It’s taken a long time for the beautiful dream of the UK’s integrated transport smartcard to die. Back in the early 2000s when I was a transport journalist, I used to attend the occasional open meeting of the Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation (or ITSO). At the time, Transport for London (TfL) was gearing up to launch its Oyster smartcard (which duly came into service in 2003), hoping to emulate the success of Hong Kong’s Octopus smartcard by allowing electronic payments for various modes of travel. It’s Octopus that started a small trend for maritime zoology in smartcard brand names, though it was the many tentacles of the Octopus that were the inspiration for the name, rather than its marine nature.
Oyster was a slightly ironic name for London’s smart ticket, deriving from the phrase “the world is your oyster” and the claim, somewhat fanciful, that the Thames was strongly linked in people’s minds with oysters. The Oyster card is a funny piece of graphic design. It’s the only part of TfL’s empire that seems to have escaped the visual rigour applied to the rest of its operations. Although it includes the expected New Johnston typeface for most of the lettering, the actual Oyster logo is in odd bubble writing. It’s slightly underwhelming-looking for such a game-changing piece of technology. It’s basically a blue and white stripe on the right of the card, with a coloured panel on the left which varies according to the type of card. Here’s mine, along with a couple of other versions:
As well as these, there are versions for under-18s and 18+ students, not to mention visitor cards, Olympic cards, bus operator cards and retired staff cards, all with different colour schemes. Surely the most terrifying version was the limited edition produced for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (see it here) which didn’t look so much like a souvenir as the Queen’s very own photo-ID card, arriving in your wallet in a freak royal mix up.
Despite Oyster’s many merits, it was clear in advance of its launch that the one thing Oyster wasn’t, was capable of expansion much beyond London’s immediate environs. Its closed, proprietary system simply couldn’t handle the many ticket and journey permutations outside its planned operating area. England wasn’t even going to be your oyster with an Oyster card, let alone the UK, and certainly not the world. That was where ITSO came in.
ITSO was (and is) a membership organisation set up with an apparently simple mission: to create a single, integrated transport smartcard technical standard for the whole of the UK. It wasn’t intended as a producer of smartcards, nor an operator of smartcard systems. What it did do was set the standards for the technologies which make smartcards work, and it continues to refine them even now. Slightly confusingly, the technical standard is also called ITSO. It has been designed to allow you to do all things you can do on an Oyster card – holding season tickets for specified route or area-wide travel, pay-as-you-go options, price-capping – and more, like point-to-point individual journey tickets. As ITSO (the organisation) puts it: “By using the same ITSO Specification, transport operators can ensure that their fare charging systems speak the same language. So, no matter which form of transport you are travelling on, which operator is providing it, or where you are in the UK, in theory, one ITSO smartcard could be used for end-to-end journeys.”
You’ll note the “in theory”.
A single ITSO card ought to be able to replace all those paper tickets you accumulate on a long journey; bus tickets, the open return on your local train to London, the advance purchase saver ticket from London to your holiday destination, and the return equivalents. The reality is somewhat different, and considerably more disappointing.
While Oyster has been a huge success in London, virtually wiping out paper tickets for most Londoners, the introduction and use of ITSO smartcards outside London has been slow, complicated, confusing and defined largely by a failure to provide anything like the functionality of Oyster, even though ITSO cards are quite capable of doing so. In fact, many bus travellers in the UK have had an ITSO smartcard for ages without even knowing it. When the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (that’s free bus travel for pensioners and people with qualifying disabilities to you and me) started in 2008, the bus passes were issued on ITSO smartcards. The trouble was, most buses weren’t equipped to do anything with them, so they were mostly used as “flash passes”, which is the way you try to use a tech-sounding term to cover up the fact that you mean holders simply showed them to the driver.
