the availability of Mobile Tickets, but probably don’t help customer understanding and adoption…. Shouldn’t technology be making things simpler?

The great news is that barcode scanning is now becoming more prevalent and over the last year or so four train operators are accepting Mobile Tickets across their full range of fares, including the flexible fares which are valid for travel across periods of validity and across multiple operators.

Problem solved right?

Customer problems

With the wider acceptance of barcode tickets we expected to see a switch from traditional forms of ticketing to Mobile Tickets. Take up of Mobile Tickets for in-app purchase were good (after all the customer is already using the app to buy the ticket), but still below the 90%+ take up we might expect. For website sales, the take up was dismal for both Print Your Own and Mobile Tickets. Something was wrong, and something needed to be done…

Customer surveys revealed some interesting insights. Where Print Your Own tickets had been offered but not chosen, half the respondents told us ‘I don’t have a (working) printer!’… oh. For those offered, but not choosing Mobile Tickets, the biggest issues seemed to be a lack of confidence that a barcode ticket would be accepted, battery/phone issues and simple inertia – I just do what I’ve always done (i.e. collect at station kiosk). To be fair making the intellectual leap from buying on the website to getting your ticket in the app is an unnecessary hurdle at the point of purchase.

The eticket concept

With growing confidence in the introduction of barcode scanning, the opportunity arises to provide the customer with a barcode ticket that they show on their Mobile Phone or tablet, without the need for an app. We will simply email the tickets in a form that renders nicely on a mobile phone screen, requiring relatively low understanding of tech and no effort to use.


What is more we can allow the customer to choose how they wish to use that ticket, show it on their phone, print it or use our app to take advantage of the travel and post sales benefits that provides (no longer a barrier, but an attractive optional extra offered once the customer has completed their purchase and got received their ticket in its basic form). We could then add Apple’s Wallet as an option too.

We worked with the a small industry working group to agree a standard ticket design, that would work for UK rail. With the intention to use Apple Wallet in the near future, we had to base the design heavily on the Apple boarding pass coupon to ensure a relatively consistent experience for both customers and on-train staff. For the emailed tickets, we settled on using PDF files as we found this to be the easiest way to produce a consistently rendering of the ticket that would, in most cases, open at the right scale for scanning and inspection. A few design challenges arose, the most notable being dealing with screen rotation on the PDF – we pushed the barcode to the top to stop it disappearing when the screen rotates. With all that done, a draft specification was agreed and we could start to move towards a production pilot for etickets.

Selling the eticket

We believed in the concept, but had some concerns: Might it be confusing? How do we overcome the inertia issue? Are there other things stopping customer’s choosing electronic ticketing?

To get some answers, we kicked off some customer research in the form of a series of customer interviews and a series of station intercepts. The interviews were fascinating and a big reminder that the travelling public are not aware of our years of toil to give them a better ticket and need to be shown a reason to be interested.

It had always seemed obvious to me that buying on line and getting my ticket electronically saves me a whole load of stress and time just before getting on the train…. Surely other people get this? It seems not! Or at least not until you point it out to them. The interviewees were asked to try a Mobile Ticket before the sessions and having given it a go, they all decided that the main benefit was time saving at the station (and in some cases avoiding additional trips to the station in advance of travel). So, lesson one is to make sure you sell the benefit – the new delivery option tells us to skip the ticket queue (and will soon be backed up by some real data on time saving).

The interviewees were asked about their fears of using etickets at the various stages of travel and were also shown a mock-up of how the eticket delivery option might look. Here are some of the insights:

  • Fear of flat phone battery -> a difficult one to address but if you can print, then eticket allows you to have a printed copy as a back-up. This is definitely an area for more work, but we have some ideas to support the customers while travelling.
  • Will I get through the gate at the station? -> we decided to include some messaging to try and make this sound easy!
  • The mock-up delivery option we had concocted was confusing…. Customers still thought they had to choose between printing and the app -> we worked on the UI to try and make this clearer.
  • Flexibility (especially the option to print) was a good thing.
  • Customers saw huge benefit in being able to buy a ticket for someone else. We initially tried to communicate this as ‘sharing’… but that was widely misunderstood.
  • Not everyone understands apps (App use data don’t they? Apps fill up my phone memory? How will my ticket get form the website to the app?) -> hey etickets addresses this one!
  • I need a ticket to claim expenses -> if you use our app we help you with this so we are flagging that against the delivery option. However, I suspect this is an area where more will be done through the website.

So, based on these insights we redesigned the delivery option UI to look like this:DO

So, how has it been going?

Early days still, but we are pleased to report that initial results are encouraging. Eticket is offered for Advance tickets on one route on Virgin West Coast and without promotion we have seen an organic shift in delivery option selection of over 10%. By now, over 1000 customers will have travelled with an eticket and we will be following up with a survey to try and find out how their experience was. As this is written we should be extending the coverage to Advance tickets on all Virgin Trains West Coast routes…. Fingers crossed!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s