National bus operator Bus Éireann has launched a new web-based ticketing system, which it believes puts it in the top league of bus companies in Europe and will bring substantial benefits to the thousands of customers using its services every day.
E-ticketing, which is available through the Bus Éireann website www.buseireann.ie, enables travellers to both plan their journeys and pay for their tickets online. The service is available on 600 out of 9,000 routes nationwide and it is targeted mainly at users of the company’s profitable long-distance operation, which accounts for about 25pc of all journeys.
The launch of the new service comes at a time of expansion for Bus Éireann, whose passenger journeys increased by 5pc to over 45 million during 2002. The biggest growth area was on the commuter routes to Dublin, reflecting the growth of satellite towns like Navan and Kells where Bus Éireann is now carrying over 6,000 commuters into the city every morning, compared with 3,500 only three years ago. But the mainstay of the company’s business remains long-distance services.
As with any internet transaction, the e-ticketing service requires access to a PC and the ownership of a credit card. However, Barry Coyle, sales and marketing manager at Bus Éireann, stresses that the service is not intended to have universal appeal as it is recognised that not everyone has a credit card or PC access. “No more than the banks, we are giving people an additional facility, an additional element of choice. People can still go and buy their tickets in the traditional way,” he states.
The new e-ticketing service took two years to develop and was on test with a closed group of users for 18 months prior to launch to ensure there were no glitches or security weaknesses. The system, which was developed in partnership with Galway-based Storm Technologies, has much in common with other online booking services such as those offered by Ryanair or Aer Lingus. To book a ticket you first log on to the Bus Éireann website and select the start and end points of your journey, the date you wish to travel and the ticket type you wish to buy. Once your credit card details have been processed – the system uses Trintech’s Checkline system for verification and Bank of Ireland for authorisation – you are sent an email confirmation with a validation code. You print this out and present it to the bus driver who then issues a travel ticket.
It is a simple system but deceptively so. According to Simon Cunningham, IT services manager at Bus Éireann, the biggest technical challenge was ‘giving the customer something that the driver could validate’. The problem was that the website could not be networked with the ticketing machines used on individual Dublin buses so how would the machines know what transactions had taken place?
The solution was to create a unique randomly generated 16-bit encrypted code for each transaction on the website. This is the same code that appears on the email confirmation. The driver types the code into the on-board ticketing machine, which recognises and validates it before printing off a ticket.
The one aspect of Bus Éireann’s e-ticketing service that differs from, say, booking a flight online is that there is effectively unlimited availability of seats. As soon as one bus is full, the operator simply puts another into service so that online buyers should not experience the frustration of finding no seats available for a particular journey.
The e-ticketing service is free; the only condition is that each transaction must have a minimum value of €7.50.
The marketing of the new online booking service by Bus Éireann will be targeted very much at the tech-savvy student population, says Coyle.
“A lot of the people using our long-distance service are between the ages of 18 and 25 and many of these are third-level students who are part of the PC-literate generation,” he explains.
“We do massive student promotions every autumn because every year 25pc of students drop off the list – they graduate – so we have to reach a new crop of first-year students. So, as from next September, all our student promotional material will be heavily branded with the new online service.”
As well as the online service, Bus Éireann also plans to launch a mobile version that would allow users to book their seats using their mobile phones. This is some way away but in the meantime the company is trialling a service on the Dublin-Galway route that allows passengers to text in for timetable and fare information.
It is too early to say what the impact of the new e-ticketing system will be on Bus Éireann’s bottom line but Coyle sees it as a key milestone in the company’s development. “E-ticketing will be a significant segment of our future business notwithstanding the fact that we’re in a very competitive marketplace – particularly the long-distance sector – and anything we can do to make it easier for customers to buy from us will be a competitive advantage,” he concludes.
Pictured: At the launch of Bus Eireann’s e-ticketing system were, from left, Barry Coyle, marketing and sales manager, Bus Eireann, Kathryn Thomas travel presenter for RTE’s No Frontiers and Jamie the dog