Smart ticketing scheme roll-out too slow, says NAO

20 Apr 17

A government programme to roll-out smart ticketing on train lines in the South East of England failed to meet its original objectives, a National Audit Office report has found.

Today’s research from the NAO shows the Department for Transport’s South East Flexible Ticketing Programme (SEFT) fell short of its aims despite going over its £45m budget, hitting £54m.

Whitehall spending on smart ticketing - a system which sees public transport users store their tickets electronically on a microchip rather than being printed on a paper ticket – has now exceeded £120m for the South East.

The report states: “The (transport) department has not delivered the original ambition of the programme as set out in 2012, which was to improve the experience for passengers and reduce costs to train operating companies of selling tickets.”

The scheme was meant to improve coordination, speed up delivery and increase take-up of smart ticketing after the progress of train operators in implementing the changes was judged to be moving too slowly.

Since 2006 the government required train operating companies to implement smart ticketing schemes as part of new franchise agreements but in 2011 the government acknowledged not enough work had been done to bring in the new systems.

SEFT suffered a number of set backs, it was paused three times and reset twice and each time the scope was reduced and the budget revised.

It originally included aims such as having discounts on flexible ticketing and offering part time season tickets on 11 franchises running services to London by 2014. But by April 2017 only five of the 11 train operators offered season tickets on smartcards.

While only one of the five train operating companies currently offers flexible, part-time season tickets.

The report found that a central back office system, set up to process ticket purchases and journeys using smartcards is only operating at 5% of its capacity.

Researchers said the department had assumed high levels of take-up of smart ticketing but noted “achieving the economic benefits of smart ticketing stated in the 2014 business case depended on eventually achieving 95% of take-up of smart season tickets”.

However, the latest government data shows that just 8% of all season ticket sales in the 12 months up to March 2017 on participating train operating companies were on smartcards.

Transport campaigners have hailed the NAO report and slammed the government for “wasting” money and an opportunity.

Lianna Etkind, public transport campaigner at Campaign for Better Transport, said delivering smart ticketing was a 2015 manifesto pledge, adding “passengers will be incensed that the government has comprehensively failed to deliver on this, despite squandering tens of millions of taxpayers' money.”

She urged the next government to learn from benefits London has enjoyed with the Oyster card system and for similar schemes to be rolled out across the country.

A Department for Transport spokesperson said smart ticketing remained a priority for the government and it would continue to work with the Rail Delivery Group and train operators on its roll-out across the country.

"This was an ambitious programme to lay the foundations for smart ticketing for rail passengers across the country," he stated.

"It introduced smart card season tickets on five train operators, upgraded over 450 stations and created a hub for smart ticketing to be introduced across the entire rail network.

"The SEFT programme means more than 400,000 season ticket holders now have access to paperless season tickets."

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