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.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.