National smartcard scheme arrives

National smartcard scheme arrives

But MPs highlight integration challenges for buses and question whether the rail industry is ready

The English national concessionary travel scheme launched today - with a series of uncertainties related to smartcard integration in the bus network and further extension across the transport sector.

The new scheme allows senior citizens and disabled people free bus journeys across the country, using a new smartcard-based travel pass.

According to a report from the Commons' Transport Select Committee, 11 million concessionary travel smartcards have been issued by local authorities, but many buses are not equipped to read them.

And the committee said it “doubted whether rail services currently have adequate capacity.”

With less than two years to go before the implementation of the national smartcard standard ITSO comes into force, the clock is ticking for train operators rushing to start trials for new passes.

One of the main projects for transport group Go-Ahead is the implementation of smartcards for its London Midland rail franchise and trials are scheduled to start in January 2010.

“The government has required we implement ITSO and the industry recognises the importance of interoperability. But moving from paper tickets to the new cards is a big jump and needs to be planned,” said Go-Ahead’s group technology director Dave Lynch.

But the transport committee highlighted that concessionary travel for rail services will be costly and operators must get a payback.

“The scheme will cost £1bn, so it is important to get value for money, " said committee chairman Gwyneth Dunwoody, MP.

Implementation of the ITSO smartcard standard is “a step in the right direction”, but the committee believes that “more can be done”.

"The government needs a clearer strategy to move forward with integrated ticketing,” said Dunwoody.

"And it is also vital that any new integrated smartcard system would have to have integrated protection systems to prevent fraud and payment avoidance,” she said.

“But we do not think it sensible to focus exclusively on installing ticket gates at rail stations, as these can cause delays and obstructions for passengers and are not always the best methods of protecting rail revenue."