On the buses…with smartcards

This post is largely based on my observations of the rollout of smartcard enabling technologies across my local bus brands.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a few problems with the implementation of smartcard technology on buses. This blog post details the problems that I have found.

Why use a smartcard on a bus?

A smartcard is capable of rapidly speeding up boarding on buses meaning that buses are able to keep to the advertised timetable with greater ease. I see this in action on my university bus service, uni-link, where the majority of users hold smartcards (University ID or Southampton ‘mini card’) either with a period travel pass or a carnet style ticket. The machines are also capable of accepting ENCTS cards issued in Southampton only.

With this in mind, this isn’t a post about why we should use smartcards on the buses. Rollout of ITSO compatible equipment is moving along and eventually, at some point in the future, every bus ticket machine in the country will be smartcard capable. This is a post about why there are and will be problems on the buses.

Removing flexibility

In my local area, Go-Ahead will soon be rolling out the key across the Go South Coast divisions of Wilts & Dorset and Bluestar. From my investigations into this, there seems that there will be a lack of flexibility introduced as, at present, ‘Freedom’ tickets valid for 30 and 90 days are valid on uni-link (which is a contract that Bluestar operate).

I asked Bluestar a couple of days ago whether the key will be compatible with uni-link ticket machines and the reply I received was:

@swlines Unfortunately, the key will not be available on UniLink. The readers are not compatible 🙁

At this point, I’ll ignore the point that compatibility is normally a software issue given the fact that they all use the same underlying technology (i.e. an RFID card). As an incentive to use the key, Bluestar have advertised discounts on their normal prices so it appears that they can use the argument that the discounted prices result in reduced flexibility. However, this only lasts until until the end of April 2012. Presumably, in this instance, they’ll either have a solution in place or the prices will bump up with the assumed lack of flexibility remaining.

Of course, this could all be academic if they have a solution in place already – but the point is that it is not obvious and this damages both the reputation of the usage of smartcard technology on the whole (the ITSO brand included) and the bus operator for, apparently, not having the foresight to see and resolve this problem.

Bus operators receive a financial benefit through the Bus Service Operator Grant for accepting ITSO based smartcards. The only real criteria that they have to meet is the acceptance of ENCTS cards – meaning that their own smartcard schemes can either never come about, rushed and have implementation faults or be done with calm and concentration to ensure passengers benefit.

Paper tickets – when are they issued?

Theoretically, smartcards should mean that paper tickets aren’t necessary with the potential exception of carnets. With the concessionary travel schemes, the travel rights are conferred on the cardholder through holding a card – some bus operators issue a ticket alongside this just to register the journey on their systems. However, therein lies a problem.

Back to my local buses (although it has been partially corrected), as part of the introduction of smartcards all the ticket machines on Wilts & Dorset and Bluestar were replaced from Wayfarers to new machines made by ERG. Previously, when a passenger boarded a W&D bus with an ENCTS card the driver registered the journey and continued. Initially under the new system, the card was read and a new ticket was issued. This seems like a retrograde step when moving into the technological era – new technology should be able to meet the requirements of the old from the start of its operation. In any case, both Wilts & Dorset and Bluestar have stopped issuing paper tickets – it’s a complete waste of paper!

This brings me back to the Uni-link contract. An ENCTS card cannot be read on their ticket machines, as I mentioned before, but there is no single policy that all drivers observe when registering the journeys. Frequently, zero fare tickets are issued yet on other occasions either a “receipt” or no ticket issued at all. There needs to be a policy, not just for one bus operator, that states that no ticket will be issued to the passenger across all operators nationwide. If a ticket is required to be issued in order to register the journey, the driver can hold this ticket to ensure that it goes for proper recycling. Issuing zero fare tickets are largely a waste of time as far as the passenger is concerned and this way some effort can be made to offset the (albeit very minor) environmental damage made by issuing needless paper.

The future

Country wide concessionary travel schemes are the only card accepted nationwide. The closest match to that in England is Oxford where passengers can use one card on any bus at the moment. So, if you live in a multi-operator environment which isn’t Oxford, like myself, you may need to have up to 3 cards to live in the smartcard era and take advantage of any discounted fares that may be available.

Smartcards make it far easier than ever before for one ticket to cover many operators – Bournemouth’s attempt at a bus-only (i.e. not PlusBus) interavailable fare comes up with many arguments over validity. With a smartcard… read the card, check the ticket (either automatically or manually), is it valid? It doesn’t matter whose plastic it is on.

I end with a message about the ethos of ITSO, directly quoted from their website:

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 secure payment ‘smart’ card no matter what bus, train or route they are using

The technology is there, let’s take advantage of it now – what’s the point in waiting?