Transport ministers face a probe into the beleaguered South East Flexible Ticketing (SEFT) programme after the National Audit Office (NAO) said it would meet campaigners to discuss their concerns about the £80m scheme.
The Department for Transport (DfT) once promised the SEFT scheme would promote flexible and multimodal travel across London and the South East region, however with tens of millions already spent there is little sign it has achieved any of its key goals.
Officials have refused to confirm how much money still remains in the SEFT scheme, but in response to parliamentary questions, ministers revealed that they have spent nearly £40m out of a promised £80m budget . The Government has since evaded questions about future spending.
Ministers said future developments on flexible ticketing should now be led by the private sector. But research by Transport Network has revealed that train operating companies (TOCs) have no plans to use the scheme to deliver flexible products or interoperability between TOCs or transport modes.
Stephen Joseph will meet NAO officials next month
The NAO has invited Stephen Joseph, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, to a meeting next month to discuss in detail his concerns over SEFT, ‘and what steps can be taken to address them’.
It follows Mr Joseph’s letter on SEFT to the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), as reported in February. PAC chair Meg Hillier asked the NAO to look into the issues raised and consider undertaking a review.
Mr Joseph told Transport Network: ‘The Government has spent more than £39m not giving rail users the flexible smart tickets they want. Now it appears that train operators aren't even using the technology that has been provided. There are a lot of questions to answer and we hope the National Audit Office will be able to find out what has happened to all the money and ensure that this doesn't happen again.’
The disappearing £40m
The DfT has declined, despite repeated questioning, to state how much money remains in the SEFT budget, citing ‘commercial confidentiality reasons’.
Research by Transport Network has established that at least three ongoing contracts placed via the Rail Delivery Group and Rail Settlement Plan are funded by the SEFT programme to support smartcard transactions.
These contracts include ongoing support for a transaction management system developed by consultancy Smart421, which would in theory allow interoperability between operators.
However no TOCs are using, or planning to use, the SEFT back office system to issue flexible tickets that are not already available on their existing systems or are not available on paper tickets. No companies are offering flexible tickets that work on other companies’ routes.
Instead, many TOCs are using their own back office systems, outside of the SEFT system, to issue smartcard products, including flexible tickets such as part-time season tickets and interoperability with bus operators.
Govia Thameslink Railway, which operates several franchises in the region including Southern, said that it currently offers flexible ticketing products via its ‘key’ smartcard such as off-peak discounting, pay-as-you-go capping on its own network and interoperability with some bus services.
However, a spokesman said: ‘None of these require the use of the SEFT back office.’
Another of the region’s franchise holders, C2C, also offers passengers a smartcard and is planning to launch a part-time Flexible Day Season ticket.
It is planning to move to the SEFT back office for a number of reasons, including simplifying the customer registration process and operational benetfits. But, again, it said that neither its current products or those in development are dependent on the SEFT back office.
What TOCs are - and are not - doing through SEFT
Abellio Greater Anglia, which has introduced a ‘SEFT’ smartcard to replace paper season tickets, has previously stated that it does not have plans to introduce transport integration opportunities on smartcards during its current franchise.
South West Trains told Transport Network it has its own smartcard back office and does not use the SEFT Central Back Office.
A spokesman said: ‘Our focus is on making the many popular tickets that are currently in paper format and used by millions of passengers a year available as products on smart. During this year, we will be opening up as much of the network as possible for smart ticketing using existing product types. We are not currently intending to add new products.’
Southeastern said that it will use the three elements of the SEFT back office to provide season tickets but will not use the system under the current franchise to provide flexible products that go beyond what is currently available on paper tickets.