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Smartcards are coming

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Thomas Edmondson, a station master on the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway, invented the paste card ticket in 1837 which saw 150 years of use on Britain’s railways.

With today’s rapidly changing technology, its successors will be lucky to last a fraction of this time. The latest development is the ITSO smartcard, currently being piloted by five train operators.

These relatively small schemes are seven years behind Transport for London’s (TfL) introduction of Oyster, which now has issued millions of cards. So are they anything to get excited about?

The answer is “Yes”, as these schemes’ ITSO smartcards can potentially to hold all types of tickets on all modes of transport for seamless door-to-door ticketing. Oyster does not offer this as, unlike the ITSO card, it only holds pre-paid “value” and products specific to TfL services.

With its millions of cards the Oyster scheme does have the advantage of size. So just as Microsoft Windows succeeded because it was first, rather than best, is widespread use of ITSO smartcards likely?

Again the answer is “Yes”. For some years the Department for Transport (DfT) has promoted initiatives to ensure the success of ITSO cards.

These include the formation of ITSO (originally Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation) itself, a non-profit company incorporated in 2001 and whose members comprise bus and rail operators, equipment and system suppliers as well as local and national government.

Its purpose is to facilitate the implementation of contactless smart customer media public transport ticketing in the UK.

To do this, it maintains a technical interoperability specification and accredits scheme participants and equipment. ITSO has no involvement in commercial decisions nor particular ticketing schemes.

The DfT has also required ITSO to be used for English, Scottish and Welsh concessionary fares schemes with the consequent widespread provision of ITSO readers on buses.

In addition, all train franchises let since 2007 are required to introduce ITSO smartcards. It is also funding a project for TfL’s Oyster card readers to read ITSO cards by the end of 2013.

The Key to success

Southern’s ITSO smartcard “the key” was launched at Lewes station on 11th November 2011 by Norman Baker, Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in a further demonstration of the DfT’s support for ITSO.

Southern is part of the Go-Ahead group which has already piloted the key on London Midland between Worcester and Kidderminster and is progressively rolling it out in its nine bus companies including the local company in Lewes, Brighton and Hove buses.

Southern’s launch is a small scale pilot between Brighton and Seaford with season tickets being purchased either online or from ticket vending machines.

Southern plans to introduce more products as the scheme expands, including multi-modal schemes with “the key” being used for both bus and rail journeys.

Retail Systems Manager, Jason Hurd, explained the importance of fully testing the human interface before a wide scale roll out.

Therefore the pilot scheme was limited to 100 invited stakeholders who could be relied upon to give their views – Southern anyway undertakes a daily customer survey from which good feedback is obtained.

Small though this pilot scheme might be, it will not remain so for long as Southern have a nine stage roll out plan that will provide Smartcards for their entire franchise by the end of 2013, including their London stations.

Other Rail Smartcards

Credit for introducing the first ITSO rail smartcard goes to South West Trains (SWT), part of Stagecoach, who introduced their “Stagecoach smart” card in November 2008 between Staines and Windsor.

In 2011 stations between Woking and Weymouth (and branches) were added to make SWT’s card available at around 100 stations. Other recent and planned ITSO smartcard rail schemes are:

  • East Midland Trains introduced the “Stagecoach smart” card at selected stations between St Pancras and Sheffield in 2011;
  • First ScotRail launched a pilot scheme in 2011 between Edinburgh and Glasgow with 400 customers reported to be using the cards;
  • Go-Ahead’s London Midland will be introducing “the key” between Worcester and Stratford via Birmingham Snow Hill early in 2012;
  • Merseytravel introduced their Walrus card for buses in September 2011 and will be making it available for use on all Merseyrail services and Mersey ferries by late 2012;
  • Newcastle Metro is introducing its Pop Card for full implementation in 2012 as part of a £385 million upgrade programme which includes replacing 225 ticket machines;
  • In 2013 Smartcard ticketing will be part of the £290 Glasgow Subway modernization. This is part of a Strathclyde scheme for multi-modal smart media ticketing;
  • Smartcards are part of the extension of Manchester’s Metrolink from 38 to nearly 100 stops.

