The Mess of UK Smartcards (Beauty of Transport)

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“ITSO [Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation] was (and is) a membership organisation set up with an apparently simple mission: to create a single, integrated transport smartcard technical standard for the whole of the UK. It wasn’t intended as a producer of smartcards, nor an operator of smartcard systems. What it did do was set the standards for the technologies which make smartcards work, and it continues to refine them even now. Slightly confusingly, the technical standard is also called ITSO. It has been designed to allow you to do all things you can do on an Oyster card – holding season tickets for specified route or area-wide travel, pay-as-you-go options, price-capping – and more, like point-to-point individual journey tickets. As ITSO (the organisation) puts it: “By using the same ITSO Specification, transport operators can ensure that their fare charging systems speak the same language. So, no matter which form of transport you are travelling on, which operator is providing it, or where you are in the UK, in theory, one ITSO smartcard could be used for end-to-end journeys.”

“You’ll note the “in theory”.

“A single ITSO card ought to be able to replace all those paper tickets you accumulate on a long journey; bus tickets, the open return on your local train to London, the advance purchase saver ticket from London to your holiday destination, and the return equivalents. The reality is somewhat different, and considerably more disappointing.

“While Oyster has been a huge success in London, virtually wiping out paper tickets for most Londoners, the introduction and use of ITSO smartcards outside London has been slow, complicated, confusing and defined largely by a failure to provide anything like the functionality of Oyster, even though ITSO cards are quite capable of doing so. In fact, many bus travellers in the UK have had an ITSO smartcard for ages without even knowing it. When the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme (that’s free bus travel for pensioners and people with qualifying disabilities to you and me) started in 2008, the bus passes were issued on ITSO smartcards. The trouble was, most buses weren’t equipped to do anything with them, so they were mostly used as “flash passes”, which is the way you try to use a tech-sounding term to cover up the fact that you mean holders simply showed them to the driver…”

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Written by Long Branch Mike