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Deutsche Bahn Launches Touch&Travel

Working with cell phone service provider Vodafone, the rail operator is testing a system that works with RFID-enabled signs and cell phones to eliminate paper tickets.
By Andrew Curry
Feb 29, 2008Travelers throughout Germany may soon be able to use cell phones and RFID technology to pay for train, subway tram and bus fare. At a press conference today, Deutsche Bahn (DB), Germany's national rail company, and German-based cell phone service provider Vodafone announced the launch of Touch&Travel, a system that works with RFID-enabled signs and cell phones to eliminate paper tickets in the country's extensive public transportation network.

Over the next two years, at public transportation stations across Germany, the two firms and a host of software and hardware companies will install Touchpoints terminals—signs containing passive 13.56 MHz RFID inlays complying with Near Field Communication (NFC) standards. Using cell phones equipped with an NFC RFID chip, customers will be able to pay for travel without purchasing paper tickets.

Conductors will be equipped with handheld readers to check the validity of an electronic ticket stored on a traveler's cell phone.
Creating an RFID network that enables passengers to use their cell phones to buy tickets is a daunting enterprise. Germany is one of Europe's largest public transport markets—Deutsche Bahn moved more than 2.6 billion people in 2007. At today's press conference, DB's chairman, Hartmut Mehdorn, demonstrated how the system works in the glass-enclosed central hall of Berlin's main train station, amid the clicking of cameras and the jostling of television crews.

Travelers will hit a key on their Touch&Travel-enabled phone to activate the NFC chip inside, then wave the device over a Touchpoint terminal at their starting point—be it a bus, subway or railway station. A specially designed SIM card in the phone stores data from the Touchpoint's embedded passive RFID tag, turning the handset into an electronic ticket that can then be read at any point along the journey.

From there, a traveler will be able to use any combination of public transportation options to reach their destination. Conductors along the way will be equipped with handheld RFID interrogators to check the electronic ticket stored on that person's cell phone. Upon arriving at their final destination, the individual will wave their phone across a Touchpoint terminal to finalize their ticket. The system will then transmit the data to a central computer, which will calculate the trip distance and determine how much time it took, then bill the customer automatically.

"Today, the cell phone—next to keys and the wallet—is the most important thing people carry with them when they leave the house," says Friedrich Joussen, head of Vodafone Germany. "When it comes to ticketing, the cell phone has huge advantages—everyone has one, first of all, and it's a great interface." As Deutsche Bahn's primary partner in the project, Joussen's company developed special SIM cards to store data read from Touchpoint RFID tags, enabling the cards to act as electronic tickets for the duration of the journey. Giesecke & Devrient is supplying the NFC-enabled SIM cards.

One of the system's main advantages, Mehdorn says, is its potential to tie together various transit networks. Currently, travelers might need to purchase one ticket to take the subway from their apartment to the rail station, another to travel across the country and a third to ride the bus for the last leg of the journey. That, he adds, is complex enough that many choose to drive instead.

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