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The long awaited arrival of London-style Oystercards could be just around the corner for bus passengers in the West Midlands following a £20million government handout to regulator Centro. But as Kevin Chapman suggests the slow delivery of an established system, begs questions about how public transport is run.

The Government have announced that the West Midlands transport authority Centro is to receive a share of a £20 million fund to introduce “smart tickets” in Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry and the Black Country.

The ticket would be similar to London’s Oystercard, where users would swipe their card over a special reader and top up their card either at a convenience outlet (such as a newsagent) or on-line.

The idea is to make it easier for people to pay for tickets, speed up bus journey times and give better information to bus operators and local authorities, who run concessionary schemes and who need to budget to reimburse operators when those entitled to concessions (such as senior citizens) use their passes or tickets.

Sounds great, but why has it taken so long, and why has the scheme had to rely on the Government giving an early Christmas present to bus operators? Improvements always seem to take years.

For instance, easy access buses were introduced in the early 1990’s, yet even now the old step entrance buses which are impossible for anyone to board in a wheelchair have not yet been pensioned off.

Smart card technology has actually been around for years. The Oystercard is based on a similar system rolled out in Singapore in 2002.

The West Midlands was one of the first parts of the country to introduce a “Travelcard” (albeit a paper one) in the mid-1970’s and take up was high even past bus deregulation in 1986. However, more and more passengers seem to be paying cash fares these days even though a pass can offer a better deal.

Another disincentive is the complexity of the bus network. Although 95% of commercial bus journeys are operated by National Express West Midlands about 20 other operators compete with them on key routes around the area.

For smart ticketing to be introduced there’s had to be an agreement between all of the bus operators, and for it to be approved by the competition authorities to avoid any charges of collusion. The technology has had to be acceptable with all of the operators and compatible with their own systems.

In London, introducing the Oystercard has been easier because although bus services are operated by private companies services are franchised by Transport for London, who specify fares, timetables and standards of service. As part of the franchising process the operators have to participate in the various TfL fares schemes.

Outside of London, operators can effectively do what they like. Deregulation was supposed to bring innovation to bus services, but as yet there has not been an groundbreaking idea in the West Midlands like there was when the original WMPTE “Travelcard” was introduced, which allowed travel on all bus and rail services.

That product has now metamorphosed into a “nNetwork” ticket(which must rank with Consignia as one of the most stupid brands dreamed up by a marketing expert). Have you heard of it? Bet you haven’t.

The real competitor to the bus is the private motor car, and a smart ticket could help in giving better value and encouraging people out of their cars and onto public transport. However, services in the West Midlands are still not as good as they should be (though to be fair improvements have been made).

People are now much more demanding and they will not get the bus or train if they face irregular services, dirty vehicles, anti-social behaviour and surly, inconsiderate staff if they’ve got a car locked up in the garage.

Smart ticketing is great but it needs to be part of a package – with an incentive to encourage take up (such as a discounted fare). A high quality service that’s value for money will then make public transport the smart choice.

Kevin Chapman is Chair of West Midlands Campaign for Better Transport


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