Suppliers providing ITSO-compliant equipment have to be ITSO Registered Suppliers and many bring experience from overseas. Those involved in rail smartcard ticketing are:

  • ACT (Applied Card Technologies) manage hardware integration and provide Central Customer and Card Management (CMS) back-office systems and software. This includes their Retail POST® software that enables tickets purchases online to be loaded onto the key smartcard. ACT also supports smartcard schemes for Merseyrail.
  • Cubic, a US company, has upgraded hardware and software for the Southern pilot and on Merseyrail, having previously installed TfL’s Oyster Card System.
  • Ecebs established a joint venture company with SPT to develop a cashless payment system and a revenue allocation system for Glasgow Subway and other SPT services.
  • Fujitsu Services provided First ScotRail with support services including HOPS set up and Management (CMS) back-office systems and Merseyrail’s ticketing system.
  • Scheidt & Bachmann, a German company, have provided ticket machines for SWT, First ScotRail, East Midlands, Manchester’s Metrolink, Glasgow Subway and Newcastle’s Metro.
  • Atos provide Southern’s Ticket Issuing Systems.
  • VIX, an Australian company, provides system support for the Stagecoach Smart smartcard used on SWT and East Midlands Trains and provide them, and Southern, with validator POSTs. In addition VIX deployed ticket machines for the interoperable Oxford bus scheme.

Common Bus – Rail Ticketing

It is perhaps no surprise that it is Go-Ahead, Stagecoach and First Group who are actively introducing rail smartcards.

Between them, they will have 16,000 buses with ITSO card readers by the end of 2012, so use of this technology by their rail companies offers economies of scale and multi-mode seamless ticketing between rail and bus.

There is, as yet, no seamless ticketing between different Train Operating Companies (TOCs).

When ITSO rail schemes include common routes, the Associated of Train Operating Company’s revenue allocation protocol and ITSO specifications can apportion revenue between the TOCs concerned.

Oxford buses provide one good example with both Stagecoach and the Go-Ahead Group operating buses in the city. This is the first UK implementation of commercial tickets on a city wide basis using the ITSO interoperable system. As a result, Go Ahead’s “the key” card can be used on Stagecoach’s buses and vice versa.

IT’s SO Smart

ITSO brings with it more initials to add to the many rail acronyms, with some shown in the table. Those relating to key components of the ITSO smartcard system are described below.

Customer Media can be anything which can receive and transmit data. It includes smartcards, key fobs and mobile phones (which would need Near Field Communications).

Unlike credit cards, ITSO Smartcards are contactless with an embedded antenna and processing chip which are not visible. As the card is passed over a reader, the integral antenna receives its signal to power up the chip, confirming the customer’s travel rights and updating them if required.

ITSO specifications require this to be done within 0.3 seconds and allow for 8 different types of Smartcard from small-memory “throw-away” cards to powerful microprocessor cards.

ETMs and POSTs. ETMs usually incorporate a POST to enable customers to purchase tickets and load them onto their card.

If an ETM does not have a POST, the ticket is loaded onto the card as soon as the customer presents it to a POST. POSTs also recognise the card, confirm its validity, store transaction data and pass data to HOPS. POSTs often control station entrance and exit gates.

HOPS is the “back office” data processing system including the management of system security and communication and storage of all required data. This includes the cancellation of “hot listed” card, issue of security keys, communication with other companies HOPS for reporting, product updates and fraud protection and revenue allocation.

The ITSO specification ensures interoperability and covers the Shell, POST, HOPS, IPE, message data elements, security sub system, ISAMs, communications and interfaces, Customer Media definitions and Remote POSTs.

The specification is primarily concerned with the security, structure and nature of data and runs to over a thousand pages. Within the constraints of European and International standards, it is an open specification intended to maximize competition and be as flexible as possible.

One example could be allowing cards to be used for other purposes including parking, leisure or libraries.

The future is ITSO

Michael Leach, ITSO’s former chief executive, considers that in many ways ITSO is a world first in enabling one card to be used for different de-regulated services. However, he acknowledges that the initial take up of ITSO was slower than anyone thought.

