At last, low cost, genuinely flexible ticketing. Never queue at a ticket office ever again, just pick up your MultiPass and go

acklamJeremy Acklam with MultiPass – a type of smartcard attached to a clever central system in the cloud
I may be gullible, but this really does seem to be the best thing since magstripe tickets were invented 50 years ago. At last there is something on the way which makes proper use of the whole techy bag of tricks and would make it hugely easier for passengers to use the train.

Bring it on.

It’s the work of Jeremy Acklam – who used to work at the Association of Train Operating Companies – and Alexander Peschkoff. It has some millions of pounds of backing and now 20 staff in Oxford, Cape Town and Tomsk.

At a mundane level, the company has set up a third party retailer, but what is interesting is the second half of the company: MultiPass.

MultiPass is a type of smart card, attached to a very clever central system in the cloud. When it is rolled out, not a trivial task, it allows the passenger to travel freely on the trains. It automatically calculates and charges him or her the correct and lowest fare for the journey taken.

It allows the holder of a MultiPass card to go to any MultiPass-enabled station, walk on to any train, get off wherever he or she wants, not have to queue at the ticket office or ticket machine or touch in or touch out, and have the confidence that they will be charged the correct and lowest fare. MultiPass is being piloted between London Liverpool Street and Cambridge at present.

This is how it works.

The MultiPass company installs a small, simple radio beacon at every station. All these beacons do is send out in heavily encrypted form a message saying “I am beacon code number X”. These are small, simple and cheap devices but nonetheless a fair amount of work will be required to get them installed.

The passenger needs the MultiPass smart card and a mobile phone with an app.

The passenger walks into a station, onto a platform and onto a train, sits in the train and, at their destination, gets off. As this is happening, the MultiPass card hears and logs all the beacons it has passed.

Then, once a day, provided the passenger’s mobile phone is switched on at some point (it uses Bluetooth), the card sends up to the MultiPass system in the cloud, via the mobile phone, the log of the beacons it has come into contact with since the last uploading.

The system in the cloud then matches the log of beacons to the trains that were running that day, works out the journey that will have been taken and the appropriate fare – which is charged to the passengers account.

That is basically it.

But some more details.

1. Crucially, the point to note is that the system does not require you to touch in and touch out – which other systems like the Oyster card do. This system is automatic. It relies on the station beacons being automatically logged by the card.

But the MultiPass card has within it an electronic Permission to Travel. So, if there is a gate line, you swipe the card over the card reader and the gate will open.

This Permission to Travel will also appear in visual form on the app on your mobile phone. So, if a ticket inspector asks for your ticket, the inspector can read it on your mobile phone – or, if they have a handheld card reader, it can be read on the MultiPass card.

2. If you go to a station but do not get on a train, say you just went to meet someone, the beacon in that station would indeed be logged by your MultiPass card, but when it is uploaded to the cloud, the central system would see that no possible journey was taken and would not charge.

3. The central system is quite clever in what it will do. First, it has a record of the trains that actually ran that day and what their exact timing was, so it will, or should, work out correctly what journey you took, including which train operator.

Secondly, it will take into account various things to give you the cheapest fare. Obviously, it will give you the off-peak price, if your travel was off-peak. If “split journeys” give you a cheaper fare, it will do this. If yours was a return journey and that gives you a better price, you will get it. And if you take the same journey three or four times in a week, it can adjust the charge to give you the price of a weekly ticket – but only up to weeklys initially, not monthlys or annuals.

4. If you buy an Advance ticket, you can do that through their on-line ticket sales system linked to MultiPass. That way MultiPass will know you had already paid for the journey and will not charge you twice.

5. Privacy is reasonably well protected. If someone stole your card, they would not, whatever clever software they had, be able to discover where you had been. But that information is present in the cloud in your account of course. Someone who hacked into the central system could, I suppose, discover what journeys had been made, but apparently not by who.

5. The card requires power – connecting it to your phone charger twice per year is all that’s needed and the system reminds you.

6. I thought of some possibilities for misuse. If you know there is no ticket inspector on the train or there won’t be one for a while, you could keep your MultiPass card in a tin box, shielding it from the station beacons, and only take it out shortly before you expect it to be required. However, Jeremy and Alexander tell me that the electronics detects this automatically! Even so, human ingenuity, I bet, will find ways to get round the system, but they might not be significant.

7. Most passengers will opt for direct debit but other methods of payment are available.

 

What is the status of the system?

The company, called Global Travel Ventures, was founded by Jeremy Acklam and Jason Merron in 2011 to provide online ticket sales. In 2014, it acquired TEDIPAY(UK) which had developed the MultiPass system and was founded by Alexander Peschkoff, Alexander Baranov and Jeremy Acklam.

In 2013, MultiPass got a grant of £1.1m grant from the rail Technology Strategy Board.

Since March 2015, MultiPass is being trialled in partnership with Abellio Greater Anglia on the route between Liverpool Street and Cambridge with around 40 travellers. The next rollout is at the end of 2015. There will be a pilot on bus services in Glasgow in due course.

 

Two systems vying for attention

First ITSO. The details of this system were defined 10 or so years ago, when it was adopted by the Department for Transport. Since then, the DfT has been trying to get it installed wherever possible, without much success. It is expensive, difficult and time-consuming.

Any ticketing system requires the definition of product types. When a passenger buys a ticket, its terms are defined by its product type. Different operators will have different product types.

In the case of ITSO, knowledge of these product types resides on the card and in the gate. When a passenger presents their card to the gate, the gate reader reads the card and decides if the ticket and product type is valid for the proposed journey. If so, it opens the gate.

This is a complex process at the local level which is very difficult to get done in the fraction of a second available.

ITSO is the basis of DfT led SEFT (South East Flexible Ticketing) programme and of the so far abortive attempts in Manchester to get smart ticketing up and running.

Second, Contactless + Cloud Processing (“C+CP”). In this system, all the processing of tickets and product types takes place not at the gate but in the cloud.

This is the system which people are now  able to use in the Transport for London area instead of Oyster. It is without doubt the way forward.

The card used is a normal Contactless EMV bank card and the gate software is very simple. On touch-in, the gate simply registers that this card has entered the network and has left on touch-out. The information is passed to the cloud where the processing is done. A brief check on blacklisted cards is made by the gateline.

 

The variant

The MultiPass system is a variant in that it has an additional feature, an overlay. It can be used perfectly well where there are gates and touch-in-touch-out is required, but where there are no gates, the journey a passenger takes can be tracked by the process of logging beacons.

Whatever other system an operator has, if it agrees to the MultiPass beacons being installed on its stations and trains, passengers would have the option of getting a MultiPass card and travelling without having to buy their ticket in advance.

This seems pretty attractive.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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