LONG a staple of a European backpacking journey, Interrailing in some ways has become synonymous with long-distance travel across the continent, particularly for teenagers and young people looking to travel before settling into university or a career.

First sold in March 1972, the initial Interrail pass enabled young travellers up to 21 years old to explore 21 countries by train with a single ticket. The pass began as a one-off offer, a 50th anniversary gift from the International Union of Railways (UIC). But following the first year’s success, it became a permanent offer and since its inception, more than 10 million passengers have enjoyed Interrailing across Europe.

Alongside the ubiquitous oversized backpacks and worn walking boots, another element of Interrailing that remained a constant through the decades were the paper passes on which passengers recorded each journey, keeping a register of the trips they had taken and the travel days they had left.

That has now all changed. 97% of Interrail and Eurail customers are now using a digital pass, just three years after they were introduced. While taking place at lightning speed, the conversion has been years in the making.

Around 2016 and 2017, discussions were underway between Eurail Group, established in 2001 to take on the management, marketing and distribution of Eurail and Interrail Passes; Eurail.com, established in 2006 as the online sales channel and subsidiary of Eurail Group; and the more than 35 operators and ferry companies that accept the passes, over how best to introduce a digital version.

The main issue, explains Eurail chief information officer, Mr Hugo Knobbout, was convincing the operators that the digital pass could be created with integrated security and fraud protection to prevent the creation of counterfeit passes. “You have to make sure you don’t build something that people can use to travel for free,” he says.

An agreement was reached following two to three years of discussion, and a supplier contracted to build a digital pass. They ultimately failed, as did a second supplier, due to what Knobbout describes as the complex and unique set-up of the Eurail and Interrail passes, which aren’t the same as a traditional point-to-point rail ticket. The ticket includes other modes such as ferries and must also follow the rules behind each pass. “To build that is quite complex, and it was hard for these suppliers to understand these requirements,” he says. “What they wanted to do is build it on top of their existing system, which is super, super hard.”

Eurail Group and Eurail.com merged in October 2019 as Eurail BV, with Knobbout, previously head of IT at Eurail.com, appointed as head of IT at the new company.

Seeing that the project had already failed twice, Knobbout asked his team whether there was the capability, knowledge and capacity to develop the project internally. “We believed we could because we knew the rules, we already had them in our system,” he says. In addition, the team already included developers, app builders, testers and designers, and had experience of working with both servers and serverless architecture after successfully migrating the existing Eurail digital infrastructure to using Amazon Web Services.

The only aspect the team was unsure about was developing a Flexible Content Barcode (FCB), the most modern UIC standard in rail barcode ticketing. In an FCB, the data is signed using asymmetric signature algorithms, which guarantees a very high level of security and prevents counterfeiting. The FCB standard, released by the UIC, defines both static barcodes, which can be issued on paper or on screen, and dynamic barcodes, which can be displayed on a screen and change every few seconds.

The pass allows users to input journeys and keep track of their remaining travel days. Photo: Eurail

To ensure they could roll out a pass using the FCB, the Eurail digital team ran a two-week pilot project that proved to be successful.

The team then set about creating all the elements required to roll out the digital pass. This included the mobile pass itself, the distribution platform to allow the pass to be sold by Eurail and other distributors, and a redesigned Eurail app. All these systems also required back-up tools and processes.

The disruption to travel across Europe caused by the Covid-19 pandemic actually proved fortuitous in allowing teams to focus on accelerating work on the new digital pass.

Pass validation

An important element of this work was the creation of a validation system, enabling passengers to only travel and book a reservation using a valid pass. Each legacy paper ticket features a unique number that can be entered into the booking field when reserving a seat on a train. “But you cannot use a number online, because if you do that then hackers will very soon find out what the number is and they can generate the pass by themselves,” Knobbout says. “So there’s a security layer on top of that.”

The validation tool was built as an Application Programming Interface (API). Operators can modify their booking system to connect with the API to ensure a valid pass is involved in the booking. “The business rules are at our end, but the API connection, so the push and pull, needs to come from the other end,” Knobbout says. “I think the power is that our website uses our own distribution platform. And our reservation portal also uses the same APIs. So we are, let’s say, eating our own dog food. If it is not working for us, it’s not working for the others.

“It had to be integrated in the reservation tool at the other end, so we were dependent on how fast they could implement it. We were actually quite fast, I would say. I think we built it in less than nine months, but our partners were not always that fast, so it took a bit more time.”

