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:
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!
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?
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.