In common with most of the national government’s forays into transport design (it specified the bland-looking, not to mention Wi-Fi-less, seatback table-less new Thameslink trains, and oversaw the underwhelming visual identities of Directly Operated Railways’ South Eastern Trains and East Coast), the cards are a visual disappointment. It’s English, so let’s use…er, the English flag, seems to have been the thought process. I wonder how long that design meeting took? Once the stylised cross of St George, a stylised red rose (“Hey! Guys! You know what else is really English?”…), the issuing local authority’s logo, the ITSO logo, the credit to government and local authority, and the expiry date are on the card, you end up with a bit of a cluttered mess. There is a small strip of colour on the right of the card; blue for the older persons card, yellow for the disabled persons card. Here are the ones which belong to my Mum and Dad, the latter of whom you’ll be aware of from his frequent photo contributions to this website, not to mention being the inspiration for this blog in the first place. In an attempt to protect them from identity theft, I’ve pixellated Dad’s photo and the card numbers.
[This bit’s just for the tech fans, everyone else can go and look at the picture. The 18-figure number carried by ITSO smartcards is called an ITSO Shell Reference Number. It comprises a six-digit Issuer Identification Number (part of a global card identification system, 633597 being ITSO in the UK, the others being listed in this document. Then there’s a four digit Operators Identification Number, e.g. 0246 for Abellio Greater Anglia, and 0211 for East Sussex County Council. The next seven digits are the ITSO Shell Serial Number (the unique number of any particular card issued by that operator) and the last number is a check digit, computed using the Lühn formula and acting as a verification when necessary that the preceding digits have been quoted correctly. Source: ITSO TS1000-2 Interoperable public transport ticketing using contactless smart customer media – Part 2: Customer media data structure (2010). And that’s why I’ve only obscured the ITSO Shell Serial Numbers]
I can’t stress enough that any individual ITSO card – they generally carry the ITSO logo just to make it clear – is technically capable of being loaded with practically any combination of any travel tickets you can possibly imagine. The concessionary bus pass isn’t just to prove that the holder is entitled to free travel, but is a piece of very clever technology that can store a train ticket, and/or hold pay-as-you-go credit which could be used to pay for bus travel undertaken before 9:30am when concessionary passes aren’t valid, and/or store a day rover on bus services excluded from the concessionary travel scheme such as sightseeing buses. But they are never used like this. In fact it took until about 2011/12 before it became anything like common for smartcard readers to be installed on buses allowing concessionary travel passes to be validated by touching them in. There are lots of advantages to this. Smartcards can be ‘hotlisted’ if stolen, or if it is found that someone is using a disabled persons pass without qualifying for it. A driver wouldn’t be able to guess that if the concessionary card was used as a flash pass.
But the roll-out of ITSO smart cards for regular travellers has been agonisingly slow, piecemeal and frustrating. What ITSO hadn’t counted on was the apparent sheer intransigence of public transport operators, and their failure to find a compelling business case for moving passengers quickly from paper tickets to smartcards. Although faster transaction times were an incentive, as passengers wouldn’t need to fiddle about with change on buses or at ticket office windows, it was hard to stack that up against the costs of installing smartcard readers on buses, at railway stations, at ticket offices, on ticket machines, and in the hands of ticket inspectors. For potential passengers, having credit on a smartcard takes away the stress of getting on a bus and finding that they have only a £20 note to pay with. But that’s not a business proposition for a bus operator, because (if you were to take a cynical view of such things) it’s much cheaper to refuse to take the £20 and kick the wannabe passenger off the bus on the relatively few occasions it happens, than it is to spend a lot of money installing new technology which could prevent it from happening in the first place.
TfL has used the Oyster card’s touch-in, touch-out process to generate enormous amounts of travel data, helping it plan London’s transport network more efficiently, and target investment in extra capacity. Unlike paper Travelcards, which are essentially anonymous on the Underground and untraceable when used as flash passes on buses, Oystercards can be tracked over time over the network, showing flows of travel, not just the number of Travelcards activating the gates at a particular station.
TfL is in the fortunate position of specifying and franchising practically all of the London transport network. Outside London, a town or city might have a railway, a tram, and many different bus operators. There is less of a business case for individual operators to introduce Oyster-style products on the grounds of interrogating travel data, because they are operators of only part of the network, rather than the local transport planners of the whole network, as TfL is. For local transport authorities, issuing their own smartcard might have network planning advantages, except that most of them don’t actually plan their local transport networks, buses being run commercially and the rail network being specified by the Department for Transport (DfT).
