LT gets smart

The world’s biggest transport network smartcard system is planned by London Transport under a £1bn scheme which will replace conventional tickets. The deal will revolutionise transport in London and is likely to lead to a national electronic transport ticket system. The project will be a windfall for UK transport machine makers and associated computing suppliers, […]

The world’s biggest transport network smartcard system is planned by London Transport under a £1bn scheme which will replace conventional tickets. The deal will revolutionise transport in London and is likely to lead to a national electronic transport ticket system.

The project will be a windfall for UK transport machine makers and associated computing suppliers, although the impending closure of the Siemens microchip plant in north-east England means there will be no British source for the estimated six million smartcards required initially.

Smartcard tickets, due to be introduced by 2002 for use on all 5,800 London buses and in 273 underground stations, will replace the existing magnetic stripe format for most pre-paid passes and tickets. Travellers will be able to top up smartcards with funds directly from a bank account or via telephone banking, ending the need to buy tickets in person.

Eventually the smartcards are likely to be taken up by the operators of the privatised rail network nationwide and most bus companies.

The project, called LT Prestige, is a joint venture under the private finance initiative between London Transport and Transys, to implement an integrated revenue collection service. Transys is a consortium with four partners, headed by US computer services company Electronic Data Services (EDS), with Cubic Corporation of the US, computer company ICL and engineering consultant WS Atkins.

Under the terms of the PFI deal, Transys will invest £150m in the ticketing service infrastructure and £50m to upgrade existing assets.

Over four years, Transys will introduce a range of new technology and upgraded services to London Transport. EDS will operate and manage aspects of the new service, and Cubic and ICL will design, build and install new equipment.

Cubic’s UK subsidiary Cubic Transportation Systems (CTS) will supply and install new gate and ticket machines at stations, on buses and for retail agents. It is to start installing new electronic ticket machines on buses, built by Poole-based Wayfarer, within three months. It is making the gates and machines for the stations itself.

Installation of ticket gates at tube stations lacking automatic gates around two thirds of London Underground stations will begin by next May, with other stations following within a year. Initially the automated gates will still handle magnetic stripe tickets. Over the following 18 months, every ticket issue and validation process will be upgraded with a plug-in smartcard reader.

In spring 2000, passenger-operated ticket vending machines will be upgraded to include touch-screen technology. Paul Henry, director of travel and transportation at Uxbridge-based EDS, says this will be the first use of touch-screen technology in UK transport.

The multilingual machines will allow payment in cash, by credit cards and eventually smartcards.

Later that year, all ticket offices will be re-equipped with integrated retail till technology. LT’s 2,500 retail agents, including newsagents, will get more efficient ticket machines allowing them to issue tube, bus or train tickets electronically.

‘Our aim is to make the transport system more customer-oriented, quicker to use and to reduce queues by using the new technology,’ says Iain Coucher, chief executive of Transys.

A new integrated ICL computer system, combining ticket revenue management and smartcard management, will be developed for the smartcard launch in 2002. The central computing system will be based around high-transaction processors with Unix compatible hardware and software, to handle about eight million transactions a day.

The hardware platform is to be selected within a few months, then delivered to EDS, which will install and operate it.

‘Before issuing smartcards we must have a fully enclosed revenue control system for all underground stations, the 36 stations shared between London Underground and overground train operators, and the buses,’ says Coucher.

Smartcards are expected to reduce ticket fraud, which has already been cut in the central zone by the use of automated gates. Ticket sales on all modes of transport should rise and better information about journeys travelled will be gathered, helping to improve services. Smartcards will enable transport companies to build up a profile of travel patterns, though users will not be identifiable individually.

CTS and EDS will select a supplier for smartcard readers before the end of the year. The reader will sit on top of the automated gate and transmit a low-power electro-magnetic signal to the chip on the card.

As the passenger passes through the gate he or she will simply have to pass the smartcard within 4cm of the reader. Although the system could be designed to read the card while still in a wallet or bag, trials on buses in Harrow showed that passengers worried that such a system might debit their cards by mistake.

The ticket validation system will interrogate the chip and check if the card is valid, read the stored value, and tell the passenger the maximum distance that can be travelled. Cards will be upgradeable at a booking office, pass agent or self-service machine, and eventually by phone on the Internet.

The smartcard will be ISO-standard proprietary technology, containing a passive chip used with the transceiver attached to the gate or ticket machine, providing a read-write capability. The cards will be designed to have a six-year life.

Surprisingly, the smartcards’ technical specifications have yet to be defined.

According to Paul Henry of EDS: ‘We are reluctant to define the spec because the technology is moving so fast. We intend to wait till the last possible moment, 18 to 24 months away, and are whittling the choice down to various suppliers.’ With a potential order for six million cards, competition is fierce and includes companies such as Motorola and Sony.

Coucher says: ‘There is unlikely to be any impact on staffing levels as many of the stations are unmanned. Existing equipment is being replaced with more convenient ways to buy tickets and we believe this will encourage greater public transport use.’

The Prestige contract for Transys concentrates on creating a seamless travel and information system for London Transport. But the consortium hopes the initiative will act as a spur to other passenger transport executives (PTE) nationwide.

Seven PTEs are to be targeted within the next 18 months, including Strathclyde, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Birmingham-Centro, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire, with the aim of creating a national smartcard ticket scheme.