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CIO interview: SNCF tech director gets smart with ticketing

Picture by Vicky Matthers iconphotomedia
SNCF Program Director and former Eurostar CIO Christophe Lemaire. All pictures by Icon Photomedia, part of Icon Business Media 

The Ile-de-France region and in particular the French capital city Paris are set to become smart ticket pioneers. SNCF, the French national rail service operates the world famous TGV high speed rail network, as well as traditional rail services.  Christophe Lemaire, Programme Director at SNCF says: “We are at the beginning of the story right now,” as he and his team prepare to change the customer experience of French rail travel.  

Lemaire, formerly CIO of Anglo-French rail operator Eurostar, is developing the smart ticket n the Paris region along with the other local operators like RATP. Cities such as London and Hong Kong have led the way in creating urban smart ticket options with the Octopus in Hong Kong and the Oyster card in London, but SNCF will be one of the first regional rail networks to enable connected smart ticketing in the capital region.  

Last year national rail operator SNCF announced a three-year €120 million door-to-door travel strategy focused on multi-modal transport. The strategy is in response to 15% of French travellers regularly using three to four different transport modes, a trend that is set to grow. The mart ticket will integrate SNCF rail fares, car and bicycle sharing and information on local transport.

SNCF is developing a smart card that will enable a traveller to book a TGV journey, travel on local trains in Marseille and be recognised by the Paris Metro and able to travel on it. The customer will receive a single bill for a TGV ticket and travel on regional rail and the Metro in Paris, Lemaire says.

SNCF has been tracking the strategy of Transport for London (TfL) the UK capital multi-modal transport operator. Lemaire is particularly impressed with how TfL works with the financial services community to allow travellers to use an existing bank card for turnstile transactions. “We want to be as flexible as possible for our customers, so that we can offer the use of the credit card or the Apple and Google payment methods.

“With our own card we want to be able to do promotions or be extremely reactive when it comes to compensation of our customers after disruptions. So there are two principles that we would like to develop, one the traveller pays for what they have used so we can get away from the situation of you buy a ticket, but then if you don’t use it and then that is your problem. The second is that we want the customer to pay after the event  and we want to be able to offer benefits.”

“In Japan the travel cards allow passengers to buy food and the daily newspaper,” Lemaire says of a recent trip to the Far East he has made and the CIO is open to adopting these ideas for France.

Lemaire is focusing on ensuring the strategy adopts the latest technologies. “Using beacons SNCF will know that a customer is on our network and even when they have entered or departed a trains,” he says.

Picture by Vicky Matthers iconphotomedia

High Speed Train of thought

“Everything goes faster and faster,” Lemaire says, not of the TGVs his organisation operates but the rate technology is driving a change in customer behaviour. Lemaire was talking to this scribe as part of a research and event moderation project for rail and travel industry technology supplier Amadeus.  The Madrid headquartered technology firm sees the same customer focus through digital services changing the rail sector as digital methods have done in retail and financial services.

“We do our best to present our customer services to the customer with maximum reliability, but when the customer is not happy they have plenty of ways to express that they are not happy,” he laments. Lemaire sees this feedback as a positive and is trying to ensure the organisation see this as an opportunity.

“By knowing we have a problem we can correct our product very quickly and that was not possible before,” he says.  Lemaire says mobile technology is the key to the platform for this as it is the mainline for ticketing, marketing, payments and information and therefore the way an organisation can react to any issues.  

“Travelling in Paris for a tourist is not easy. Telling passengers, if there is a strike or if they are foreign visitors that they can travel using their bank card is powerful,” he says.  Lemaire juxtaposes the excellent road toll system in France where a small device attached to the windscreen allows instant access to the motorway network and the billing is automatic. “There is lots of similarities between trains and the road toll.”

Customer journey

Lemaire says technology has to revolutionise the customer experience for passengers as there are complexities that the customer does not want to experience. “In Paris there are multiple operators, so we need a seamless view of transportation, whether it is bus, train, tram, car sharing, electric car and bicycle.  We will integrate all of that into a single system in order to make access to public transport in the Paris region much easier, at a moment where the network is going to widely expand with multiple lines going to open in the next decade,” he says. In doing so Paris will leapfrog London which currently has separate billing and systems for the revolutionary congestion charge and its bicycle hire schemes.  

With Paris widely tipped to steal a march on London as a global financial services capital as the UK leaves the European Union, the strategy of SNCF is well timed to improve the efficiency of the city. Industry watchers and providers such as engineering company Atkins, business and product services provider Fluxx believe this strategy is essential as the modern traveller expects to make a journey using a mixture of transport modes, car club, rail, tram and then bicycle for example, but only make one transaction with a single operator.  

Lemaire is quietly spoken, but never afraid to be honest and doesn’t shy from the famed strikes that at times blight air traffic control or his rail network in France.

“If we have real-time information and there is one of our strikes we can then refund the people in a balanced way. You need to know who the people being impacted are, because that is a benefit to both the customer and the operator,” Lemaire says.  He adds that the information not only improves immediate customer service, but that SNCF and other operators must use the information to understand their networks better; “we can have a better understanding of the flow of people on our lines. One of the big financial benefits will be project management and defining the return on investment.”

Lemaire has been in his Program Director role at SNCF for three years now following a little over four years as CIO at Eurostar.  The business technology leader has spent the bulk of his leadership career at SNCF having been Operations Director for four years before heading into the Channel Tunnel and two years as IS Project Director for two years before operations. He is passionate about rail and its future and had recently returned from combining a holiday and fact finding tour of Japan. Lemaire’s passion and experience mean the CIO believes the venerable locomotive has an exciting future.

“From what I hear and read cross-border rail travel will increase, the only limit for operators is what you can do with your fleet. All major operators are trying to put more trains on more routes, that is certainly true of SNCF; we have opened a new route between Paris and Barcelona and it is proving successful. It is a six hour journey, once people said the limit of a rail journey is three or four hours, now the limit seems higher and people are prepared to spend longer on a train journey. Other operators are also reporting this trend,” he says.  With the increasing speed of daily life as a result of technology, counter cultures such as slow food and six hours on (and here’s the irony) a high speed train also grow.

At the Innotrans rail industry trade fair SNCF and its German and Italian cousins agreed terms to integrate timetables fare data, laying down the lines for a simpler customer experience, which is further enhanced by a new 320kph vehicle SNCF has introduced that cut 70 minutes from the Bordeaux to Toulouse journey. Despite these advances, SNCF faces some challenging climbs, its owners the French government recently refused to take on the operator’s debts and relations with its workforce are at times difficult.

Picture by Vicky Matthers iconphotomedia CIO Christophe Lemaire


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About Mark Chillingworth 228 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.
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