An Oyster Spread sounds nice

Transport for London's Commissioner Mike Brown was right to call for contactless payment to be extended across the nation's rail system last month. Yesterday Rail Minister Andrew Jones announced a mini Oyster roll-out to Hertford North, and to Epsom. More will follow. Little sign yet, though, of a nation-wide application of contactless pay as you go.

But surely that is what people want. Contactless payment is certainly what passengers across London have turned to. As Mike Brown says, TfL expects to be no longer accept paper-based travel cards within 5-10 years and see Oyster card usage decline as more people switch to paying with bankcards or mobile phones1 .The digital world of payment systems is fast moving, even if transport policy is not.

Currently in London, 60m journeys/month are made with contactless bankcards (only launched in 2014), 125m with Oyster cards (still popular but declining fast), with paper ticket use now below 15m. Use of smartphone payment systems is also rising quickly. And these work on buses, DLR, the Croydon Tram, as well as on national rail services and the tube.

Meanwhile, CBT asks: "Do you despair of disjointed public transport?" It's easy to imagine the response: "Sadly, yes, but if there was a convenient way for me to hop from a connecting bus onto the train, paying as I go with something I carry anyway, maybe I could save the expense of a car".

I was struck by a line used in a recent Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity campaign against plans for new bus routes and light rail investment in Tennessee: "If someone has the freedom to go where they want, do what they want, they're not going to use public transit". The London experience proves this to be untrue. Convenient integrated ticketing delivers user freedom.

Apart from the (still-growing) Plus-Bus ticket, which offers an add-on bus fare for local travel started by rail, the chances of finding combined bus-rail ticketing generally remains slim, in effect penalising courageous travellers who try to 'mix modes' for their journey. Yet herein lies the perhaps surprising key to solving the mess that is the current national rail ticketing system.

Fares and ticketing lie at the heart of trying to create a public transport alternative to car use. And at the heart of creating a good system lies the question of consumer trust. TfL earned this over time as travelcards evolved into Oyster. It took time for people to realise that the convenience of tapping in and out (on rail) and just tapping in (on bus) could be relied upon to charge them the right amount. Even then, TfL has racked up c£300m in unclaimed Oyster usage. And it's not that travel in London is particularly cheap, nor that people necessarily know how much individual journeys cost them. Yet this is a system people trust.

The first problem created by an excessively complex national rail fares system (55 million fares in existence), complete with the loop-hole option available for many of the more expensive (i.e. longer) journeys in the form of split tickets to undercut the 'cheapest' fare, is a lack of trust.

Neither the train companies, nor the system they operate is trusted. And when the rail system is providing an unreliable service, operating as it is so close to capacity, annual fares rises are greeted with hoots of derision. Only fairness and simplification will restore trust.

The industry has made the odd attempt to break out of this problem, but always comes up against financial constraints. The industry (and so Treasury) daren't risk losing some of its secure income stream (roundly £10bn per annum in passenger fares, enough to ensure the railway system covers its day to day running costs – a far cry from the BR days of subsidy and capital disinvestment).

What's needed is a staged programme that recognises that people put a value on convenience, including the ability to easily switch modes to complete their journeys. It's not just a question of adding some tap in/out facilities around London, appreciated though that will be locally.

Instead, let's mimic the sequence that TfL followed for Greater London but do it nationally: overlay an innovative multi-modal ticket solution using the technology of the day. For TfL in the 1980s, this was a paper-based travelcard; for the nation approaching the 2020s, it will be smartphones and bankcards: in both cases, embracing other modes – especially bus (many of which are already equipped with contactless readers) and based on an understandable set of fare zones. As take up of the more convenient new payment system grows, existing station-to-station rail fares can be withdrawn with far fewer people adversely affected.

So, actually it won't be Oyster spreading when the national rail fares fiasco is tackled, but new technology, implemented under a multi-step strategic investment programme, that restores customer (and political) trust in rail.

Jim Steer is a director and founder of Steer Group. He is also a founder and director of Greengauge 21 

1 Correction (4.12.18 16:15) An earlier version of this read:  As Mike Brown says, TfL expects to be no longer accepting Oyster cards, leave alone paper-based travel cards within 5-10 years