The National Audit Office have published the results of their investigation into the South East Flexible Ticketing programme, of which Southeastern’s “Key” is part. It’s not good reading for the Department for Transport, or for the rail industry more generally. At least £120m has been spent since 2006, and it has not delivered its main objectives.
The Department for Transport have been trying to introduce their own “smart card ticketing” since 2006 – with a different and unproven technology to the Oyster system that TfL had by then already successfully rolled out and been running for three years. Having tried to drive train companies into developing smart card systems within franchise specifications, DfT decided in 2011 to develop their own system and require franchisees to use it. According to the NAO report it has not gone well:
- At least £120m has been spent, with significant budget over-runs.
- Eleven Train Operating Companies were supposed to adopt the smartcard approach; so far DfT have only persuaded five to do so.
- DfT’s central system has cost £26 million, and only 5% of its capacity is being used. Two of the five train operating companies decided to use their own system instead.
- The business case assumed 95% take-up of season tickets on smartcards within five years, of which the first and second years would achieve 25% and 50% respectively. In the last year to 31 March only 8% of season tickets in the companies using the system were smartcards.
- The original objective of enabling passengers to buy flexible part-time season tickets was removed. The programme has been curtailed with only the equipment and systems in place for conventional season tickets.
- The system as installed does not cater for tickets on mobile devices, contactless bank cards and payments through smart phones. Doing so would require upgrades to the central computer system and existing card readers and barriers, and would require additional funding.
- The programme was effectively terminated in early 2016, and handed over to the Rail Delivery Group to deliver existing commitments between DfT and the Train Operating Companies. When Southeastern launched the “Key” in December 2016 the system had already been abandoned by its paymaster.
Interestingly the NAO report reveals that DfT twice rejected proposals from TfL (who have shown that they can successfully deliver smartcard and contactless solutions):
- In December 2011, Transport for London proposed to the Department that this money should be used to extend its Oyster system and support its contactless infrastructure across the south-east of England. The Department rejected this proposal.
- In early 2013 Transport for London questioned the feasibility of delivering the Programme before 2015 with the existing delivery approach and offered to take over running of the Programme. Again the Department rejected this proposal.
In our view the whole scheme was misconceived from the start. 90% of journeys on Southeastern are to or from London terminals, and from there most customers want to switch to TfL services to get to their final destination. That means customers need an integrated fare system guaranteeing the lowest price for the journey actually made. TfL’s Oyster/Contactless system does just that, it has worked for 14 years, and has a high degree of customer acceptance. It is the way forward for the Sevenoaks area and beyond.