Govt pulls the plug on TfN's struggling smart ticketing programme


Transport for the North (TfN) has been forced to drop one of its 'main priorities’ - digitising transport in the region and creating multi-modal, multi-operator pay-as-you-go travel areas - after the Government refused to provide funding.

The Integrated and Smart Travel (IST) programme had been struggling for several years to deliver on its targets and the Government has now pulled the plug.


This marks the second major regional smart ticketing programme to end in failure after a similar result was seen in the South East. 

Following earlier phases of the North's IST programme, TfN had requested a £33m package for the year ahead to help deliver ‘contactless payment on rail, light rail and buses in partner geographies across the North’, which was refused.

A funding envelope of £150m across multiple phases was agreed in 2015 for IST; however, the programme missing key deadlines and had to roll back on plans.

The current funding envelope finishes at the end of March and the Government confirmed it would not renew despite the scheme only working through two of its at least six phases.

The DfT, having received no support from the Treasury, only agreed to meet the costs of completing phases one and two and the winding-down of the programme - TfN recently received a further £1.5m of grant in relation to Phase 1.

Later phases of the programme would have seen ‘digitalisation of transport across the whole of the North’, which will not go ahead now TfN officials said.

Jeremy Acklam, director of the IST programme, also highlighted that some partners will not be able to deliver their smart ticketing capability as planned because the ambitions were 'largely captured within TfN’s funding submission'.

TfN had developed programmes for co-ordinated, localised schemes that introduce contactless pay-as-you-go ticketing across bus, light rail and ferry however these were dependent on funding from the Spending Review.

‘The IST closure will impact the return of customers to public transport in the short-term and the speed of exit from emergency measures in the medium term,’ Mr Acklam said.

He added: ‘Digitisation is the future of modal change and required as part of the incentivisation to help people move back to public transport and green transport and healthy post-COVID.

'In the current funding envelop there isn’t flexibility to extend that beyond March other than for close down activity.’

He added that when rejecting the funding application, the DfT had told him 'contactless on rail would be delivered through the rail reform programme with the DfT considering cost effective delivery models and funding streams to roll out pay as you go to urban and regional commuter areas as part of their rail reforms’.

However, Baroness Blake of Leeds - who is stepping down from the TfN board as she takes up her post in the House of Lords – stated in response: ‘If the Williams report ever sees the light of day [smart ticketing may be included] in the ticketing and fares part of that report but it can’t just be about rail [for us].

'The whole point of what we are trying to do is integration with bus. I understand other parts of the country are equally frustrated around this, I am thinking of Midlands Connect.'

She suggested 'joining forces' with Midlands Connect to lobby the Treasury 'particularly linking with the issue of the economic recovery’.

Mr Acklam said discussions were already underway with Midlands Connect.

Benjamin Smith, director of regions, cities and devolution at the DfT, told the board there he recognised their disappointment and that the department was working to an expectation that another Spending Review would come this year, which presented an opportunity for smart ticketing across the whole of the country.

He added that the department was also finalising the National Bus Strategy, which could also help.

He thanked TfN for its work on IST, ‘much of which has been successful’.

The first phase of the IST progamme was ‘Smartcards on Rail’, working with train companies Northern Rail, TransPennine Express and Merseyrail to introduce smartcards for season tickets customers.

TfN said: ‘Around 80% of rail season ticket holders had converted to smartcard seasons prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the success of this Phase in delivering real improvements for passengers demonstrates the value of TfN’s partnerships and skills creating a new era of seamless and convenient travel across our region.'

It also 'successfully delivered Flexi-season capability across a large swathe of the North’s rail network, featuring rail products more focussed on the less-frequent commuter, an essential product for a post-Covid world.'

In the second phase, TfN ‘successfully created an open-data-driven approach and extended it to include disruption information for bus, light rail and ferry'.

‘This data is made available to passengers through LTA mobile apps and websites and increasingly through commercial 3rd parties such as Moovit, Citymapper and shortly, Google.’

However, as Transport Network previously revealed there were a multitude of problems with the North’s smart card systems, which appear to have resulted in similar failure to the South East smart ticketing scheme.

By late 2019, the programme had achieved a series of ‘smart cards’ that provided little or nothing in the way of multi-modal, multi-operator, flexible ticketing, and made little advance on former paper tickets.

In July, last year, Mr Acklam was brought in to save the prorgamme, after TfN also had to scale back its roll-out of capped contactless fare payment after bus operators declined to sign up.

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