DfT’s smart-ticketing rail drive ‘falls short’ of original objectives

Written by Jim Dunton on 20 April 2017 in News

National Audit Office investigation finds £120m-plus spent in south-east has so far led to just one train operator introducing flexible part-time season tickets

A Department for Transport programme to boost the availability of so-called “smart ticketing” for rail journeys in the south-east has not lived up to its original ambitions but has cost at least £120m, according to a National Audit Office report.

The South East Flexible Ticketing Programme was set up in 2012 with the aim of speeding up the delivery of smart ticketing options – such as Transport for London’s Oyster Card – for mainline rail-service users, after DfT concluded it needed to intervene because train operating companies were not acting quickly enough.

An original aim of the programme was for discounted, part-time season tickets to be offered to passengers using rail services into London run by 11 train operating companies. Other goals included reducing the costs of smart ticketing for companies and improving the passenger experience.

But the NAO found that as of this month, just five of the 11 earmarked franchises – South West Trains, c2c, Govia Thameslink, Southeastern and Greater Anglia – were offering smart-card season tickets.

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Of those, only one is currently offering flexible part-time season tickets – originally envisaged as levelling the fares playing field for the growing category of workers who are not full-time employees.

In its report – delivered days after DfT's managing director for rail Bernadette Kelly was announced as the department's new perm sec – the spending watchdog said that to deliver its original objectives for smart part-time season tickets across the south-east, DfT would either need to pay for additional ticket barriers and validators required, or make operating companies do so through franchise agreements.

DfT’s spending on rolling out smart ticketing in the south-east breaks down to £54m on the programme itself – which included developing a central back office to oversee charging, and the provision of some infrastructure – and a further £66m provided to TfL for the upgrading of its systems to allow rail companies’ smart cards to be readable.

The NAO accepted that the south-east ticketing drive had been paused three times and reset twice since its launch, but concluded the department had “not delivered the original ambition of the programme”.

DfT’s smart-ticketing back office has now been handed over to the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the nation’s private rail operating companies, and the NAO said it was available for operators across the country to utilise.

The NAO said DfT had conceded that the back office was currently operating at just 5% of its capacity, despite a 2014 business case stating it depended on eventually achieving 95% take-up of smart season tickets.

It added: “The department’s latest data shows that 8% of all season ticket sales in the 12 months up to March 2017 on participating train operating companies were on smartcards. 

“The department attributes low levels of take-up to early problems with passenger experience and lack of promotional and marketing activity."

Responding to the NAO report, DfT said the programme was “ambitious” and had laid the foundations for smart ticketing for all rail passengers across the country.

“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,” a spokeswoman said. 

“The South East Flexible Ticketing Programme means more than 400,000 season ticket holders now have access to paperless season tickets.”


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