The government has, on occasion, resorted to measures that might be charitably described as firm arm-twisting, or less charitably described as diktat, blackmail or bung, to get public transport operators outside London to start offering smartcard schemes. From April 2010, bus operators have been able to claim an 8% increase in their Bus Service Operators Grant (which is effectively a fuel duty rebate and indeed used to be called that) provided they have operational ITSO smartcard systems (see the DfT briefing here). Smartcard provision has been written into various, but not yet all, rail franchises. And the DfT even went to the trouble of setting up a back office system to allow more use of smartcards on the national rail network, and spent huge sums of money ensuring that TfL’s Oyster gates at National Rail stations in London could also read ITSO cards. The National Audit Office (NAO) recently published a damning report about this programme (see the NAO’s webpage here), which cost more than forecast and missed its deadlines. “Achieving the economic benefits of smart ticketing stated in the [DfT’s] 2014 business case depended on eventually achieving 95% of take-up of smart season tickets,” the NAO noted. “The Department’s latest data shows that 8% of all season ticket sales in the 12 months up to March 2017 on participating train operating companies were on smartcards. The Department attributes low levels of take-up to early problems with passenger experience and lack of promotional and marketing activity.”
Having essentially been forced to provide smartcard schemes, you can understand why operators – either in the rail or bus industries – haven’t been all that enthusiastic about promoting them, or offering anything approaching a London Oyster card-style experience. They have certainly shown no interest in ITSO’s (the organisation) dream of a single integrated transport smartcard. If, as a private sector transport operator, you’ve been forced to make smartcards available, then the one big win you can get is a nice list of your customers who have registered for one. That’s a handy marketing database right there. But that information is, of course, jealously guarded. It’s not to be shared with competitors. Nor do you want outsiders, about whom you know nothing, coming into your operating area and adding one of your tickets onto their existing smartcard. So no, just because you have one smartcard for your local bus company, that doesn’t mean you can load a weekly season ticket from a different bus company on it when you go on holiday somewhere else for a week. That second bus company will sign you up for their own smartcard before you can do that. And don’t even think about putting a train ticket on either smartcard for travel between your home and your holiday destination. You’ll need yet another smartcard, a train operator one, for that. Even within the bigger transport operators in the country, there is often no ability to use a smartcard issued in one part of its operations, at a different part.
So, in the end, the fragmented nature of the British public transport network outside London has meant that instead of replacing a walletful of paper tickets with a single plastic smartcard, the ITSO smartcard programme has merely replaced a walletful of paper tickets with a walletful of plastic smartcards. It’s annoying and frustrating to realise that each one could hold the entirety of the travel information split across all the others.
Cities with Passenger Transport Executives (or their equivalent) have become extraordinarily annoyed with the lack of progress in delivering area-wide bus smartcards in their areas, and not without reason. Some of the problems are summed up in this Passenger Transport article by the director general of the Urban Transport Group, Jonathan Bray. The big transport groups talked a good game on smartcard ticketing in city regions. In November 2014, Britain’s biggest bus operators Arriva, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach got together to announce they would introduce “Oyster-Style Smart Ticketing in England’s City Regions” during 2015 (see the press release here). In January 2016, they announced they had done it (see the press release here). But the reality is that delivery has been patchy at best, and bloody-mindedly awkward at best. Consider Newcastle, which I know reasonably well. I can buy a Pop smartcard from local PTE Nexus for travel on the Metro, or a Pay-As-You-Go Pop card which deducts money for bus journeys or bus day tickets as I buy them. Here’s my Pop card, one of my favourite designs of the current crop, a psychedelic celebration of the enjoyment that public transport should offer alongside basic utility:
So far, so good. But when it comes to area-wide bus season tickets, they can only be loaded onto the smartcards of one of the three big local bus operators, for use in the so-called “North East SmartZone”. So that’s two smartcards I need, straight off, unlike the single Oyster card I need in London for multi-modal travel. And the North East SmartZone isn’t exactly smart either. It divides Newcastle city region into four sectors: North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Newcastle and Sunderland. So if I have a SmartZone ticket for North Tyneside to use the buses near my sister’s house, I can’t then use the buses in and around Newcastle city centre if I’m over there shopping and visiting a museum, unless I also buy a Smartzone ticket for that area. Can you imagine if the London Travelcard didn’t cover the whole of London but there were four travelcards, one for each quarter of London?
