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Time to get Smart! Alison Pilling tells us all about plans for smart and integrated ticketing

Friday 1st April 2016

Smart North is one of Transport for the North’s six work streams, with a team developing a smart ticketing system that can be used across the North of England. We caught up with Alison Pilling, who is project managing Smart North, to find out more.

Alison entered the transport world about twenty years ago, with a role encouraging young people to use public transport before moving to Metro (which later became the West Yorkshire Combined Authority) to work on sustainable transport. She started working in smart ticketing in 2010, acting as Business Change Manager for the customer-facing side of West Yorkshire Smart Card and Information Programme. Alison now heads up the team developing Smart North, a pan-Northern integrated ticketing system for the future.

We asked Alison how she got involved with Smart North:

“I started working on plans for a cross-northern smart ticketing system about a year ago, when a small team of people from across the Northern city regions got together with the Department for Transport to start looking at how such a system could work. As the plans evolved into a coherent programme I applied for the role to run this and when offered, I said yes, please!”

The Chancellor announced £150 million to fund a pan-Northern smart ticketing system, now named Smart North, in the Autumn 2015 Statement, but as Alison explains, the money hasn’t been invested just yet:

“Understandably, we have had to come up with a detailed plan for Smart North to justify such a large investment of public money. We’ll be submitting our finalised Strategic Outline Business Case to DfT’s Investment Committee for consideration shortly as the first step towards setting out the detailed proposals that we hope will unlock initial funding later in the autumn.”

With this in mind, we asked Alison to tell us more about the timescales for Smart North:

“In the long term, we have an 8-10 year plan to introduce pan-Northern smart ticketing, to simplify ticket products across public transport and to vastly improve the information that’s available to travellers about their transport options. This will mean that customers can use a single payment method, possibly a contactless bank card or a smartphone across train, bus and tram. It will also mean that there will be pan-Northern caps on pricing for public transport, and a guarantee that you won’t spend more in a day or a week than an equivalent travel card would have cost for the areas you’re travelling in.”

But this doesn’t mean that travellers will have to wait the best part of a decade to see improvements. The plan is to roll out Smart North in stages, so passengers will start to see benefits very soon. Alison explains:

“In the very short term, we’re working with our partners in transport authorities across the north to assist them as they introduce or improve smart ticketing in their areas. In West Yorkshire for example, ticket vending machines have been upgraded to let passengers top up their smart card, an innovation that may help other city regions and rail operators.

“Next year we’ll be looking to roll out Smart North for rail season tickets, so you would no longer need a separate ticket. The year after that we’re hoping to introduce carnet tickets. These are great for people who travel by rail fairly frequently but not every day, for example people who work part-time. The idea is that you might pay for ten journeys and actually get twelve – kind of a loyalty scheme.”

“At the same time we’ll be looking at bus travel. At the moment you can use smart ticketing in some areas but by no means all. Over the next two to three years we’ll be looking to have a Smart payment system that’s compatible with buses across the North, hopefully offering both an ‘e-purse’ (cash on a smart card) or using a contactless bank card for your journey.”

Getting the agreements in place that will allow travellers to use Smart North as a ‘pay as you go’ scheme, with a guarantee that they won’t pay above a predetermined daily cap will take longer. There are negotiations to be had with bus, train and tram operators across a very wide area, as well as planning needed for the complicated systems which will enable such a scheme to work. However, Alison tells us that, as with every part of the Smart North development, this will be trialled in pilot schemes before it is implemented across the whole of the North.

“In some of the city regions which already have the necessary commercial agreements in place, I think we’ll see Smart North with a fair price promise very quickly following the pay as you go scheme. But it will take longer to unfold it across the whole region.”

One of the ways Smart North has been described is as ‘an Oyster for the North’. Alison says that, whilst they want to emulate the Oyster scheme (Transport for London’s way of paying for travel) they also want to learn from and improve it:

“Some people have asked, well, can’t we just get Oyster up north? But the thing is, there are already several different schemes to pay for travel using smart or contactless technology across the north of England. They are all broadly compatible with each other, in terms of the technology, but not compatible with Oyster, so it wouldn’t make sense to introduce a new system when we have many of the building blocks already in place.

“We have also looked at what’s happening in London: fewer people are using an actual Oyster card to pay for their travel and more and more of them are using a contactless bank card or a smartphone. People obviously prefer to travel with something they’re already carrying with them rather than having to remember another card. So we want to skip that step of the process, but still enable people to use a travel card such as M Card in Leeds or Pop PAYG in Newcastle, if they already have one.”

Keep an eye out for further information on TfN’s plans for Smart North in the coming months.