Imagine a future where you don’t need to buy a ticket to catch the train, where there aren’t any ticket barriers to pass through, and a simple wave of the hand is all it takes to pay.
It’s a future that is coming sooner than you think, and trials of some of the many elements that need to come together to make it happen will be starting next year.
The aim though is not to do away with tickets, that’s a side effect of a much bigger problem — that there’s simply too many people wanting to use the trains.
It’s not a London specific issue, but a global problem with more people living in cities and using public transport. Just how do you get ever increasing numbers of people through ticket barriers and onto trains without clogging up the station?
What is happening is a mix of ideas to improve transport capacity, from more trains running closer together to increase train capacity, and station upgrades so that the increased passenger numbers can fit into the station.
You only have to look at the huge upgrade at Victoria for an example of how they have to improve the station to cope with the extra demand delivered by the Victoria line upgrade. Likewise Tottenham Court Road was struggling with the existing services, but would have collapsed into chaos when the Elizabeth line opens next year, so it’s been massively upgraded.
Not just ticket halls, but corridors are getting larger. They act as capacity sponges so that people can get away from the platforms quickly to release more space for the next train, which will probably arrive while people are still waiting to use the escalator.
Then you have to deal with the ticket barriers, and people fumbling in bags to find their tickets.
At the moment, the direction that ticket barriers work is set manually so that there are more barriers to deal with passengers leaving or arriving as appropriate. However, that means that ticket barriers can’t dynamically respond to sudden surges in passengers coming from the “wrong” direction.
A trial starting next October at an unnamed central London tube station will see the barriers adapt automatically to demand. If, for example a couple of surface trains arrive at once, the barriers might have more entrance gates, and then a minute later, flip to more for exit as three tube trains arrived in quick succession.
All to speed passenger flow, and avoid crowds building up.
At the moment, a London Underground ticket barrier has a theoretical peak flow of about 35 people per minute, with peak hours often hitting 32 people per minute and slowing down during the day when dealing with people less familiar with them.
That’s not fast enough to deal with the volumes of people that larger trains such as the Elizabeth line and Crossrail 2 could be delivering, not to mention HS2 and other upgrades.
The goal is to get to 60 people per minute through each barrier, which is pretty much a brisk walking speed, and at that point what slows things down is the ticket validation process.
But what if we could get rid of the ticket barriers entirely?
Put simply, they are rethinking the entire notion of the train tickets and what comes next wont be upgrades to tickets and ticket barriers, but a complete redesign of the very concept of how people pay for travel services.
At the moment, we pay for a journey, either in bulk as a commuter, or one-off occasions, then at most stations we pass through a barrier to validate our permit to travel, and often at the other end of the journey a double-check that we had the permit to travel.
This rather static design is already changing, with ideas such as daily and weekly caps on pay-as-you go travel in London, so people can use bank cards and are billed the correct amount automatically.
That’s fine for London, but why should a person have to decide in advance what their travel plans outside the city are going to be? Can’t systems simply bill you the correct amount after your journey?
Chiltern are trialing an idea with staff who travel between Oxford and London which links their smartphone to their billing system, and as they approach the ticket barrier, a Bluetooth radio signal automatically opens the gates for them. The system later bills the customer the correct amount for that fare.
By putting the billing after the journey, it makes it possible to inject a lot more flexibility into the journey. At the moment, a long distance journey could see you having to reserve a specific train, and if you arrive late, or want to leave early, then you get hit with expensive alternative ticket costs.
A flexible model that no longer ties passengers to specific trains may see the train companies losing revenue from on-the-spot ticket purchases, but they carry a lot more passengers because the flexibility makes train travel less daunting.
When London Underground introduced the daily/weekly caps, they saw an increase in passengers using the service, because the flexibility and lack of penalty fares made the service easier to understand. Marginally less revenue per passenger carried, but lots more passengers means more money in the till at the end of the day.
With increasing use of bank cards to pay for journeys and with post-trip billing, the very existence of the train ticket is under threat.
But people still need to tap in and out at the barrier gate to indicate that they are making a journey and to log their payment method for it. One idea some cities use to speed up passenger flow is the open-gate principle. Leave the gates open as default and let people tap to pass through, only closing when there’s a problem.
When designing something in a lab, ideal conditions doesn’t always work in reality. For example open-gates work well in Japan, but when tried in London a few years ago, it turned into a game by teenagers trying to see how many could run through before the gates closed and “pinballed” the last person backwards.
