Transport IT expert urges government to use refranchising to spur revolution in technology

Transport IT expert Tony Lacy has urged the government to use the next round of rail franchising to unlock the potential of technology to transform the rail passenger experience.

Lacy, client executive transport director at international IT services company Atos Origin, was speaking at the Future of Station Design conference in London on May 16.

“It’s looking increasing likely to me that the changes in technology that we’ve seen in the last 10 years … are really only a very small taster of what’s likely to come,” he told delegates.

Lacy has observed a switch in the focus of IT for the rail sector. “I think it’s fair to say that up until today we’ve seen a situation where the back office solutions of UK rail have been reinvented and improved,” he said. “Looking forward from today there’s much more of a focus from the back office to the front office, and the passenger experience.”

The basic needs of passengers have not radically changed, he said, but the rail industry has to respond to an “almost insatiable appetite for information”.

People expect to be able to access information on increasingly sophisticated handheld devices and he offered the example of a mobile application that enables users to track every aircraft in the sky. However, Lacy acknowledged that the business case for passenger information is “notoriously difficult to make” and he wants the government to step in. He considers the refranchising of the Anglia, East Coast and West Coast franchises as a key moment in unlocking the potential of IT for rail users.

“We have an opportunity today for the UK government to define the standards that they expect to see in the next longer term franchises,” he said.

“Let’s hope that in those new franchise ITTs [Invitation to Tender] we see a great obligation on the use of technology within those long term franchises.”

Chiltern’s new integrated mobile ticketing system was offered by Lacy as an example of an IT development that will transform the passenger experience. Delivered by Atos Origin and smart application developer Masabi, the system enables passengers to buy, instantly receive and validate tickets through an app on their mobile phone.

This innovation marks the first time that any rail passengers have been able to use both smartphones and everyday handsets to buy and receive rail tickets through one transaction.

The free mobile application provides passengers with details of the cheapest prices and train times, and then delivers the ticket as a 2D barcode within the application. The company has invested in special scanners on gates at stations to enable passengers to enter and exit as if they had a traditional ticket and also on equipment for ticket inspectors to read the “mTickets”.

Speaking at the same event as Lacy, Ben Whitaker, CEO of Masabi, said he expected other operators to quickly follow Chiltern’s lead. The focus on ticketing technology has been on smartcards, but Whitaker doesn’t think thing they the ideal solution for more complex long distance journeys. “I’ll eat my hat if we don’t see half the rail operators in the UK with mobile retail and barcode ticketing by the end of this year,” he said.

Watch the Chiltern mobile ticketing app in action below.