Every train operating company smartcard, ranked by how smart the card is

TRAINS! Image: Getty.

Two things: I live in Wiltshire and I am a transport nerd. Sadly, the world-renowned city of Salisbury hasn’t yet invested in a metro system, leaving me bereft of trains in my life and, as much as I hate to say it, pretty jealous of my friends in London. 

Chris Grayling’s scheme to introduce smart cards for National Rail services gave me some hope of having my own swish contactless card, even if Department for Transport funding for a South Wiltshire metro has not been forthcoming. So last December I took the plunge and ordered a fancy new Touch card from SWR.

You’ll be surprised to hear this, but my faith in Chris Grayling turned out to be... misplaced. The DfT seems to grant wishes like a monkey’s paw: it offered £80m of funding for smart ticketing but left delivery to the 23 train companies who all decided they’d prefer to work on their own products. The result? A stupidly long list of cards, developed with the same ITSO standard but somehow offering different features and, in most cases, being unusable on other companies’ services.

I got my hopes up and emailed SWR asking if they would eventually let the card be used on other services, or if they would let me load advance tickets for split ticketing. A month later, the answer was an apologetic no.

So here we are. My pockets remain full of orange tickets and my envy of Londoners still burns within. In search of catharsis, I decided to order cards from each operator I could and pit them against each other. Here are my thoughts on how they stack up:

9. CrossCountry

It only does season tickets for some parts of their network and it’s not even pretty. Very underwhelming but I’m not going to get cross about it. (Editor’s note: This is not the CityMetric way.)

8. The Key (Southeastern)

Pros: free wallet, rewards scheme. Cons: hideously ugly! Who designed this? Confirmed my prejudices against the south-east, which was another plus.

7. Greater Anglia

“Stronger, easier, quicker” is their slogan, which sounds like something from Daft Punk’s cutting room floor. In fairness, it is probably all of these things if you have a season ticket… which I don’t.

6. Chiltern Railways

I think I broke the website or something because they actually sent me three cards and three wallets. Not very versatile or feature-heavy yet but the freebies and designs are honestly quite nice.

5. Touch (GWR)

GWR has this art deco vibe which makes me weirdly sympathetic to them (to the point where I even got GWR socks last Christmas, I’m ashamed to say). Objectively, their smart card only stores season tickets so far and they don’t supply a free wallet, but it looks aesthetic so… fair enough.

4. Touch (SWR)

They put Stonehenge on the card which I’m happy about; I like the idea of commuters from the rest of the network taking in Wiltshire’s rural majesty every day. It has some features I never knew I wanted (like a bundle of 10 advance tickets) and more to come, but truthfully it’s quite like the GWR version and only placed so highly because I’m parochial.

3. The Key (Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern, Gatwick Express)

Boringly named but one of the better ones. They offer automatic compensation for delays (which is obviously essential for travelling on some of their lines), optional pay-as-you-go, and a pretty big network. And the design is pretty low-KEY! Hah!

2. ScotRail

ScotRail actually offers things like pay-as-you-go on the Glasgow Subway, special fares for season ticket holders, or 10 per cent off advance tickets if you’re under-25. This is brilliant compared to most other cards, but I’m mostly left wondering why Abellio’s other franchises aren’t like this?

1. c2c

c2c easily has the best card going. It’s ugly, but you get a free wallet to hide that. If you use their smart card, c2c will automatically repay you if you’re delayed by as little as 2 minutes (!!) and you’ll earn points for its loyalty scheme.

There’s also reduced fares for local students, and kids can travel half price. It doesn’t have pay-as-you-go or advance tickets yet, but compared to the rest of the market it’s like God’s gift to commuters. If only it were like this from c 2 shining c.

Does it have to be this way? Companies will surely be increasing the number of journeys and options available on smart cards over the next few years, but it seems doubtful they will realise their full potential without government intervention. Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald has argued that the fragmented, privatised state of the railways creates a barrier to reform of ticketing.


It is possible: Japan’s own privatised network has managed to arrange mutually compatible smart cards for most routes, with the transport ministry aiming for 100 per cent coverage in time for the Tokyo Olympics. (A delightful fact: you can also use these smart cards at vending machines.)

But whichever path we choose, it’s clear we need a much smarter approach to smart ticketing before British passengers can do away with paper tickets entirely.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.