Alastair Dalton: Cash-free smartcards still long way to go

Transport Minister Derek Mackay (left) helps launch ScotRail's Smartcards system. Picture: PA
Transport Minister Derek Mackay (left) helps launch ScotRail's Smartcards system. Picture: PA
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Queuing at the station to renew your season ticket on a Monday morning must be the low point of the commuter’s week.

Fumbling for the right change when boarding a bus can be an equally frustrating experience in an age when we can make other purchases in an instant on our mobile phones.

While train and bus travel has become more comfortable over the years, the way we buy our tickets has in many respects remained stubbornly old fashioned.

Yes, regular travellers can now use electronic smartcards as season tickets, but many passengers still have no choice but to buy a paper ticket for their train journey or drop coins into a slot for their bus fare.

Cashless smartcards for travel have been talked about in Scotland for years, but visible progress has been very slow, as the Scottish Government is all too aware.

Derek Mackay, the transport minister, reiterated to me this week, unprompted, his threat to legislate if necessary to force bus companies to speed up the introduction of smartcards.

He has a vision of people being able to travel across the country on buses, trains and ferries using a single piece of plastic.

I’m sure many passengers would welcome that, but we have a long way to go, as a closer examination of ScotRail’s announcement this week on rolling out smartcards across the country reveals.

Its publicity trumpets the “queue-busting technology” as bringing in a “new era of hassle-free travel”. That’s true - up to a point. Season ticket holders will be able to use smartcards on every ScotRail route across the country by the end of the summer, compared to on eight so far.

The train operator was unable to tell me when passengers making single journeys will be able use smartcards. The only target it would disclose this week was the commitment, under its franchise contract, for 60 per cent of all journeys to be made using smartcards by 2019.

That’s going to take some doing, because, despite smartcards being introduced six years ago on the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line, they are used for only 1 per cent of ScotRail trips.

As a comparison, only around 40 per cent of Glasgow Subway journeys are by smartcards, nearly two-and-a-half years after their launch, even though users pay less to travel than those buying paper tickets.

However, I’ve previously reported that before taking over as ScotRail operator last April, Abellio forecast that smartcards would be used for 12 per cent of trips this year and more than one third next year. We’ll just have to see if those figures have since been revised, or whether ScotRail hits them, whether or not they are official targets.

However, the company will be mindful of Mr Mackay assuring me on Tuesday that “there will be substantial progress over the next year”.

The other thing is that under current plans, the ScotRail smartcard will not be an “e-purse” like the Subway’s.

In other words, passengers will still have to buy tickets to put on to them, and won’t be able to load them up with cash and simply tap their cards on ticket gates at either end of the journey.

I’m told the technology could be adapted to make that possible. With ScotRail passenger numbers expected to grow from 92 million to 139m by 2025, that could play a critical role in persuading more of the influx to fill emptier off-peak trains by offering cut-price travel than trying to cram on o the busiest rush-hour services.