Deutsche Bahn abandons NFC, aims for location-based ticketing

Monday 29 August 2016 | 12:58 CET | Background

The mobile ticket for German trains celebrates its tenth anniversary. The Handyticket was launched on 1 September, 2006. The scheme was developed for feature phones, but has been developed further and integrated with iOS and Android apps. Consumer adoption however is still low compared to paper tickets. The Touch&Travel NFC technology has become end-of-life. The system was launched in 2007, but failed to win many customers.  

Deutsche Bahn introduced the mobile ticket or Handyticket on 1 September 2006, on selected lines and destinations over 50 kms or more. The interface was based on messaging and buyers received an MMS message as confirmation of payment. When the smartphone arrived, mobile apps were developed and gradually features were added.

DB Navigator app

Nowadays, the DB Navigator app offers a full travel advice, with all destinations and schedules. At first, only fixed-price single-fare tickets could be selected. Gradually, advanced features were added, such as support for reduction schemes, bonus points for frequent travelers, advanced booking, seat reservations, international destinations, and, since this year, tickets for the connecting subway, tram or bus.

The apps have seen frequent updates and new features. In January 2016, support for Force Touch was added, less than three months after the iPhone 6s was unveiled. Recently support for Watch and Wallet was added to the iOS app, so that iPhone users can see their whole itinerary on wrist or lock screen.

Even though the DB Navigator app is feature-rich and frequently used, the paper ticket is still dominant. In the first six months of 2016, Deutsche Bahn handled 1.006 billion rides for 66.7 million passengers on the railway system. In July, 800,000 mobile tickets were sold, a year-on-year increase of 41 percent. This indicates that the mobile ticket still plays a minor role. Many people use a subscription or still buy a paper ticket at the station. Tickets bought online at home are printed and brought along.

Train stewards also favour the old way. A travel pass or a paper ticket can be checked in an instant, but scanning a mobile code takes longer, especially when the app must be opened first and the screen brightness (on a drained battery) is set too low.

NFC-tags since 2007

At the same time, the alternative Touch&Travel scheme has failed to take off. The contactless option was launched in 2007. Every station and platform is fitted with Touchpoints, wall badges with a QR code and an NFC tag. Touch&Travel featured NFC from the onset, but the slow adoption of contactless technology and the success of iPhone & Android prompted the introduction of camera scanning.

Travelers can scan a Touchpoint with an NFC compatible phone or by capturing the QR-code by camera. This information is used to identify the location where the train is boarded. The fare is calculated afterwards, not beforehand. According to a survey by the rail operator in the spring, 77 percent of passengers use mobile tickets for journeys at short notice (possibly whilst running on the platform) and about 40 percent also appreciate the environmentally-friendly, paper-less travel.

However in March, Deutsche Bahn announced that the service will be shut down at the end of 2016. The app has less than 100,000 registered users – the number of actual users is likely to be lower still. The system will still be supported by other transport companies, but removing the train from the service will seriously devalue it.

Location-based mobile tickets

Deutsche Bahn will abandon ticket inspectors on train in a few years’ time as customers will have to check in electronically when entering the train, Personnel Director Ulrich Weber told Sueddeutsche.de in May. Over the next few years, the public transport companies will develop fully location based ticketing, where the location is used automatically to calculate distance, modality and fares.

Passengers will hold their ticket on their smartphone against a reader at the entrance. Deutsche Bahn is currently in intensive discussions with workers’ representative and in negotiations with the labour union EVG over a collective agreement on 'Work 4.0'. The unions may have a different view on that.

Public perception is not certain too. The smartphone app requires user content to access and share location data. In Germany, privacy and data sharing are always serious matters. Many people stilll favour a paper ticket for that reason.

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