I’ll leave it to you to consider whether the bus operators have actually introduced “Oyster-Style Smart Ticketing in England’s City Regions” as they promised (spoiler alert: they haven’t).
The dream of the single integrated ITSO smartcard has died a death then, but at long last the number of smartcard schemes around the country is growing steadily, even though I’m not sure how many passengers are making the switch away from paper tickets, nor how useful some of the smartcards actually are in practice. Nevertheless, it’s getting easier to make at least some journeys on a smartcard. I have a Stagecoach Smart, which I’ve used to hold monthly tickets for a commute to a nearby town. It’s a lot less hassle to buy those tickets on-line in advance, and load them onto my Stagecoach Smart on the bus on the first day of the month. Previously, I would pay the driver large sums of money in cash and receive a paper ticket which had to be sealed onto cardboard behind a flap of sticky-backed plastic (yes, really). Here’s my very own Stagecoach Smart:
The situation is rather more complicated on Stagecoach-operated South West Trains (which advertises its smartcard via a biscuit-shaped version of what looks very like UK politician Michael Gove). Some stations will fully accept South West Trains smartcard tickets, some will only let you travel to or from London on the smartcard, some won’t accept the smartcard at all, and within London you can use a Travelcard on a South West Trains smartcard but you can’t make point to point journeys. And I checked whether the existing Stagecoach Smart (for buses) could be used on South West Trains. It’s technically capable of course, being an ITSO card, provided the systems are set up to allow such inter-availability. Here’s what I was told when I asked via Twitter (Lee Render did a rather good job of summing up the situation, I thought).
I fully expect the number of different smartcards to keep multiplying and the situation to become yet more confusing before it get better (if it ever does at all). So, long rant over, there can be only one response to this explosion in the number of smartcards. And that’s to have a go at working out which of the many UK smartcards is the prettiest. This is The Beauty of Transport after all. We like things to look nice here.
The Big Five
The smartcard offer amongst the UK’s big five transport groups is pretty much what you’d expect; Stagecoach and Go Ahead out in front, Arriva and First lagging some way behind. National Express is an exception here because it has relatively few bus operations. Its biggest operation, National Express West Midlands, has taken the laudable approach of visually integrating its smartcards into the Swift card regime promoted by local transport authority Transport for West Midlands, with a sunburst-style design that incorporates TfWM’s Swift branding. National Express’s Xplore Dundee operation, by the way, has a gorgeous-looking smartcard called MyXplore, illustrated with stylised penguins (another marine animal).
We’ve already seen Stagecoach’s Smart, which is a single smartcard which you can use across its bus operations (as far as I can work out) though its train company smartcards are franchise-specific, and I couldn’t get an East Midlands Trains one recently because of what its website described as a “short term systems fault“, one which has been going on for long enough to severely stretch the definition of “short term”.
Go Ahead has a company-wide brand of “the key” for its smartcards, but cheerfully announces on its website that in its bus division “Each bus company has its own key card“, and so do its train companies. That might run counter to the whole point of ITSO, but it has resulted in a very pleasing set of bus smartcards, with a basic design adapted across the different operations. Look closely, and you’ll see that each bus company’s “the key” is decorated with location-specific landmarks, arranged across two concentric circles, placed on different coloured backgrounds (as an aside, the Operator Identification Number 0140 suggests that they are issued by just one company, as does the fact you can’t sign up for different bus company “the key”s with the same email address). It all breaks down a bit on the rail side, with Southeastern going for a literal key, constructed from London landmarks, though more crudely than their equivalents on bus “the key”s. TSGN, which sports a desolate government-specified visual identity for Thameslink/Great Northern, has an equally plain and equally disappointing smartcard.
First seems to have relatively few of its Touch smartcards in operation at its bus businesses, and most if not all follow the same design approach, which is to include a pink-tinted photograph of a local landmark on a pink background. I rather like the concept and the execution (Bristol Cathedral? Come on, that’s a design classic). A similar card looks set to be rolled out for use on its Great Western Railway franchise, but isn’t yet available.
