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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.