Fragmentation and interoperability of ticketing standards on public transport

The public transport network in the UK is fragmented and, quite frankly, confusing – but it doesn’t mean that we have to have a perception of ticketing like that as well.

The ultimate aim of smartcards should be to replace the numerous paper tickets issued with a single plastic card, itself capable of holding many tickets. As it stands, we’re moving towards an environment where we will simply end up in a scenario with as many smartcards as paper tickets. There are already over 35 million cards in the UK that are, or could be, used for transportation and yet we simply can’t use just one single card for all journeys on public transport within the UK. This is formed of 22 million recently used Oyster cards and 15 million ITSO compatible cards. There are, however, 50 million active Oyster cards. The number of smartcards is anticipated to rise by another 15 million by 2015 meaning that there will be almost one for every adult in the living in the UK! [1]

We can sort this now, with some effort, and it will bring benefits to everyone – operators and passengers alike.

First of all, what is a smartcard & more importantly, what is the difference between all the different types available?

From the Simple English version of Wikipedia:

A smart card is a card with a microchip in it. Such cards are used as a method of identification and authentication.

Quite simply, a smartcard is a plastic card that holds data on a microchip. In slightly more detail, in the context of this post – it is a card that can hold travel entitlements (for instance, a season ticket, point-to-point ticket, etc.).

The most widely known smartcard in the UK is probably the Oyster card. This is, in my view, a proprietary system that while widely used within Greater London shouldn’t really be expanded much beyond its current extent. We already have equivalent, more powerful, systems capable of interoperability available that are not compatible with Oyster.

ITSO, which started life as the Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation, is an organisation which develops a standard specification for smartcards designed to ensure interoperability between transport operators and provide additional functionality to ensure it can be used for multiple purpose. This is the standard on which TOCs have to implement their smartcard schemes and, in my view, is the system that we must use in order to continue into the future.

The most widely used implementation of the ITSO specification in transport terms are the concessionary travel schemes in England, Scotland and Wales. These provide free travel on buses for those of pensionable age and those who are disabled within their resident countries. The concessionary travel scheme in each country is formed of a number of locally run separate schemes under the banner of the country-wide scheme.

There are other types of smartcards available – but typically proprietary systems, which means I have about as much time for them as a typical student does when weighing up whether to go clubbing or do coursework. One of my local bus operators, Yellow Buses, recently introduced their Glo card which uses a proprietary scheme by Parkeon, supposedly. This is surprising, seeing as Parkeon proclaim to be involved with ITSO. Nevertheless, I recently asked if I could use my ITSO card with them – and I was told I couldn’t due to it being a proprietary scheme.

The Bus Service Operator Grant within England provides a provision for additional funding if a bus operator introduces readers able to read ITSO cards. This, however, only involves a provision of accepting English Concessionary Travel Cards – so there is no incentive to work towards commercial interoperability. Yellow Buses have recently started accepting ENCTS cards – so while they are now receiving the grant for ITSO capability, they are working entirely against the vision of an interoperable single card.

The Problem

I see a smartcard as a medium that is as flexible, travel wise, as a paper ticket. I should be able to buy a ticket from any operator for any journey that I want to make, as I can on paper. Smartcards, at the moment, on the rail network are at their best when you make a single point-to-point journey without breaking the journey between these points on a single operator route.

The way the government has positioned implementations on the rail network means that each individual TOC has to produce their own individual card together with all the back-office to support it. This means that further efforts need to be made in order to make a card as freely inter-available as a normal paper ticket. This includes branding advisories to other TOCs along any route to ensure that other TOCs recognise the visual identity of each card as well as doing all the work involved to facilitate interoperability.

The Vision, as I see it

It’s quite simple. One card. Anywhere.

This may be difficult across modes – but one card anywhere across the rail network is quite a straight forward target to aim for. At present, I have a total of 4 (University ID, SWT, Oyster and Yellow Buses) and potentially a 5th in the future to use on Southern & my other local bus company (Wilts & Dorset – a Go-Ahead group company). I’d like one – just one. Two at a push.

Slow progress…

Rolling out a smartcard across the entire rail network has other factors that impedes progress – specifically, the fact that franchises are so tightly specified that it makes it difficult for any operator to help the passenger. Look at what happened in London, the Oyster card is – at the root of it – a fantastic product and well executed. It’s a very simple card technically but that, in my view, is the reason for its success.

As it stands, TOCs will generally only introduce smartcard schemes if the terms of their franchise require it. There is little point in introducing it financially as many don’t see the benefits or cannot create the business case for it. As a result, it will be fair to say that we won’t see a smartcard operation across the entire rail network until the mid-2020s. Chiltern are the last of the current franchises to be re-let and as such we won’t see a network-wide implementation until then – unless things are changed.

If network-wide implementation isn’t sped up, we’ll end up in a situation which just isn’t worth the effort of using a smartcard or NFC (near-field communication) enabled device for the travelling public. The government and transport authorities frequently discuss the concept of integrated public transport but if it cannot be managed swiftly on, potentially, the easiest mode to implement it on (as all revenue distribution and product control is done centrally) then it gives no incentive for other schemes to follow.