Arriva, meanwhile, also seems to be lagging behind the curve, with its Connect-branded smartcards available at only a handful of bus operations. Several of them feature a big picture of a bus, a graphic device I thought the public transport industry had long ago realised wasn’t particularly appealing to most travellers. However, its North Wales smartcard has converted the local bus network into a very attractive star map, making for a stellar, and very seductive smartcard.
Rather than being operator-led, many smartcards are issued by local transport authorities, usually as part of a plan to offer some kind of one-ticket multi-modal travel in their area. Transport for West Midlands’ Swift card has already been through two design iterations. The first was a very literal interpretation of a Swift, the second a rather more abstract one.
Still, at least it’s genuinely multi-modal. I went to Manchester last month and discovered that Transport for Greater Manchester’s Get Me There card didn’t work on the trams, which are franchised to the private sector with contracted arrangements for ticket acceptance by… Transport for Greater Manchester. Day bus/tram tickets will be available on Get Me There by summer, I’m assured, though if June doesn’t count as summer I don’t know what does. The card relies on lettering rather than graphics for its design, but the ‘friendly’-style lettering doesn’t really generate friendly feelings in me, especially when confronted by its current limited functionality.
I like the look of Merseytravel’s Walrus card (another of those cards drawing inspiration from marine animals, and also one of The Beatles’ hits). Being mostly black with yellow text in a square font, it has a sophisticated, modern look, and also a pair of Walrus tusks.
Unfortunately, it can look as good as it likes but as with Get Me There, its functionality leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not valid on the Mersey Ferry nor on Merseytravel’s Merseyrail network apart from a very limited pilot scheme.
Walrus has also led to one of the more memorable illustrations of the drawbacks of the lack of a single integrated smartcard. In Liverpool and Chester, Stagecoach’s Merseyrider Plus+ season tickets used to be issued on Stagecoach Smart cards. From January this year, the ones issued in Merseyside, on buses, have come on Walrus cards. Not the ones in Chester, however. And if you now have a Walrus card because you’re a Merseyside bus passenger, you can keep your Stagecoach Smart for use outside Merseyside, in places like…Chester. If you buy your ticket online with Stagecoach, you’ll still use a Stagecoach Smart, whether you’re in Chester or Merseyside. “These changes are being made as part of the LCR [Liverpool City Region] Bus Alliance, a partnership between Arriva, Merseytravel and Stagecoach to improve local bus services,” says Stagecoach on its website. That’s improving local bus services? Okay then…
I’m a great admirer of Nottingham City Council’s Robin Hood smartcard, both in terms of its graphics and its utility. It offers season tickets valid on any train, tram or bus (even those operated by commercial operator Trentbarton as well as municipal operator Nottingham City Transport) in the Nottingham area. It also looks smart and to the point, and if only the arrowhead was a proper pointy one of the sort British Railways used to employ, instead of the type you get as a choice in Microsoft Word’s insert arrow option, it would look practically perfect.
I also like Metro’s (West Yorkshire PTE) “M-cards”. They come in a range of colours (see them here), and share a similar design aesthetic, based on the concept of a stylised network and things you might travel to with your M-card. The 19-25 student one includes books and computers (and what I think is the front end of a Pacer – quelle horreur) while the under-18 one includes popcorn and a PS4 controller. Mine’s pink (I’m on side already) and includes a laptop, a cup of coffee, and a man-bag. Apart from the Pacer front end again (Why, Metro? Why must you taunt us this way?), Metro has me all sussed out.
I’m going to gloss over Leicester City Council’s One Card, because whatever the UK ITSO card is, it certainly isn’t one card. Leicester City Council’s isn’t going to be of much help to you anywhere other than Leicester, though its understated design is actually rather smart.
I can’t not mention Guernsey. Technically not part of the UK, but a Crown Dependency, Guernsey’s puffinpass features just the most adorable puffin (another marine animal…) decorating it. The puffinpass replaced the previous Ormer card in 2015, the Ormer being an endemic Guernsey variety of… oyster. Get it?
Other Crown Dependencies are Jersey and the Isle of Man. Both use ITSO UK as their card issuer (Jersey’s Avanchi card and the Isle of Man’s Go card carry 633597 as the first part of the card numbers), and I assume Guernsey must too. So alongside defence and international representation, it appears the only other thing the Crown Dependencies rely on the UK for is integrated transport smartcard issuing. That’s quite a thought.
