SEFT: Smart ticketing on rail in the South East of England

Posted: 6 August 2015 | | No comments yet

The past year has seen substantial developments for the South East Flexible Ticketing (SEFT) Programme. Andrew Keating, Programme Director, gives Global Railway Review an update.


Over the last 12 months, the South East Flexible Ticketing (SEFT) Programme has seen significant change. Now well into its delivery phase, the programme received HM Treasury and Rail Investment Board approval in July 2014. Since then, SEFT has evolved into a great team of systems engineering professionals, who are currently delivering the new ITSO-based shared back-office solution for train operators. As you’d expect, we are doing it on time and to budget. And now, we’re signing-up train operators to use the new back-office and deliver smartcards to their customers over the next few months.

Who, what and where?

SEFT is delivered through the Rail Settlement Plan – part of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) – in partnership with the Department for Transport (Dft) and Transport for London (TfL). There are 11 train operating companies (TOCs) in the scheme, encompassing stations as far north as Peterborough and as far south as Weymouth. SEFT will reach some 2.4 million season ticket holders, covering 390 million passenger journeys per year.

Smart on National Rail and Oyster smart ticketing – two integrated systems

While the scale of SEFT on national rail is significant in its own right, as a large number of the South East’s rail customers need to travel seamlessly into or through London, SEFT and TfL’s Oyster scheme will integrate into this regional – and ultimately national – smart ticketing picture.

Why go smart?

A key question often asked is why do we want to swap magnetic stripe ticketing for smart ticketing? One of the obvious reasons is that the mechanical nature of the production and validation of paper tickets is expensive for operators to purchase and maintain. Replacing mechanical parts with electronic systems will lower the costs of operations, and translates to improvements in the efficiency of rail.

But smart ticketing has far greater potential for transforming passenger rail. SEFT plays a pivotal role in creating a modern transport infrastructure that will give passengers better journeys.

Smart ticketing can’t solve punctuality or over-crowding – so why bother with this?

Some critics of smart ticketing say there are so many major issues with the rail in the South East of England, such as capacity and punctuality, why waste effort on this programme – why not wait until these are resolved? 

Those of you familiar with competitive cycling will know of Sir Dave Brailsford. He was knighted after the 2012 Olympics for his efforts as Performance Director of British Cycling and, of course, Team Sky, after a stunningly successful year for British Cycling at the Olympics and Tour de France.

Sir Dave’s philosophy and strategy is to divide areas of performance and then to seek a small improvement in each; a ‘marginal gain’. If you then aggregate the marginal gains, you see a significant improvement. In his case, it was enough of an improvement to win Gold medals for UK cycling.

In part, I think the same is true of what we are trying to achieve in SEFT – modernisation and marginal gains. The DfT, ATOC, and TfL all want improvements to the rail customer experience in the South East.  

The new technology choices

We have to work within the economic constraints of the times, so we need to modernise with technology that is cost-effective for our aims. We have chosen ITSO as our initial smart ticketing platform as it gives us the most market reach as it is more accessible to customers than other technologies at the moment, and it can work with the constraints of existing UK rail fares and ticketing unlike any other competing solution.

But SEFT isn’t just about ITSO technology. Like TfL’s Oyster, we see the smartcard as a step on the continuing journey of modernisation. SEFT isn’t standing still with a single solution, and we have ambition. 

To make sure we build-in future flexibility and secure SEFT’s continual modernisation, we are also investigating trials and pilots for contactless payments, mobile technology, and account-based ticketing including ‘tap-and-go’ types of solutions.

What’s critical is that we understand the implications for running these types of technologies in a multi-operator collaborative environment like the UK – an environment where no operator, city, TfL or government could do it alone. Every partner has specific needs – because their passengers do. SEFT is about making sure we create the environment for every operator and authority to deliver better journeys for their passengers, while making sure every passenger can travel far and wide across regions, with ease.

Our research on future technologies leads us to understand that current smartphone ticketing technology solutions, which would work for many passengers, will not have enough market reach at the moment even if we achieve 100% take-up even in the relatively wealthy South East. Furthermore, should we not be building solutions that all rail customers can use, not exclusively for those with smartphones? 

Contactless payments work for many customers. But, what we know through pilots we have trialled, is that contactless ticketing on rail in the UK is not as easy to achieve, or as inexpensive as initial impressions suggest. In fact, if smart ticketing teaches us anything, it has to be that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Some ask, ‘why not use Apple Pay in SEFT?’, because they think it’s a mobile solution. But in fact, it’s just another variation of the contactless back-office solution – with all the inherent issues that still need to be resolved for rail in the UK.

What we have found is that there is no ‘silver bullet’ of technology that a single solution answers all passengers’ needs right now; we have to build a strong base and evolve.

