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Tallinn Shows the Future of E-ticketing Systems


“If I order my ticket over a telephone, who will bring it home to me?”
“Can I buy an ID-ticket for another person over an internet?”

When an e-ticketing system called an ID-ticket was firstly introduced in the public transport of Tallinn in 2004, these were some of the questions asked. Today, 95% of the periodic tickets sold are ID-tickets. 46% of the users buy their ID-ticket over an intenet, 21% over a mobile phone, and only 33% of the users still pay in cash (newspaper stands, shops, post offices, etc).

The background of ID-ticketing system

In different countries, there are different ticketing systems. There are various reasons for introducing e-ticketing: innovation, better customer service, reducing of boarding time, better statistics or cash control. The first pilot projects of mobile services in Estonia were launched in 2000. They consisted of technical solutions for parking and for payments in some vending machines by using a mobile telephone. Mobile parking became very popular: today, 90% of the payments for parking a car are made by using a mobile phone. Using the experiences gained from mobile parking, the first so-called m-ticketing system was created as a pilot project in 2002. Instead of pure sms-based mobile ticketing, the solution also included RFID-cards delivered to the users. This made the control of purchased tickets easier, quicker and more secure – all that is needed for convenient ticketing in public transportation. Tickets were still bought using a mobile phone (payment with your mobile phone bill) or by using a direct-debit from a bank.

The main reason for introducing e-ticketing in Tallinn was the need for personalized tickets in the public transport. Tallinn City Government decided to introduce a new scheme of price discounts based on residency and as well as concessionary fares for some other social groups (students, mothers with 3 or more children, older and disabled people, etc.). To have better overview of passengers and their statuses, the initial idea was to issue new personalized travel cards for the specific user groups. But introducing a new personalized card usually means a lot of costs for issuing and card management as well as inconvenience for the user. They would have to apply for a new card every time their status changes and their statuses have to be approved over the time and the validity of the card has to be extended periodically.

At the same time, government started to issue electronic ID-cards in 2002 (today everybody has one in their pocket and it is a common key to access different electronic services). Also, a governmental data exchange layer (called X-Road) was developed as an environment that would facilitate making queries to different databases (today more than 390 institutions and companies have joined X-Road and it is used by more than 60 000 users). Adding these two things together with the first e-ticketing solutions ended up with a natural choice of introducing ID-card based ticketing as well in the public transport of Tallinn. From the customer’s point of view there is no need to go somewhere to purchase a ticket, no need for a parent to give the money to purchase ticket to the child. All you need is a phone or a computer with an internet connection. Customer can activate the ticket by making a call or using an internet browser. You can buy an ID-ticket to another person, all you need to know is an ID-code of the person. No one has to bring the ticket home to you and there is no need for additional pickup stations – all you need to prove your ticket is to carry an ID-card with you.

All of this is possible due to the fact that no additional information needs to be saved to the ID-card. All the information is stored in a database. The person’s status is checked from on-line databases and the system gives the price discounts automatically. Specific mobile priority channels are used for on-line connections, but the system is also designed to be a distributed database system. This considers the risk of possible communication failure. For example, when officials are verifying tickets in a public transport vehicle, they use an online connection if it is available, but they also have all the necessary info stored locally in their devices.

From ID to (RF)ID-ticketing systems

From point of view of the investments, the current system is lightweight. It reuses the infrastructure that had been existing in Estonia – internet banking, mobile payments, ID-cards, on-line POS network, cross-usage of databases. There has been no need for specific ticket vending machines, no ticket loading or pick-up stations. Passangers currently walk-in/walk-out without a need to electronically register a journey. Their ID-tickets are just occasionally checked using a dedicated inspector devices. Now in 2011, the time seems to be ready for the next step taken in the field of ticketing in Estonia. All the main cities and regions are looking towards new RFID-ticketing solutions to replace all the current paper tickets that do still exist (mostly for one time tickets). This time the main reason is to collect more data from ticketing, to improve knowledge on boardings and therefore allow for bus capacity and timetables to be adapted to the actual use of the route. As the current ID-card is only contact based card and not suitable for validation on every entrance, additional RFID-cards are going to be introduced.

From interoperability of RFID-cards to the usage of contactless bank cards

Validating RFID-cards on entrance means investments into the on-board equipment of the vechicles. On another hand, it brings into the focus the card platform itself and interoperability issues. We would not like to have a lots of different RFID-cards in our pockets just to dirve in a public transport. As ticketing systems may usually be operated by different service providers, we all know that sharing a secure platform of one card is a complex and a costly task. The problem of sharing the cards between different operators is easier if the systems are designed as distributed database systems. In other words, if the systems are at least semi-online systems with Internet connection, the interchange of ticketing information (and interchange of clearing information accordingly) can be achieved. Our natural choice for a ticketing platform is ISO 14443 (and ISO 18092 for NFC mobile phones). We consider that one common card to be used in transportation is going to be a contactless bank card according to the EMV contactless specifications for payment systems (Visa payWave / MasterCard PayPass). And these bank cards to be used in on-board payments as well as for validating prepayed tickets purchased over a mobile phone or over the internet.

Today, on-line ticketing and using bank cards for payments and boarding is common in aviation e-ticketing systems. Why not use the same principles in other types of public transport?

Ain Järv, CEO
United Tickets Ltd.

United Tickets Ltd is a spin-off company with a background of information technology and security. It has grown out from a joint company of banking and telecommunication industry. United Tickets Ltd currently operates (RF)ID-ticketing systems in Estonia. Besides distributed (RF)ID-ticketing systems we are currently focusing on the usage of bank card payments in mobile ticketing as well as in the usage of RFID-enabled bank cards in the dedicated equipment for ticketing.