One of the reasons I haven’t used trains more than a handful of times in the last decade was because of my frustration at the lack of innovation in ticketing. While they have made progress in that time, it’s still a far cry from the Suica and Passmo smartcard systems Japanese travellers enjoy.
We started with services like Trainline, an app where you can buy tickets. It has some nice features, but one of the biggest problems is that, at least here in the south, we can’t just show the conductor our phone screen. Instead, we have to enter a code provided by Trainline into the station ticket machine in order to print out a paper version of our ticket! In other parts of the country you can keep it in-app via QR code. But even then, it doesn’t strike me as an elegant solution. I think you should be able to use NFC to scan the phone on the gate to open it like you would if you were paying for something with Apple Pay. Presumably this will become an option at some point. I hope so.
But, perhaps the holy-grail of easy ticketing is the Oyster Card style tap in and tap out system where you don’t have to buy any tickets ahead of time for the quickest and most seamless experience.
Sadly, Oyster isn’t available outside of TfL lines but we do now have a dizzying array of smartcards available from every rail franchise in the country. And I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to find out that in true British Rail tradition, they all work in slightly different ways and are unnecessarily confusing. Most of them appear to only work with season tickets or regular tickets you pre-purchase on an app, website or ticket machine, which to me seems to defeat the purpose.
The best example I’ve found is The Key Smartcard by GTR. Which fortunately for me allows me travel on my local Southern service as well as Thameslink, GX, and Great Northern. But puzzlingly, not Southeastern. Despite them also being part of Govia and also distributing their own card with the same name.
The best thing about “The Key” by far, which sets it apart from all of the others, is the ability to combine the season ticket function with this feature called KeyGo. This allows you to assign a debit card to your account, and enables pay as you go travel for lines you don’t have a season ticket for. Or just make travel super easy for less frequent train travellers. Just tap in and out as you would with Oyster. Pay attention every other train operator. You need to do this immediately.
And then once we get to this point, we need a fully integrated system were you can use one card on any line and the ticket money gets automatically distributed to the right TOC. Maybe a card branded National Rail Smartcard which works at any station. This should be a major focus for National Rail. We can’t afford to fall any further behind the rest of the world. And passengers deserve a ticketing system fit for the modern world.