So, while we continue to investigate and integrate these technologies of the future in rail ticketing, we need to press on with our solution that will achieve real gains for what most passengers want and need today. Because once we achieve high levels of smart ticket take-up, we can help deliver on the ambition to make improvements to fares and ticketing, making them fairer and simpler for the passenger.

People or technology?

As you can see, this has to be – and is – ultimately a passenger-led process. While there has been a great deal of talk about competing technologies – while the technology press makes much of new entrants and smart phones and wearable technology – this all means nothing without the people who use it.

SEFT shouldn’t be – and isn’t – about technology. It’s a change programme. We could build the most advanced, efficient, and cost-effective smartcard system in the world, but if customers won’t swap from paper to smart – if we can’t show them any good reason to do that – then the programme doesn’t work, no matter how clever or varied or trendy the technology is.

Aggregating the marginal improvements for a better customer journey

A good reason for change will be delivered in SEFT’s first phase to introduce smartcards for season ticket holders. Season tickets can cost thousands of pounds, and while they’re on paper, they’re vulnerable to getting mangled in gate-readers and have to be taken out. The magnetic strips can get damaged and so a human check is then required, adding to queue length as people are let through the same gates by a guard. Season tickets on smart will improve the customer experience.

If you have ever travelled in the South East of England on a Monday morning, you will be familiar with the lengthy queues at ticket vending machines for monthly and weekly seasons. We see helping these customers save time by having a smart ticket they can load at home or in the office as another improvement in the customer experience.

As well as the other targeted improvements we can see on SEFT, we have built a great body of evidence of improvements passengers also say they want from smart and flexible ticketing – and now we need this research to be backed-up by actual usage. 

The data that smartcards generate is extremely beneficial to planning and can make a serious difference to decision-making for policy makers and operators. Currently, there is little data generated by magnetic stripe ticketing, and nothing useful at all about journeys actually undertaken. It’s not about the data of Jo(e) Bloggs – but about mass data: how groups of people travel. Currently, paper tickets wield no journey data to speak of, which makes it hard to forecast what passengers will do – and significantly, how they might respond to an innovative ticketing product when it is introduced. And without credible forecast models, there is a little opportunity for innovation due to the potential for adverse impacts on train loading, operational and other financial impacts.

To that end, we have been undertaking research into gains that can be made with other ticket products. Smart ticketing is not necessarily about replacing existing paper ticket products, but using the new technology to develop new ticket products. One area of innovation and simplification could be ‘best price promise’ products which work in a similar way to a pay-as-you-go product with a fare capping limit. Part-time and other types of season tickets are made possible with smart ticketing. Another area of interest is using the data generated by smart ticketing to potentially automate compensation arrangements for passengers when their train arrives more than a few minutes late. Any gains made here will truly modernise rail ticketing and create a step change in the achievement of our aims. We think the potential to give passengers better journeys here is significant.

But as we know from TfL’s experience, you can’t just click your fingers and it’ll all happen. TfL didn’t achieve success with Oyster smart ticketing overnight. There were many steps along the path to customer acceptance of the technology, before Oyster got to where it is today. This is valuable stuff, and with TfL as a vital partner in SEFT, we can build upon the lessons learnt from Oyster’s growth. 

And there are other areas where we think we can modernise and encourage take-up. For example, we have looked at the user experience of how you get a smartcard and products on existing schemes and would like to make the experience ‘frictionless’ for customers; that will be another step along the way of achieving our aims of take-up of smartcards. Following on from this work, we are now working with the early pioneering smartcard train operators, Southern, and c2c, together with suppliers on how we can improve the web-user experience in the South East. There are many other areas where we will seek to make performance improvements. 

Benefits beyond SEFT – sharing in industry

There is a sea-change in public transport, and we are very glad to be working across the industry to make the first wave a great one.

Naturally, the improvements we achieve in SEFT will be of interest to others outside the South East region of the UK. We are already sharing what we have found and the improvements we want to see for passengers using web retailing, and there is more to do. 

Recently, we invited South East train operators’ current and future supply chain to a workshop so we could share our findings on web user experience; we want all suppliers to be able to lift their game and compete in the delivery of improvements to the customer experience.

As SEFT evolves and changes, beyond London, major cities and regions are storming ahead with smart, multi-modal, multi-operator solutions. We want to collaborate and join up with these schemes to give passengers a seamless experience in smart ticketing, country-wide.

We on the SEFT programme will be constantly looking for and achieving marginal gains in performance. Over the programme’s lifetime, the investment in modern technology, innovation, and the aggregation of these marginal gains will be truly transformational for our rail passengers.


Andrew Keating has worked in various large-scale digital change and business transformation programmes at many telecoms, banking, and media companies. As Programme Manager on SEFT since July 2014, Andrew is working to deliver a shared back-office for ITSO solutions on rail, as well as contactless, mobile and other ticketing solutions.