Rail ticket retailer Thetrainline will be allowing mobile users to buy train tickets on their phones from a range of apps due to be launched later this month.  

Thetrainline already has an iPhone app, and this will be updated with the new payment function, while apps are on the way for Nokia, Android, and Blackberry mobiles. Users will be able to buy tickets and collect from self service machines at stations. 

I’ve been asking thetrainline’s Product Development Director Richard Rowson about the new apps… 

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Why did you decide to offer train tickets via mobile? Do you see a big demand for this?

Selling train tickets is our core business, and being able to sell train tickets to customers when they are on the move and away from their computer is a very natural extension.

There has always been a big demand for train times information via mobile, and we hope to build on this to get people to take the next step and buy their tickets on the mobile too. We believe this will be a step change in the way that many people buy their tickets – and can easily see this becoming the predominant method of purchase for some customer groups.   

Other rail companies / websites seem to have been slower with mobile – Is there a first mover advantage for thetrainline with this?

We have had a mobile web site/WAP site for several years, and take-up has been good – but nonetheless small compared to what we have seen with apps.

We believe apps are much more suited than mobile websites for our target customers, as apps allow richer features (such as station finders) and allow us to make many features available offline (for example you can download a full seven day timetable for offline use, or store itineraries for up and coming journeys offline) and hence if you are ever in the most remote corner of the country, or the depths of London Underground, you can still access train times.  

You have had an iPhone app for some time now, how popular has it been ?

Our iPhone application exceeded all our initial expectations, achieving over 750,000 downloads to-date. Unlike some apps where customer interest fades after the initial download, over half of those downloading our app have used it in the past two months.

On some days, one in four timetable requests that www.thetrainline.com handles now come from the iPhone app – showing that in just 12 months this is rapidly growing a significant customer base.

Any plans for a mobile site or apps for other phones?

Our plan is to cover all major phones in circulation (not just Smart-phones). We have apps in Beta testing for iPhone, Blackberry, Nokia and Samsung at this time, with Android shortly behind. We have a generic WAP site for those unable or unwilling to install apps.

What are the biggest challenges of offering train tickets via mobile?

Aside from the obvious technical overheads of developing for multiple platforms and multiple different form factors, it has predominantly been around presenting the range of rail products in a simple and intuitive manner.  

This has certainly not been a case of lifting the website proposition and adapting it for a smaller screen. We believe the usage scenarios for mobile will be very different, with a much greater focus on unplanned journeys and short-hops, and so we’ve designed the customer experience with this in mind.  

We believe that for many scenarios the mobile phone will offer the easiest way to buy a train ticket, far simpler than any ticket kiosk or website currently in existence, taking advantages of the personalised nature of mobile phones and features such as location awareness, it takes little more than clicking “next train home” to buy a ticket.

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How have you approached the payment / checkout process? Has it been optimised for mobile users and/or registered customers?

Customers pay for their tickets using credit/debit card, and they can store these in their account for future use, simplifying repeat purchases.

We were keen to ensure that customers could use the applications without having to use a PC to register, so there is no need to already have an account with www.thetrainline.com (albeit if you have you will be able to see all of your itineraries on the phone regardless of where you booked on the computer or phone). New customers can create an account from within the application.

Will customers be able to redeem tickets by using their phones (e.g. by barcode or unique code)? 

We intend to fulfil tickets as barcodes to the phone as soon as the train operators are ready to accept these – the application already supports this under the bonnet.

We are currently in discussions with a number of train operators about gaining their agreement and a number of operators have started the rollout of barcode scanners in readiness, which will be able to read both self-print and mobile tickets.