Railway companies: Can’t we all just buy Masabi?

I do think I have a bit of a problem — I seem to be about a donkey’s whisker away from flying off the handle in outrage, annoyance and frustration when it comes to the mobile marketplace.

Last night if you were following my tweets, you’ll have noted my ‘shit, I need a dentist’ messages. The first thing I did after realising this need was recognising that I’d have to do the sodding work for myself — that is, go and find a 24-hour dentist, phone them up, check there’s space for me, try and locate the nearest one, etc. I blamed the mobile industry — I should be able to query basic things like local dental or medical availability real-time from my handset.

Quite a few people replied pointing out that it wasn’t mobile technology to blame — it was stupid dentists for not surfacing their locations/availability/services into some kind of API that could be queried. Fair point. It’s a fundamental failure of the industry though. We are, it seems, at least 5-10 years away from me being able to book a dental appointment through a real-time auction of locally available assets.

When I say it’s a failure of the industry, fundamentally I mean the operators. They are too busy dicking about rearranging their calling price plans to squeeze an extra 16p out of me every month to recognise that, last night, at 7pm, I’d have paid them 50 pounds to have been able to locate and book a dental appointment there-and-then. The operator would also have been able to take a commission from the dentist too. But no.

“This isn’t their primary business!” Hundreds will cry.

Of course not. But it’s a good second-tier service business that would support the operator’s… Oh I can’t be bothered even writing it out, it’s so patently simple. Why isn’t there a Vodafone LifeTools service that I subscribe to for a fiver a month offering me real-time stuff like this, when I really need it? If Voda jumped into the market and started originating demand for emergency dental, medical, plumbing and locksmith services, they could do some damage.

But as we know, the standard operator viewpoint is that they couldn’t innovate themselves out of a wet paper bag. Which is why Google, Apple and a host of third party independents are busy treating the operators like the bit-pipes they so clearly wish to be.

Which brings me to today’s bollocks experience at Ascot railway station. I didn’t even bother running for the train as I saw it pull in. Because I thought the queue at the ticket office would have made it pointless.

I was correct.

As the train had pulled away I wasn’t surprised to see a line or plebs queued up, credit cards in hand. Nowadays it seems to take 30-seconds minimum for a credit card transaction to complete — which is highly frustrating when you’re in the queue willing it to move quicker. I try and do my transactions really fast however others seem to be quite happy to plod along.

I used cash this morning and my total transaction time was, I reckon, 8 seconds. I slowly counted in my head.

Why do I have to do this? I could have ran for the train but then I’d be subject to possible buffoonery at the other end when I arrived without a ticket. I’d most probably be fined. Explaining “there was a queue” would, I suspect, not excuse the fine.

I’m happy to pay: I just want it faster, more seamless. I don’t mind using an Oyster card but that doesn’t work out of London. I just want this done. Dicking about with paper tickets is highly annoying.

Enter Masabi. The chaps there have developed some phenomenal mobile ticketing technology. Chiltern Railways deployed it a little while ago. Kudos Chiltern. With the Masabi-developed app, you can buy your ticket in a few taps and even use the resulting QR code to get through the ticket barriers.

What about the other railway companies in the UK? I’ve no doubt Masabi are busy pushing them. Meanwhile I am being exposed daily to this 18th Century ‘paper ticket’ model and I am finding it highly frustrating.

I do have to wonder why one of the big operators hasn’t snapped up Masabi or done a licensing deal to help push the market forward. Why can’t they all band together so that if you’re a contract customer, buying a train ticket is fully integrated into the device? One would imagine the railway companies would be receptive to a five-way operator consortium wanting to make life better and faster for their customers (and, take a slice of profits obviously).

But no. The operators will largely be sticking to the tried and tested formula of tinkering with the price plans.

I’m being far too forward thinking. Far too open minded. Far too ‘rose-tinted’, right?

Meanwhile keep at it Masabi. I will try and keep my frustrations in check every time I have to buy paper tickets, stand in inane queues and carry cash in the mornings to buy my tickets faster.

8 Responses to Railway companies: Can’t we all just buy Masabi?

  1. Ben Smith September 14, 2011 at 8:41 am #

    Masabi’s solution is actually what The Train Line website (and a few others, but I forget) use. However, it’s only Chiltern that use (and have kitted out stations / ticket inspectors with readers for) the Aztec codes (which look like QR codes but aren’t).

