So, I’ve been a guinea pig in the South West Trains smartcard system for a year and 6 months – and my second season ticket has expired – and it had struck me as to how disjointed the ITSO system is – despite the fact it is supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread.
ITSO is a government-backed non-profit organisation which sets a common technical standard that means transport operators throughout Britain can link up so passengers only have to use one payment ‘smart’ card no matter what bus, train or route they are using, it means that same card can be developed for multiple uses, including council services such as leisure centres or libraries and means information gathered securely through card use can be used to provide better and more targeted service
ITSO, as they say, is a technical standard for smart card based technology. It, however, does not set out a standard for branding any card other than that they should hold the ITSO ‘icon’ somewhere on it. Not many people will have heard of ITSO, but other than Oyster it is quite likely to to be the smartcard standard in widest circulation – as all concessionary travel bus passes have to support ITSO.
But first, I will look at the technical deficiencies that I have come across in my travels. The most notable one probably being the lack of break of journey. Break of journey does not hold much of a point for buses, or nor really for ‘pay as you go’ travel using the stored credit functionality of the cards. It does, however, come into its own as it is necessary in order to be able to successfully provision pretty much all National Rail products – such as the off peak (day) return, anytime return or indeed a season ticket which is what I use. I am unaware of whether London Midland in their implementation permit it, as I have been unable to test this. As a result, on my season ticket between Bournemouth and Southampton Airport, the nice people on the Southampton Central gateline knew me well as I received the now familiar ‘code 57′ (not valid at this station) when using the gates.
Secondly, passback. ‘Passback’ is the system where a ticket is ‘passed back’ for another passenger to use – normally to pass through a set of ticket gates. The system is specifically designed to prevent the duplicate use of the same ticket for the same journey by two or more passengers. Passback on the ‘validators’ is quite simple, you get one “journey started”, one “journey finished” and then “passback”. This can all be done in a few seconds. Fair enough, you may say, but personally I would rather the ability to throw passback as soon as the journey has started for around a minute to two minutes – and then complete after that. At least, that way, it allows for a passenger to get to the platform and see everything is to pot before de-validating their ticket. It should be noted that you require a “validated” ticket for travel when using a smartcard, and this passback system makes it much easier to de-validate. Do you want a penalty fare? Sure, have one!
The other problem with passback is that the functionality is different on a gateline. As these have “directions” to them, then you can more easily cause it. If you use it twice in the same direction, that’s fine, second one brings up the passback but you still have a validated journey. The same applies when exiting the system. However, you can still get more than one person in as I have found that entry-exit-entry will work fine (indeed, entry-exit-entry-exit-entry will too), as will exit-entry-exit (but not any more than that!).
If you do manage to de-validate your journey then there is the small issue of having to validate for the journey you want to make, again. Of course, you can’t do this at any validator or gateline as they’ll be throwing the passback excuse at you. You need to talk to one of the nice people with a handheld validator instead – apart from the fact none of the ones on SWT at least have been trained on how to use them.
And that brings me onto the third technical issue – which links in nicely with the ‘branding’ problem that has arisen, the lack of handheld readers. With a paper ticket, all you need to do is glance at the ticket – check that it’s valid and on you go. With ITSO, and indeed any smartcard system, you have to have a handheld card reader that may or may not work at that moment in time. If it works, great, they know what ticket I have…if it doesn’t – they don’t. But they can’t prevent me from travelling because of that as it isn’t my fault. This seems like it doesn’t matter much, but the problem is down to branding. As my season ticket is interavailable with CrossCountry and South West Trains (they both serve my route) this raises interesting questions for how branding of any ITSO smartcard should work.
The main problem with ITSO is the lack of branding conformity. There are a few reasons I say this but the primary one being that I should be able to obtain any ITSO card and use that card on any ITSO accepting service (so, in my case, any South West Trains or CrossCountry service and soon my local buses). This will work in practice but unfortunately no-one has informed any of the on train staff how ITSO really works.
ScotRail have your photo on the card – but the idea of ITSO is to enable me to use the same card anywhere. Somehow, I imagine if I was to go to Scotland and attempt to use my Stagecoach card up there I’d get penalty fare’d for being invalid. But I’m not – I’m using an ITSO card, not a super duper ScotRail branded photograph required (because we’re mental) smartcard.
The Key, which is the Go-Ahead / Govia scheme, is like the Stagecoach card – they don’t seem to have your photo on it at all, which is a good thing. But it’s also a bad thing, as they don’t share branding so again, someone could look at the card and go, straight away, “invalid” in their head despite one having a valid ticket for the journey…
The general conclusion that you can take from this is that while ITSO is a fantastic idea in principle – it has technical limitations that make it hard to use on the railway to meet our ticket specifications and branding problems which will cause a problem across the country on all modes of transport.