To be truly UK in scope, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Northern Irish public transport operator Translink’s smartcard. It’s called the iLink, and from what I can make out, it has the number of zones in which it’s valid incorporated into the design, presumably as a kind of visual check for revenue inspection purposes. But it means instead of a single design, there are five slightly different designs according to which zones you want to use it in. And there’s another design for day ticket smartcards, and another for carnet-style tickets, and another for annual travel on nominated routes…
There are so many smartcards out there now I can’t possibly feature them all here (though I’ve made you a gallery on Flickr of all the ones I’ve laid my hands on so far, and there’s also the Twitter hashtag #SmartcardOfTheDay which includes some sent in by other Twitter users). Here are a few other notables, though.
Cardiff Bus’s Iff card has an obvious source of inspiration for its brand name but it’s very clever. Cardiff – Card Iff – Iff Card – Iff: get it? I worry it’s a slightly equivocal name and I’m slightly unsure about the pale-ness of the card. But maybe it’s just me. It’s undoubtedly a very smart smartcard even if it’s not my personal favourite.
Nearby in Wales, Newport Bus’s smartcards include Passport (“travel made smart”), Freedom (“for life’s journey”), and the delightfully named Bamboo (“a taste of adventure”). They all look lovely and seem like something that might attract the interest of potential bus users.
Trentbarton, which accepts the Robin Hood card, has a smartcard of its own. Of course it does – this is the British passenger transport industry’s version of a single integrated transport smartcard, remember. But it’s a good one: Mango. It has a memorable name, looks great (there are several variations for different market sectors), and is backed with some dynamic advertising. Unfortunately, in true British smartcard fashion, you can’t use it on Trentbarton’s Pronto or Skylink services. I wouldn’t mind so much if the website explained why…
Network Warrington is a peculiar case. It has a pay-as-you-go smartcard called Midas. Yes, everything King Midas touched turned to gold, but the story is actually a tragedy. Midas could no longer touch the people he loved, because if he did he turned them to gold too, making them pretty but dead. I’m not sure that’s quite the vibe Network Warrington was really aiming for. I’m not even sure if it’s an actual ITSO card, because it doesn’t have the ITSO logo and nor does it have a full-length shell reference number. My partner, who doesn’t generally get deeply drawn into transport design matters, spotted it and asked if I’d got a loyalty card for the Bingo. Sorry, Network Warrington.
On the rail side, Abellio Greater Anglia has a smartcard that is notable for exhibiting some of the graphic flair sorely lacking from the rest of its operation. If its trains looked half as snazzy as its smartcard, they might actually have something that passengers would notice, though FirstGroup might want their “dynamic lines” back.
And then, of course, there are the operators you think should have smartcards but don’t seem to. I reckon Virgin Trains would do a really stylish smartcard and put together a compelling case for you to get one. So would Transdev Blazefield – can you imagine a smartcard with the style and marketing drive behind The 36?
The fairest of them all?
Which is the prettiest smartcard? Well, it’s all a matter of personal taste, if you ask me, and the comments section is open for your suggestions. The sheer variety of designs makes an informed choice almost impossible and also suggests that some smartcard names and branding have been a bit ‘finger in the air’, rather than the result of substantial market research. I’m very fond of my Pop card and Go-Ahead’s the key, though (the bus version, anyway).
It might all be a moot point. London’s Oyster scheme in its smartcard form is being challenged by the ability to pay using wave-and-pay (also known as contactless) credit or debit cards with a daily or weekly cap on payments. Indeed, on my now-occasional trips to London, that’s what I do. I haven’t topped up my Oyster card with pay-as-you-go credit for ages. Contactless payment is being introduced on buses in the rest of the country too, but mostly only as a way to pay for paper tickets, and without capped payments. Mobile phone ticketing (m-ticketing) with tickets purchased via an app and displayed on a mobile phone for a bus driver, railway ticket inspector, or railway station gate to see, has also taken off. It wasn’t even on the horizon at the time of ITSO’s (the organisation) early meetings.
Perhaps the ITSO smartcard will be overtaken by these newer technologies. Perhaps not. But paper tickets are still being issued in abundance and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they lasted for decades yet. Dead tree technology, folks: it takes a lot of killing off.