The mobile pass also needs to be regularly validated to ensure it is current, not always an easy task in some parts of Europe such as the Swiss Alps where the mobile signal can be patchy.

“What we tried to do is to limit this hassle for the customer,” Knobbout says. “For our continuous pass, for instance, you can be offline for three days if you’ve already activated your day passes. So if you have no coverage … you still can use the product.”

The company also had to create training material to enable the thousands of ticket inspectors across Europe used to dealing with the traditional paper passes to familiarise themselves with the new digital passes. Eurail was a European leader in the roll-out of the FCB, but this brought with it the challenge that passengers were often travelling with operators not yet equipped with ticket scanners able to read the barcodes.

“With the introduction of the apps and the mobile pass, we are still part of the customer journey while they are travelling.”

Hugo Knobbout, Eurail chief information officer

“We were one of the first which is the position we really like to be in as Eurail, not only with the barcode but also with other European initiatives,” Knobbout says. “[But] what we saw is that sometimes they would scan the barcode and say, ‘it’s not a valid pass,’ which was not true, it was just that the barcode reader couldn’t read our barcode at that time. So there was a lot of communication with the operators, but now we are also helping other operators build their FCB.”

Eurail is also building an app due to be launched this month that is able to scan an FCB and that could be downloaded by ticket inspectors to check tickets without requiring an FCB-equipped ticket scanner.

Going digital also brings more obvious challenges. What if the phone is lost, damaged or stolen? What if the phone battery dies? What if a passenger buys multiple passes, but only wants to activate some of them, or wants to load them onto different phones, or wants to transfer passes between devices to allow multiple passengers to split up during a trip?

“Going digital introduces new things that we had to build in bit by bit,” Knobbout says. “There is now a function where you can transfer your pass to another device, for instance. It comes with other customer journey steps that we didn’t have with paper but that we have today.”

But along with the challenges are the benefits.

“If you have the paper pass, the customer’s journey with Eurail ends when you send the paper to the customer and then you don’t see them anymore,” Knobbout says. “With the introduction of the apps and the mobile pass, we are still part of the customer journey while they are travelling, which is great because you can help and support them if they have questions.”

Data gathering

Eurail is also able to gather more accurate information on what routes passengers are travelling on and when, meaning it can work more closely with operators to manage demand during peak periods. The data recorded on the old paper passes such as start and end station, train number and time never made it back to Eurail, but the company is now able to download any data entered into the app, while still complying with European GDPR regulations on personal data.

This data is then used to calculate Eurail’s revenue. Proceeds from pass sales are passed on to the operators based on travel statistics, with Eurail BV receiving a sales commission. The amount paid to each operator is calculated based on the total amount of kilometres travelled in a country, a process which is “way more accurate” than the paper pass, Knobbout says.

The data will also enable predictions of what routes are likely to be busier at a certain time, which could then be used to advise passengers to take an alternative route, or maybe switch to a slower, less busy service. Eurail is also working on providing real-time information to passengers.

“I really think if we can give even more accurate information about the timetable then I think that would be highly appreciated because you really want to know if you can take your next train, if it is delayed or which platform you should go to,” he says. “The starting point is the customer and everything we do, we do it for the customer.”

The digital pass was initially launched as a country pass in Italy in July 2020, before extending to all of Europe in September 2020. But rather than being impressed that the pass is now available in a digital version, Knobbout says passengers are instead surprised that they can still purchase an “outdated” paper ticket. “It’s not really ‘oh, my goodness, this is really new,’ it’s more ‘this is what we expect,’” he says.

Now, only 3% of passengers are opting for a traditional paper pass. There is little information available on who is still opting for paper over digital, but Knobbout says it is usually because a passenger may feel safer having a tangible ticket they can show a ticket inspector, or they prefer to have a hard copy of their journey to keep as a souvenir.

Eurail is also working to integrate its website and app to provide a more seamless experience for passengers switching between the two.

The digital team were also tasked with creating an app for the DiscoverEU, a European Union (EU) initiative offering young people the opportunity to travel in Europe predominantly by rail to help foster their European identity and raise awareness of the core values of the EU through travel. This app included a social element, allowing people to ask questions and get advice from fellow passengers.

Having celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022, Interrailing appears to be going from strength to strength. It is even expanding with the privately-operated European Sleeper overnight trains accepting Interrail passes from July 1. Criss-crossing Europe by train will remain a rite of passage for backpack-laden travellers, although now they come equipped with a digital rather than a paper pass.