What can be done?

At the simplest level on the railways, there needs to be a centralised policy set by either an external body or RSP. Rail Settlement Plan is a part of ATOC (the Association of Train Operating Companies) which, in their own words, “provides the industry standard ticket stock”. At the moment, there seems to be a very much hands-off role being taken by them – whilst this is the prime time at which key decisions need to be made.

As I understand it, rail operators sell tickets on ITSO cards that are their ‘own’ products – in order to allow others to sell them, they’ll need to organise agreements between others, etc. This could be considered a direct parity between what happens for price-setting and retailing on paper tickets – but moving to electronic media for ticketing adds another hurdle to cross as typically, another operator would not sell another operators product unless it was previously agreed to when using an ITSO scheme. Obviously, to allow this with the current fragmentation – the terms need to be negotiated and agreements made. To solve this, there needs to be a central strategy that facilitates any operator to sell any ticket on electronic media – ergo, this is probably best set by RSP given their current position.

However, even if this isn’t settled – there needs to be a strategy set so that the public are able to easily recognise the fact that any ITSO card may contain any product. It is a requirement of the ITSO operating licence for a compatible card to show the ITSO logo somewhere on the card. Unfortunately, that means that it can be placed on the back if the operator so desires – something which causes problems with brand recognition as staff may not understand what the card is without it being explained to them. Presently, I occasionally have to argue with CrossCountry Train Managers who thinks that my Stagecoach SMART card is valid only on Stagecoach operated services.

If the branding requirements were changed to insist that the ITSO logo be shown in a prominent position on the front of a card, this may still cause problems with people unaware of the capabilities of the system due to the fact that commercial agreements must be made. As such, there would need to be a large pressure placed on ITSO members in order to increase awareness of what can or can’t be done with each card. Alternatively, a focused effort could be placed on creating either a single brand for use by each operator nationwide or a similar small logo like the ITSO logo on the card.

If anything on this scale is to happen there will need to be an agreement between, at least, all public transport operators and providers of the cards so that any card from any group is available on the services provided by other transportation groups. This may seem to be a large hurdle to cross from a business point of view – but given that the potential is just sitting there waiting to be exploited, the potential to exponentially increase seamless multi-modal usage of public transport is there just waiting to be tapped into.

From the point of view of an operator, all of this is a pain. They just want their individual products on their own card to keep an end-user locked into their own system. From the point of view of a passenger, doing that is just one more card that we have to carry around.

Speeding up the process

On the rail network, I believe that progress in increasing smartcard usage should be greatly accelerated before we get to a point at which NFC (near-field communication) has completely taken over and the concept of a smartcard is supplanted in the consumer mind. ITSO itself is capable of working on both NFC and smartcard systems, so technologically this isn’t a problem. The focus, however, for this needs to be made on ensuring the rollout is faster, and not creating the perception in the public that some operators have smartcard schemes and others have NFC based schemes. As a result, making franchise specifications a limitation of what an operator can do is wrong – there is a vision and centralising this vision in one place is what needs to be changed.

As franchises are re-let, smartcard obligations are inserted into them as I have previously mentioned. Each franchise with a smartcard obligation should be talking to each other in a single voice and aiming for the same objective with their implementations. This would speed up the process. Expertise from one franchise could then be easily placed into another. It doesn’t need to stop there, though – this expertise could then be placed in franchised TOCs without any obligations or even open-access TOCs. This is a hurdle that, while difficult to cross, would greatly improve the overall benefit to the passenger.

This may not necessarily be possible though – as we don’t have to specifically restrict availability because a TOC has no obligations to implement a scheme. If there is a willingness in the industry, sales could still be made of any ticket type and those without obligations could simply accept the tickets as they do on paper. Some expense would be necessary to equip staff and gatelines with readers, etc., but this could be picked up by a central DfT budget to improve the railway for the passengers.

In the perfect world

Consider this journey, from my home in Bournemouth to my university in Southampton.

How it works now: I have a season ticket between Bournemouth to Southampton Airport on my SWT smartcard. For the bus in Bournemouth, I either have to have a paper ticket or a ticket electronically issued on a smartcard (which can’t be my SWT one, as the T&Cs prohibit this). For the bus in Southampton, I either have to have another paper ticket or a ticket electronically issued on my university ID card. This means, in any case, I have three tickets on 3 different pieces of plastic or paper.

How it should work: In the perfect world, it would work similarly to how it does now – three tickets. However, it should be on one smartcard – two fewer things I could possibly lose.

You could apply this scenario to different places – increase the number of operating companies involved, perhaps, and you just increase the number of pieces of paper or smartcards you need to have.


At the end of the day, public transport in the UK is operated by a number of different companies – I know that and I’m sure most others do as well. To facilitate interoperability to allow just one card everywhere may be a difficult challenge, but it is one that everyone should be working together to try and work towards. After all, if they can manage it in Oxford and Chester on the buses – it should be possible to expand that on a much larger scale and do it everywhere.

[1] – age structure section, all 15+ and allowing for general population increase.