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OVPay: checking in and out with your debit card


Checking in with debit cards everywhere? It is expected to be possible in the Netherlands by January. To realise this unique project, many parties had to deal with huge changes. Replacing check-in gates, developing software and a lot of testing and pilots: "We are talking about a complete technology transition," says Froukje de Haan, Programme Manager for public transport payments at Thales the Netherlands.

In 2018, Thales started with the transition. They adapted all gates and validators with the right hardware to be able to read the NFC chip of a bank card. But that is not all, also the software had to be changed. Since travellers make an immediate payment transaction with a bank card, the banks are also included in the process. And those banks operate with specific security requirements. "We are really talking about a monster job," explains Froukje de Haan.

"You go from a stand-alone OV-chipcard with a so-called offline system, to a system with the bank card that is always online. With the OV-chip card system, it was not a problem if there was no connection to the network. Transactions could still be completed if there was a connection at a later moment that week. We have now migrated to a system that should always be online. "

Check-in gates and validators updated

How does this massive change work? The check-in equipment had to be adapted, of course. The Netherlands has more than ten thousand gates at stations, in buses and trams. "All those gates had to be changed. The inside needs to be adjusted to read an NFC chip and make an online transaction. The validators in the buses and trams also had to be changed. In the end, all the check-in and check-out equipment will be renewed."

Many travellers did not realize that the huge replacement operation was going on.

The tricky thing about the hardware operation is that travellers use the check-in and check-out equipment on a daily basis. A lot of work was done during the night. "There were opportunities to work at stations during the day at quiet times outside rush hours, but we definitely worked at night as well. In the buses, we only did the work at night. Buses would come in, be adjusted and could return to service the next day. Many passengers did not realize that the huge replacement operation was going on."

"We were able to upgrade a few buses per night, so we had a really fast pace there. In three months, we converted a whole fleet. With a gate at the railway station there is a lot more involved. New materials  had to be built in and that can only be done on site  We had a total of four to five years of work to replace all the check-in and check-out equipment."

Always online

With the upgrade of the gates, checking in with the debit card does not work immediately. There were also changes needed in the software.  "Currently, you hold an OV-chip card in front of the system and then a transaction takes place. That transaction goes to the operator's back office and then it goes to Translink, where the transaction is confirmed and settled. For the bank card system, you need a whole security system with all kinds of tokens and keys, because now a banking system is used for the transactions. That system is completely new for public transport and is always online. That system should always work." 

The system is completely new and should always be online 

A system that is always online, isn’t that very vulnerable? Is it possible that no one will be able to check in if the internet fails? De Haan reassures us. "We are now already at the same robustness of the OV-chipcard system. You can still check in and out if the system is not connected to the network, although it must connect the same day. The transaction can then still be processed."

"For all parties involved, this new software meant a big change. Replacing the hardware was the responsibility of Thales, but developing the software involved all parties: operators, suppliers and Translink. Everyone had to work very hard to accomplish this task."

Big-Bang rollout

The rollout of public transport payments nationwide, with the possibility to check in and out with a debit card everywhere in the Netherlands is expected to be ready by January."It is in nobody's interest to roll out a programme like this in a Big-Bang. I know it was once the idea, but that caused us headaches. For such a Big-Bang, just too much had to happen. You do not know what the back offices will do if they suddenly have millions of transactions a day. The whole chain now consists of many more steps and many more stakeholders."

"We were able to test part of the system in our lab, of course, but we could only test the whole chain with pilots. It was really nice that the operators wanted to do a pilot with us." De Haan says she sometimes goes to observe at major train stations to see how a traveller checks in. "My colleagues testing the system naturally check in very often and know exactly what to do. Standing at a station yourself, you suddenly see quite different behaviour. Then you are just amazed at how people sometimes check in. That is very fascinating. You can't mimic that in a lab."

Never check in or out again

Checking in and out nationwide with a debit card is unique. In other countries, it is sometimes possible in certain cities, but not in the whole country and with all operators. "There are a few countries that have the same payment system for public transport nationwide, nonetheless only in the Netherlands and Denmark it is centrally regulated." The Netherlands is seen as an example. "From abroad, whole delegations come to us to see how we have accomplished the project. In our country it helps that the operators work together and that is not the case in many other countries."

For example, we are already looking at the future where people can check in simply by walking into a station.

That we as the Netherlands are leading the way does not mean the massive job is don. First, of course, OVPay must be rolled out nationwide, with all the campaigns that come with it. The system also needs further development so that subscription tickets can also be linked to the debit card. 

Thales will continue to innovate aiming to make travel simple and accessible to everyone. "We will always stay busy. For example, we are already looking at the future where people can check in by simply walking into a station. 

This article is based on the article on OVPro (in Dutch)