Steve Chambers Blog

Why the UK needs a National Travel Smartcard

Now is the smart time to act

Steve Chambers

Steve Chambers

12 May 2020

Right now, transport authorities are focussed on restricting the number of people travelling on mass transit networks, to protect the public from COVID-19. But one day we will need to increase patronage to the levels we saw before the crisis, to make our rail networks and bus services viable again. Other countries have national smartcards for rail, even extending to the bus networks in some places. Can we dare imagine a future with that convenience?

Ticketing systems, distinct from fares, are one of the ways operators can increase patronage. Passenger numbers vary depending on several factors. If you make it more convenient to travel, more people will. Innovations such as the Oyster card and Transport for London contactless payments increase ridership. But we haven’t seen this happen consistently outside London.

The UK rail network has well over twenty rail smartcards with low adoption rates, inconsistent feature availability and a lack of interoperability between operators. You can’t use a smartcard of one operator on the services of another and you can’t start journeys on one train operating company line and end on another using the same smartcard. The full range of fares are not available on each smartcard. On some you can’t buy daily tickets, on others you can’t pay as you go. Railcards discounts sometimes work and sometimes they don’t. It’s a mess.

This creates an inequitable ticketing system manifested in various problems. On most smartcard schemes there is lack of good value season ticket products for part time workers, disproportionately affecting women. There is a lack of a national ticketing product for the underbanked. As new and exclusive technology like smartphone apps have been adopted, people without bank accounts are left with more expensive and less convenient paper ticketing. But most significantly rail journeys are generally made less attractive than they could be, in particular to less frequent passengers who find accessing best value electronic ticketing difficult and confusing.

Most frustratingly of all, these seemingly incompatible cards all use ITSO, the same underlying technology. So how did this happen? It is largely down to a failure of governance. Each train operating company was made responsible for smartcards on their route and the only way to impose central direction was via new franchise agreements which are only periodically agreed. Which brings us to the opportunity created by COVID-19.

The reforming of railway governance, that is now inevitable after rail franchises have been suspended, is an opportunity to fix this error of the franchising era. This will be combined with the imperative to grow patronage through more attractive ticketing and targeted concessions, that a national smartcard will allow. Now is the smart time to act.

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