ScotRail passengers say no to smartcards

They have been a prerequisite of train travel for nearly 180 years '“ and despite ScotRail's best efforts, passengers are proving very reluctant to give them up.

Only 9.3 per cent of ScotRail passengers choose smartcards over paper ticket. Picture: John Devlin
Only 9.3 per cent of ScotRail passengers choose smartcards over paper ticket. Picture: John Devlin

The operator must persuade travellers to switch from paper tickets to electronic smartcards for 60 per cent of journeys in less than a year’s time, but has managed fewer than 10 per cent to date.

ScotRail wants passengers to transfer to plastic to banish booking office queues and cut delays at ticket gates. It is also a step towards a single card for multi-stage journeys on different forms of transport.

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Smartcards enable passengers to load tickets in advance, such as online or via a mobile phone app. They then tap their cards on ticket gates or platform “validators” at the start and end of journeys. Dutch firm Abellio had ambitious plans for smartcards before it took over ScotRail in 2015. It predicted 12 per cent of journeys would be paperless by 2016 and more than a third by last year.

However, the train firm has admitted it has only reached 9.3 per cent – even though virtually all tickets are available on smartcards.

This is also despite the then transport minister Derek Mackay underlining in 2016 – when smartcard use was 1 to 2 per cent – that he wanted to see “substantial progress over the next year”.

The Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency agreed the 60 per cent target by April 2019 with Abellio as part of the franchise contract.

That states that ScotRail must “use all reasonable endeavours” to achieve it. Sanctions could otherwise be imposed, including fines, although Transport Scotland said their scale was “commercially sensitive”.

Train tickets were introduced in the 1840s as 2in-long strips of card, replacing handwritten forms used by the first rail travellers. The current 3in tangerine and white cards have been in use for more than 30 years.

But the official passenger watchdog said predictions – including from UK ministers – of the death of such tickets was premature.

Transport Focus passenger director David Sidebottom said: “Our research demonstrates passengers like the convenience, simplicity and value for money that smart ticketing can offer.

“There is a huge untapped demand for smarter, more convenient ways of buying tickets.

“However, not everyone will want, or be able, to use smart technology, so the introduction of smart tickets are unlikely to replace the paper ticket which has existed for over 150 years.”

ScotRail said introducing smartcards had been a “huge logistical project”.

It will also trial other types of tickets, such as on mobile phones, and enable its tickets to be loaded onto other transport operators’ smartcards, such as Stagecoach’s and McGill’s.