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.
Published: February 29, 2008

Travelers 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.Touch&Travel could streamline travel dramatically, Mehdorn says—and hopefully lure people out of their cars and onto Deutsche Bahn trains. “Our goal is to give customers an easy, accessible network that will let them use public transportation anywhere in Germany without barriers,” he explains. “This lets people go practically from door to door with a simple, transparent system.”

Despite the fanfare, today’s launch is essentially an experiment. Two hundred people will take part in the initial pilot project, which is restricted to parts of the public transportation network in Berlin, the entire public transport system of neighboring Potsdam, and trips between Berlin and the central German city of Hanover, a heavily traveled route served by several train lines. “We wanted a test area that combines high-speed long-distance trains, local trains and public transportation,” says Bjoern Robbel, Vodafone’s Touch&Travel technical project leader.

In Berlin, DB chairman Hartmut Mehdorn (left) and Vodafone Germany CEO Friedrich Joussen (right) use a Touchpoint terminal and RFID-enabled phones to demonstrate how Touch & Travel works.

During the pilot’s initial phase, volunteers will still require standard tickets. If the experiment works, then the system is expected to be tested under real conditions this fall, with bills sent to travelers at the end of each month in lieu of paper tickets. Touch&Travel wouldn’t be available Germany-wide until 2010 at the earliest. One reason the full rollout is so far off, designers explain, is that cell phones capable of using NFC frequencies have yet to make it to the market in a major way. The NFC-equipped phones used in the pilot are made by Motorola, which hopes projects such as Touch&Travel could hasten the spread of this capability.

“Not a lot of handsets have the chips inside, because the market demand isn’t there,” says Olaf May, Motorola Germany’s general manager for mobile devices, and a partner in the project. “When the market is there, then every handset will have one.” According to May, the chip is simple to integrate into phones, and should be a standard feature by 2010.

Although the project only has 200 participants so far, the initial infrastructure investment is substantial: 1,500 Touchpoint terminals have been installed at stations in and around Berlin, as well as at 17 stops along the Berlin-Hanover route. The terminals are built by Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors. The system’s software is being handled by Atron Electronic, which specializes in electronic ticketing and customer tracking in transportation systems. Frank Rudolph, Atron’s marketing and sales director, says he’s already fielding licensing inquiries for the software applications from Austria and other nations.

In 2007, Rhein-Main Verkehrsverbund (RMV), the mass-transit authority for Frankfurt and the surrounding region, installed RFID-enabled ConTags (short for Contact Tags) at 700 bus, tram and train stops, as well as at the city’s airport. The ConTags contain passive NXP NFC tags. Users can touch their Nokia 6131 phones to the ConTags, which are being installed at bus shelters, or on ticket machines at bus and train stations.

Once the phone reads a ConTag, a software program previously downloaded to the user’s phone via the Internet opens on the handset’s display screen. The traveler can then download an electronic ticket onto the phone, and pay the bill using a credit or debit card at a later date (see Frankfurt Widens Its NFC-Enabled Transit Network).