Smart tickets are often either exclusively dispensed by machine or purchased online via websites and smartphone apps, typically 24 hours per day.
Smart tickets are often either exclusively dispensed by machine or purchased online via websites and smartphone apps, typically 24 hours per day.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Unsplash)

Digitalization The Benefits of Smart Ticketing

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

For some time now, passengers of various rail systems worldwide have been able to purchase smart tickets, either as smart cards that incorporate a magnetic strip or a radio frequency identification/near-field communication (RFID/NFC) chip, or as apps and data that reside on smartphones.

What are Smart Tickets?

Smart tickets have proven to be a cost-efficient replacement for paper tickets, which by comparison are more expensive to distribute, validate, and keep track of. Paper tickets are also easier to lose, are subject to wear and possible counterfeiting, and are far less ecologically friendly. Smart tickets allow passengers to skip queues, speed up the boarding of trains, and not lose money if the cards or phones are lost or stolen. They also allow passengers to easily add to their existing balances or occasionally change itineraries if necessary.

Until relatively recently, traditional paper ticketing was an integral part of the lore of a journey by train. Numerous movie sequences exist of a character buying a ticket at a station ticket counter at the last minute, desperately running to catch his or her train before it departs. Inevitably, he or she just manages to set foot aboard a passenger car as the train accelerates away from the station.

Once aboard the train, a conductor shouts “tickets!” and punches a hole (sometimes more than once) in each customer’s paper card or slip as he passes through each train carriage, occasionally creating problems for characters who have misplaced or lost the tickets that they purchased. In some films, a major plot point is made out of which destination is printed on the ticket and where the character actually disembarks. Less often portrayed is a character’s ability to buy a ticket once aboard the train, negating the need to buy it ahead of time (although in practice, it’s often cheaper when this is done). On many trains, physical tickets are inserted into a special groove or slot attached to a passenger’s seat or an overhead rack to indicate the fare has been paid.

While such sequences might make for exciting films, in reality, the disadvantages of paper tickets usually don’t make anyone’s life more convenient, and often, such tickets can create more problems than they solve. For regular travelers—especially commuters—smart tickets are a godsend because they’re one less thing to worry about, and they allow passengers more time to enjoy their journey (or put it to good use).

Ticket Purchasing

Both in the past and at present, one can count on buying a ticket at most train stations, particularly those located in large transit hubs of major cities. In some urban metropolises, there might be more than one place that one can purchase physical tickets, but this can only add to possible confusion and/or frustration if such locations are unexpectedly closed or unmanned.

Ticket counters typically have limited hours, which may or may not coincide with departure times of trains. Not all stations will have counters, and many have long since replaced the ones they had with automated ticket vending machines. Nonetheless, both counters and machines often sprout lines that can rival those of airports, both in length and lack of speed.

By contrast, smart tickets are often either exclusively dispensed by machine or purchased online via websites and smartphone apps, typically 24 hours per day. The digital confirmations of these latter purchases function as virtual tickets, with no physical component whatsoever.

If the tickets are physical, they usually take the form of a smart card that’s either backed with a magnetic stripe or embedded with an RFID/NFC chip like a bank ATM card. The ticket is either read or is scanned by a machine (sometimes carried by a train conductor), and a satisfying blink or beep when a card or smartphone has been scanned or read typically signals that the fare has been collected. If the ticket is stored on a smartphone, it can often be accessed via a website or email (many produce an onscreen bar or QR code that can be scanned) or via a customized app that uses NFC, like Apple Pay or Google Pay.

With smart tickets, daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly blocks of tickets can be purchased in advance and usually refunded or adjusted in case of loss, cancellations, or itinerary changes.

While paper tickets can be (and have been) subject to counterfeiting and fraud, most smart ticketing systems are risk-free, both from the passenger’s standpoint and the transportation company’s.

Labor Savings

Smart tickets purchased online allow passengers to completely bypass the previously laborious in-person ticket purchasing process and thus save themselves valuable time in transit.

With no need to wait in physical lines, passengers can cut minutes (or even hours) off their journeys and worry less about the details of their trips. For train conductors, no physical ticket means less of a need to keep track of which passengers physically showed their ticket, which passengers had theirs punched (and when), and which passengers misplaced or lost their tickets.

There’s also an environmental advantage; all paper tickets are inevitably thrown away, with many ending up as refuse on trains, in stations, or both.

For transit firms, smart tickets create efficiencies in terms of being able to anticipate passenger counts, rush demand, special services needs, and train schedules. From an accounting standpoint, a completely digital audit trail for smart tickets means no manual ticket counts or counters and virtually no accounting discrepancies.

Being able to offer refunds to passengers—even on partially used or lost tickets (or smartphones)—engenders more goodwill between passengers and transportation companies. Studies have shown that additional convenience in ticket purchasing translates to increased ridership.

In short, smart tickets are a win-win for both train riders and operators that will more than pay for their system introduction costs and improve performance, reliability, and revenue of the transit networks they’re used on.