Whatever idea you come up with, someone will try to find a loophole. Users of smartphones who are supposed to tap in to pay, sometimes get to the other end and claim their battery died during the journey so they can’t tap to pay on the way out. Some stations now have magical phone chargers that mysteriously recharge the battery to 80% of its power in just a couple of seconds, so that the customer can tap out properly, and ever so surprisingly it seems they didn’t tap in at the start.
People will find a way to avoid paying, so it may seem that getting rid of the barriers would see a surge in non-payment. Yet also the ticket barriers are the cause of the bottlenecks in ticket halls because of the ticket validation needed to open the gates.
People fumbling for their ticket causes a lot of delays for the people behind, so something needs to be done.
You may have heard of people putting an Oyster card chip in their hand to save finding their wallet. Well, they might need to remove it soon, as a royal wave of the hand might be all that’s needed.
Just like a fingerprint, the veins in your hand are unique to you, and simply waving your hand over a light can be enough to identify people. It’s also a bit nicer than fingerprint scanners as there’s no need to touch the sensor, which was a bit off-putting to some people when fingerprint scanners were tested.
But you still have people walking up to a ticket barrier, doing something to say they’ve paid, and only then passing through.
What if you could separate the ticket validation from the gate? Is it possible to validate a ticket in one place and then the computers know if a person who just walked over a “zone of entry” has paid or not?
Yes, it is.
It is now quite routine for computers to be able to track the movements of people around public areas, and a number of airports have cameras in ceilings that can create a unique ID for each person and track your movements, mainly for security reasons at the moment.
It’s therefore possible to have a person enter a train station, be tracked and if they pay, that’s good, and if they didn’t, do something.
An initial model being looked is where we still pass through a “gate” which pings a green light if you’ve validated your payment, and red if not.
We all forget sometimes to do things, and one of the cool things about this is that the ticket validations can also be on the other side of the barrier as well. You get a red light, slap your head in your foolishness, but carry on through the barrier tap your card on the other side before heading down the escalators.
No more people clogging up the ticket barrier trying to get their ticket to work. Just go through anyway and sort it on the other side.
Only if you don’t then the anti-fraud system kicks in.
In the longer term, the gates themselves could be removed entirely, although in the initial deployment they are as much a use for psychological purposes to remind people there is a payment barrier to be passed to make use of a service.
Splitting ticket validation from barrier entry speeds up the ability for people to pass the barrier towards the magic goal of 60 people per minute. But it can go much further than that, and this is where smart payments are starting to emerge.
Imagine for example, a station with two train companies offering different fares to the same destination – such as a service to an airport. The fast expensive train or the slower cheaper one.
At the moment, two sets of ticket barriers are needed, and a barrier between platforms to prevent people going through the cheap ticket barrier and crossing to the expensive service. Barriers eat up space and reduce flexibility in how the station is used, so it’s better to get rid of them where possible.
Imagine a system where you wave your hand to record your intent to take a journey, and your movement is tracked to see which of the two rival train services you catch.
Later you are automatically billed the correct fare based on which train you used. No need to buy in advance and you might arrive only to see the slow service is packed and fancy an upgrade so just wander over to the other train and instead of a penalty fare, you get billed just the right amount for the journey.
The Cubic developers at their London based Innovation Lab are looking at a future where tickets and barriers are less about fare revenue protection as they are today, and more about providing the train companies with the tools to deal with genuine fraud.
We all occasionally forget, but it’s barely worth the cost of hiring ticket inspectors to dole out penalty fares. The revenue for the train company is negligible, and the annoyance for the forgetful passenger quite considerable.
If you can track people, and the system sees a non-payer going past the “red line on the floor”, then a photo can be logged, and if that person turns out not to be an honest accident, but an active fraudster avoiding paying repeatedly, then the police can be told to look out for them at the other end of their journey one day.
Targeting the heavy fare evaders and hitting them with large fines and sentences can be as big a deterrent to the occasional fraudster as a whole row of old fashioned ticket barriers.
Although lots of ideas are being developed and many of them will fail the real world test, the future looks like one where tickets and barriers will all be invisible, and where huge numbers of people will catch a train with nothing more than a wave of a hand, just like in Harry Potter.
Article last updated on September 21st, 2021 at 08:49 am