The ambitious project, which will provide a single Internet point of contact for rail passengers to book tickets and seats on particular trains, will require the integration of more than 30 existing train operating companies' booking systems into one overarching portal.
The National Reservation System will go live on 26 December 2004 following a development period which is scheduled to include six months of end-to-end testing for all systems.
Because of the organisational issues involved in bringing together so many disparate systems Atoc has formed a governance structure comprising project and programme boards, with board-level involvement from member companies, a seven-member suppliers' forum and an expert users group.
Atoc technical design authority Dave Taylor, said, "It will be based on a system in use in Scandinavia called Plads 90, ported to the UK environment. There will be challenges, in Scandinavia there was only a single train operating company and not as many market-priced products."
He predicted that the main challenge would be in migrating data, especially as this would largely comprise transferring live booking information from one system to another.
As well as the benefit to passengers of being able to book precise requirements for tickets with any UK rail company, the new system will build in up-to-date algorithms allowing train companies to determine demand on a near real-time basis rather than forecasting from past information.
Ovum analyst Neil Macehiter described the project as very ambitious.
"The project will face significant challenges. Data migration is a potential challenge. The Onus is on Cap Gemini Ernst &Young to come up with a common set of interfaces to deliver the functionality and data models it needs," he said.
"The existing system was designed for a single operator but will be ported to support 30 companies and deal with complex issues like cross-operator fares.
"One has to wonder if more engineering is necessary to adapt the existing model than build a new one from scratch," Macehiter said. He also questioned whether Atoc had the experience to handle such a large contract.