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October 7, 2007

Smartcards dumbed down for bus passes

With just six months until free bus travel for elderly and disabled people across England is introduced, local authorities are struggling to meet government smartcard bus pass deadlines. Many rushed into investing in smartcards only to have them work as ordinary passes for the foreseeable future. Card software sharing could prove helpful here, but many authorities will still not be ready in time.

By CBR Staff Writer

On September 18, 2007, Ruth Kelly, the UK’s transport secretary, unveiled the new pass that will give older and disabled people free, off-peak bus travel across England. This is an extension to the current scheme, which entitles the elderly and the disabled to free, off-peak bus travel within their own local authority area.

By extending the free travel to anywhere in England, the Department for Transport (DfT) is also changing the way that costs are settled between authorities and bus companies. At present, it is the concessionaires’ own local authority that pays for their travel. From April 2008, it will be the local authority where the traveler boards the bus that will pay. The timescale for going live is aggressive, and this has meant that many local authorities have had to divert resources from other projects.

Furthermore, the DfT requires that the new national pass being issued to all concessionaires is a smartcard, even though bus companies are under no obligation to install smartcard ticketing equipment onboard buses. Instead, the DfT is mandating a standard national design on the face of the card to be implemented by local authorities, making it easily recognizable for bus drivers.

Therefore, for the time being, many local authorities will be issuing expensive smartcards in anticipation of the technology being available for reading at some future time, rather than for imminent use. These dumbed down cards will be nothing more than very expensive ‘show and go’ cards. As such, the cards will not provide any data for settling travel costs between councils and bus companies; the settlements, no doubt, will have to be done on guesswork and some new formulas that are likely to cost councils a lot of money.

The new passes are, nonetheless, to be ITSO-compliant – a standard for smartcards used in transport. The objectives are to benefit from a standardized ticketing interface for smartcards to allow the scheme to get going on a national scale. However, the ITSO requirement and the strict design for the face of the card leave little room for local authorities’ own smartcard applications and card designs.

This affects all those local authorities that have been running successful multi-application citizen card schemes with smartcards for library, leisure, school buses, school lunches, proof of age, and so on. There are many such schemes that were encouraged and indeed required by the e-government program. For those authorities, it makes financial and operational sense to add the bus pass application to existing cards. However, the aggressive timescale for introducing the scheme is leaving little time for local authorities to fully evaluate the requirements of the new scheme against their existing ones, and to identify suitable solutions for incorporating the ITSO standard. Furthermore, the mandated design on the face of the card leaves little room for localized branding.

To help local authorities, the DfT has put into place a number of framework agreements for suppliers of smartcards and related services. However, considering that there are over 400 local authorities that administer concessionary fares, only one supplier, Fujitsu, has been chosen to provide the smartcards. This raises the question of supply and demand, and whether one supplier can cope with delivering all the required cards by April 1, 2008.

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This scheme should have been introduced in phases to allow local authorities to deliver long-term and strategic solutions rather than rushing into short-term tactical implementations. To keep in line with the government’s own efficiency agenda, more consideration should have been given to those councils that have worked hard to meet the previous set of smartcard targets and that now have thriving schemes for smart citizen cards. These councils find themselves in a position where they either have to redesign their existing schemes at great cost to fit in with a rigid one as required by the DfT, or to deploy a second set of smartcards and infrastructure. The latter option, of course, flies directly into the face of the efficiency agenda.

Local authorities should consider any options that are available to them for sharing existing smartcard software modules and infrastructure. Joint operations can also help them by sharing the cost burden and knowledge. However, the timescale leaves little room for strategic planning and decision making of any sort, and few local authorities will be ready in time.

Source: OpinionWire by Butler Group (

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