Ticket sales go online even if trains do not

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The Independent Online
THE TRAIN may be late, but at least buying the ticket will be a cinch. Four train operators are looking at selling train tickets through the Internet, making the queue at the station booking office a thing of the past.

Sema, an information technology company, is developing a system that will allow passengers to choose their train and buy the ticket on credit card without leaving home.

And if the train companies embrace the full potential of the technology, passengers will be able to use a mobile phone to access a website and buy a ticket.

The full system will come on stream next summer and a preliminary version, which allows customers to book a ticket but pay at the station, will start within months.

Sema declined to reveal which of the 25 privatised operators are taking part, but they include two running former InterCity routes, a rural train company and a suburban operator.

David Hytch, head of business development for travel and transport, said: "We are getting to the point next May or June when somebody can log on to the Internet, select a journey, make a reservation and purchase a ticket on a credit card."

He said the transaction would be secure as the traveller receives a registration number which he or she uses to pick up the ticket from the booking office or automatic vending machine.

"However, the railway industry moves with remarkable conservatism and is not prone to radical leaps forward with the use of technology, so they are approaching it in a cautious manner."

Mr Hytch said the advance of technology would benefit the railway industry. It would be possible for a train firm to use its website to automatically e-mail potential customers for certain routes. He said that, for example, Chelsea football fans could be e-mailed to alert them to a special discount fares for card-carrying supporters on trains to away games. The technology exists that would allow customers to access the website, buy their ticket through their mobile phone and check if the train is running on time.

The move will add train companies to the list of businesses that sell direct to their customer via the World Wide Web. Banks, bookshops, holiday firms, software houses, record shops and even supermarkets are ex- ploiting the Internet.

Sales of products on the Internet topped pounds 8.8m in the United Kingdom last year, but are expected to have grown to pounds 130m by 2002, according to analysts Datamonitor.