Now ITSO use is beginning to take off with over 60 new ticketing schemes registered with ITSO in the 18 months leading to September 2011 and the five main bus operators committed to installing ITSO ticketing systems on their entire bus fleets.

This rapid increase in the growth of ITSO schemes is reflected in a graph of monthly ITSO security messages which is indicative of the number of ITSO transactions. Although there is still some way to go, as so far only 30-35% of authorities across the UK have adopted ITSO, Leach feels that ITSO use is approaching critical mass.

ITSO’s aim is for smart media that can be used throughout the country on any transport mode. This will only be achieved if operators believe there is a business benefit. Transport Scotland certainly believes there is as the use of concessionary smartcards in Scotland has reduced fraud by £24 million a year.

Also, when Oyster was first introduced in 2003, 19% of tube journeys required a ticket office visit, now the figure is 3.5%.

Fraud and ticket issuing costs are a significant part of the annual national rail ticket revenue of around £6 billion, so ITSO smartcards offer potential savings of hundreds of millions of pounds.

More intangible benefits include attracting more customers by offering an improved end-to-end journey experience, and better passenger data enabling operators to improve their understanding their customers. These strong business cases will become increasingly apparent as the use of smartcards increases.

So it would seem that the future is ITSO. With rapid technological developments, today’s smart media and associated hardware may have a short life.

However it is likely that the ITSO specification’s data structure will be around for some time to come, maybe even as long as the Edmondson card!

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


  1. Cards must become national. Then not only commuters will benefit. It should be possible to travel from Wye to Windermere or Truro to Thurso with these cards.

    Perhaps national railcards should be issued on smartcards to encourage national take-up.

  2. David

    An excellent primer on where ITSO has got to, But perhaps a bit one sided.

    Oyster is handling National Rail products on a number of commuter routes, although to protect ITSO DfT is preventing TOCs from extending its use around London.

    Also, as I understand it , unlike Oyster ITSO can’t provide PAYG.

    For the record, Michael Leach resigned as ITSO CEO with immediate effect on 7 March and has now been followed by ITSO’s Chief Technical Officer last week.

    Roger Ford

    • Thanks for the feedback Roger, I was at an event in Nottingham yesterday where they announced they will be introducing Smartcard on the Nottingham Tramlink.

      Have you any idea about the resignation of Michael and CTO.

      From what I understand the government is mandating in NEW franchises that a certain % of customers must be on SmartCards?

      Any thoughts?


    • The DfT’s rationale in limiting Oyster expansion in London area to avoid expenditure on Oyster readers pending the introduction of ITSO is understandable. But I couldn’t comment on whether this is the right decision.

      The ITSO spec does not include PAYG but does allow its provision on an ITSO card as is the case in Bolton – see link below.


      Oyster clearly has been a great success and no doubt will continue to benefit TfL users. For NationaI Rail I believe the future to be ITSO as its flexibility can eventually provide multi modal, multi TOC ticketing across the UK in a way Oyster cannot. In the meantime the transition between Oyster and ITSO will inevitably be messy but hopefully worth it in the long term.

  3. Kit, don’t hold your breath. I can only see ITSO working for season tickets. On national journeys, where the difference between one train and the next is £100 or more, it couldn’t possibly work.

  4. I have real doubts that such a widespread pervasive use of ITSO would be sustainable. Train and city transport modes have been integrated in a number of situations, and ticketing integration made sense then. In the Netherlands we have witnessed such approach and the result is a true success (both for passengers and transportation companies).

    But in the U.K. I cannot see why the current level of transport integration would need electronic ticketing integration to start with…

    Besides, ITSO, with all its good and bad aspects kept in mind, has one major structural issue: the cost of ownership it implies is simply not sustainable for a national scheme (referring to the cost of a single SAM for example; not to talk about the cost of an ITSO capable terminal and the complete chain of process required to deliver the interoperability promise!). At the end of the day it is the public money or the trip price which will fund ITSO ambitions.

    This seems to be another case of take a mean as an objective… not sure whether this explains the recent resignations from ITSO management, does it?


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