    I was at the Chiltern launch event and they seemed hungry to win people’s business (away from other routes) and gain credibility (as a comparatively small firm). Sadly that hunger to consider passengers needs isn’t quite as visible with the larger operators (like South West Trains who run your and my local services) and certainly hasn’t translated into mobile services like Chiltern’s. You can use mobile apps to buy tickets for these services, but you’ll need to pre-order and queue up to collect them from a ticket machine.

  2. Mike42 September 14, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    Sign up to http://www.buy-time.co.uk/pricing.html  or any one of a dozen other PAYG ad-hoc concierge services. Had you done this yesterday, they would have done the legwork from you and probably SMS’d back an appointment within 10 minutes. For £39/hr.

    Anything else I can arrange for you, Mr MacLeod?

    (Advice: free)


  3. Ed Howson September 14, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    Hi Ewan,

    Thanks for the excellent write-up – in addition to Chiltern, we already have live apps with thetrainline and Virgin Trains primarily for ticket on departure (where you buy on the phone and pick up at the station).

    We are also busy at work with a number of other rail companies that will be launching mTicketing solutions in the very near future (weeks not months) – we’ll be sure to keep you posted!


    Ed from Masabi 

  4. David Caldwell September 14, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Ewan, I agree completely re “locations/availability/services” and poor coordination between services and demand generally, despite the technological means being well established.

    You’ve covered a few taxi dispatching services (Uber etc), and there is only one big reason that similar location+mobile+reputation platforms are not taking hold more generally: A marketplace takes significant commitment to distribution  (think AngiesList in the united states- over USD150m of VC, 50m this year alone) to cut though the noise and drive engagement , and that’s with tradesmen and middle income people, not even dentists for whom time to evaluate & engage with available distribution services is even more costly.
    Mike42 I don’t think concierge services are the answer- i.e. introduce intermediaries to overcome inefficiency of market communication might be a stop-gap but is not a solution. The technology for more efficient marketplaces of services are already here.

    Having said that, I know 10+ people in the UK who have walked away from the challenge of improving the 20th Century directory experience, simply because they have been unable to drive a path to market (even when offering their services free!).

    We launched a platform (www.YourJobDone.com) two months ago in London. We’re getting usage but will never realistically be able to drive distribution to critical mass through organic growth. Critical mass for a marketplace is probably around 500,000 active users for a city like London, with both demand and supply side participants are required to sustain the engagement of one another. This is a particular problem in Europe where there is a reluctance for angels and VCs to invest in consumer marketplace services.

    As for mobile operators/ handset retailers getting on board, I recall one operator I met earlier this year was full of big promises for supporting emerging tech + better ways of doing things: reality is they just want startups to use their APIs, no actual support in driving products to market (e.g. for equity or revenue).

    I agree it would be a good complimentary business for operators to displace old-school directory style services like Yell and GumTree with smart, targeted, participatory systems. It is a huge market. But that requires them to take risks, invest-in and distribute new platforms

    That means betting on the future and saying “We will leverage our existing mass consumer distribution channels and are committing USD200m to developing and distributing next generation marketplaces for services, displacing anachronistic incumbents”, not “here are some APIs we’d like you to use, we can help you integrate them”.

  5. Mike42 September 14, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    Hi David

    The platform you envisage and Ewan wants doesn’t exist on the internet, let alone mobile. I’d argue that if it DID exist on the net it would be a 1-week job for some clever-clogs to do an app for it, if simple mobile browser access didn’t suffice.

    So this isn’t a mobile issue. Ewan’s ranting at MNO’s misses the point – why not rant at Google, or Apple, or Oracle, or Microsoft – firms with much more clout, free cash and expertise than a humble MNO with maybe a few thousand employees, total, of which maybe a dozen or so would have the nouse to actually build something given the time and budget.

    I think we are a long, long, loooong way away from a global (or even national) platform that connects *everyone* to *everything* or *every service*. That is aware, in real-time, of *every single business’s* stock level/booking timetable/location.

    I have previously wanted the ability to let people bid for my business, after specifying what it is I want, how much I’m willing to pay, and when and where I want to collect it. It ain’t happening.

    Until then, a person who can do this for you is the best bet. In Ewan’s case, one he’s happy to pay handsomely for as are others, so the market reacts with a service. Capitalism – great, innit?


  6. Anonymous September 14, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    Ewan and Ben, I know it doesn’t come close to creating the convergence we all want but take a look at the picture on this page http://www.vr.fi/en/index/junaliput.html

    It’s a tiny little start here in Finland…

  7. Ewan September 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    That rocks!

    Ewan MacLeod
    Sent with Sparrow (http://www.sparrowmailapp.com/?sig)

  8. Ben Smith September 15, 2011 at 11:50 am #


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