Innovation: Smartcards are taking the bus

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The Independent Online
SCHOOLCHILDREN in Bolton have swapped their bus passes for smartcards as they prepare to be pioneer users of a pounds 10m system that will eventually control ticketing for the 280 million journeys a year made on public transport in Greater Manchester.

The 2,500 children and an equal number of pensioners will take part in a pilot scheme in the north of Bolton, beginning at the end of this month. Each participant has been issued with a smartcard, made by GEC Card Technology. The card is the size of a credit card but contains a computer memory and a transmitter powerful enough to register through a wallet or a purse.

The four bus operators taking part in the trial will install new ticket machines, manufactured by ERG Electronics, on 120 buses. As well as issuing tickets in the usual way, the machines will use their electronic readers to log the journeys made by each smartcard passenger.

At the end of the shift, the bus driver will remove a portable data recorder from the machine and insert it into a small computer at the bus depot. From there, the information will be transmitted to a central computer for processing.

The Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive (GMPTE), which devised the scheme, hopes that eventually all fares on the buses, the Metrolink tram and local BR trains will be paid with a pre- charged smartcard, cutting out cash transactions altogether.

This will involve equipping 2,700 buses and 130 Metrolink and British Rail stations with smartcard readers, setting up an extensive computer network across the region and issuing 700,000 cards. GMPTE and ERG Electronics have set up a joint venture, Prepayment Cards Manchester Ltd (PCML), to manage the project.

In the longer term, PCML wants the smartcards to be used for other transactions. It is currently negotiating with supermarkets, hoping to persuade them to act as card charging points, and to accept payment by smartcard.

The first, more modest objective is to cut the cost of administering GMPTE's pounds 30m per year concessionary fare scheme. All those entitled to concessionary fares pay 30p, regardless of the distance travelled. GMPTE then has to reimburse the region's 76 bus operators the difference between the 30 pence tendered and the actual fare.

At the moment the authority does this by carrying out a 2.5 per cent sampling of journeys made, at a cost of pounds 500,000 per year. According to Bill Tyson of GMPTE, there are inevitably arguments with the bus companies over this.

When a concessionary fare passenger boards the bus with a smartcard, the card's validity is checked by placing it on the electronic reader. The driver then enters the cost of the full fare, creating a record of each journey and the name of the person making it - and ensuring that the bus operators receive the correct payment.

This is the carrot to get operators to install the equipment they will need to participate in the scheme. In the longer term, the stick may be that companies that do not have the necessary machines will not be eligible to carry concessionary passengers.

Another aim of the scheme is to cut down on concessionary card fraud. Mr Tyson reckons that 2 to 3 per cent of concessionary journeys are made by people who are not eligible.

If total implementation goes ahead in December, passengers who pay full fare will have to be persuaded to buy a smartcard (currently costing pounds 5), and then pay for travel in advance by charging up the card at a sales point. There are expected to be price incentives like those now offered to passengers who buy season tickets.

The pre-paid amount is recorded in the card's memory. When the card is presented on the bus, the driver keys in the cost of the journey, and this amount is automatically debited from the card. The new ticket machines have an automatic price table which drivers can use to look up the cost of a journey, replacing the existing paper charts.

British Rail self-service ticket machines will be adapted to allow smartcards to be used for purchasing rail tickets.

The pounds 1.5m central computer, supplied by ACT Financial Systems, will be networked to all the card-issuing points and the card-charging points, as well as to each bus depot. When the system is complete, it will handle 1.1 million transactions a day. According to Mike Hill of PCML, other transport authorities, including Merseyrail and West Yorkshire, are interested in using smartcards. PCML intends to market the system once the Manchester scheme is tested.

(Photograph omitted)