Tuesday, 10 August 2010

West Midlands Smartcard

According to this story, now one third of the buses in the West Midlands are fitted with Smartcard machines as part of the project to get the bus, metro and rail networks all onto Oyster card-style ticketing systems. This is fantastic news for passengers in the region, but at the moment in this trial phase the readers only accept free national concessionary passes.

When the times comes for letting the wider public use paid-for smartcard technology, there are some serious considerations which Centro must make regarding how the issue of pay-as-you-go fare charging will be tackled.

Obviously the easiest solution in terms of implementation of a fare structure would be simply to use the smartcard as a stored-value ticket, and subtract each journey's current cash fare from the balance on every use of the card. However I would strongly encourage against this for a number of reasons:
  • This does nothing to address the current unacceptable situation where bus fares are different, and unpredictable, depending on which operator a passenger uses and at what time of day, and which leads to passengers avoiding catching certain buses simply because they are run by the "wrong" operator. I strongly believe that individual operators' fares should not be taken into account for the smartcard; the product should strictly be a "Network West Midlands" travel smartcard, as this will present a much more coherent product to potential passengers.
  • Fares should be capped more intelligently than simply at a daily limit. e.g. A day's usage should be capped at the price of an nBus/nTrain/nNetwork daily smartcard rate, but if sufficient days' travel are undertaken during a week, the daily caps within that week should be replaced with the equivalent weekly ticket. Similarly, if enough days/weeks are used in any given month, the monthly rate should be charged instead. This will enable infrequent passengers to truly feel they can trust the smartcard product to give them value for money, instead of worrying in advance whether or not they need to purchase a one-off weekly/monthly ticket and whether they will get full usage out of it if they do so.
  • Use of public transport in the region is liable to increase with the added convenience of using a smartcard instead of requiring potential passengers to hunt for change or queue to buy tickets. Additionally the requirement to swipe a smartcard rather than flash a strip of paper to the bus driver will lead to a reduction in the current high levels of fraud seen on the region's buses. Incorporating the above recommendations will also lead to much greater uptake of the product by people who would not otherwise consider using the transport network (just look at the number of pay-as-you-go Oyster cards now in use in London). This increase in passenger volume should be reflected in lower overall fares for smartcard users, just like in London, with cash fares remaining as the most expensive option.
At the moment I fear that Centro will just take the easy option and give us a poor excuse for an integrated smartcard ticketing system which basically just replaces cash with an electronic card and gives passengers no other benefits. What is really needed is a London-style universal fare structure and, ultimately, proper franchising of bus services to ensure that operators are not competing against each other and the trains and metro in a free-for-all at the basic passenger level, but at the more appropriate level of bidding against each other to run pre-determined routes.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Oyster style (and beyond) fare capping is simply a must if the transport authority and operators want a greater uptake of this technology. Perhaps even working beyond smartcard and building the capacity for micro-payments made through barclays "wave pay" system and through RFID in the next generation of mobile phone SIM cards.