09 September 2011

First Get Touchy

First in Devon and Cornwall 3 September revealed it is to invest £1.2 million in revolutionary new ticketing technology for its 228 strong bus fleet.
The investment forms part of FirstGroups £27m commitment to provide new ticketing technology to its 5,000 buses in England.

FirstGroup intends to be the first bus operator outside London to offer customers "touch in touch out" contactless payment. The new ticket machines, designed to read contactless debit or credit cards, in addition to ITSO smartcards such as concessionary bus passes, will be introduced to First buses in Devon and Cornwall from the autumn and will initially allow customers with an ITSO smartcard to touch in. Contactless bank cards will be accepted from late 2012.
Firsts new ticketing system will act much like London's Oyster Card; customers will simply "touch in and touch out" using their debit or credit card, taking less than a second, and avoiding the need to carry the correct change. The system will also allow First to offer a range of tickets including capping the daily fare. But unlike Oyster customers wont need to carry an additional card or worry about pre-payment or topping up. Customers using the contactless cards will simply see the cost of the fare deducted from their bank or credit card balance.
With the continuing rapid advancement of mobile phone technology, First has also ensured that its new system has the capability to accept payment via mobile phone.
Justin Davies, Regional Managing Director of First in South West and Wales, said:

"Considerable investment in our buses continues. This is a ground-breaking announcement for the bus industry and good news for our customers.
The public transport industry will increasingly rely on new technology such as contactless bank cards and mobile phones to both retain and attract customers. Its an exciting prospect and I'm delighted that FirstGroup is at the forefront and setting new standards in the bus industry.”

This is a welcome announcement which First have really pushed hard across the whole country. Once the whole system is up and running it should be a very useful way of paying bus fares. The big benefit for passengers is not having to pay up front for bus fares. We have seen a lot of fuss around Citybus and their decision to stop on bus concession fares before 09:30. The company point out that the lower fares are available by purchasing various pre-paid tickets under 'The Key' brand. The big disadvantage being that payment has to be up front which isn't always an option for people. The loss of prepayment top-up cards is one of the stranger decisions by Go Ahead and is very much a backward step, although it seems that the company is looking to see if such an option can be made available in the future.

Of course First do have some hurdles to clear before they can introduce the full range of payment options that they are promising. There are certainly questions which will need to be answered before most people would be happy to use such s scheme (well I would like answered anyway!).
Would I have to register my bank card with First for it to work on their buses? I am in two minds about this. On one hand its giving your bank details to someone else and all of the data protection issues that entails, but on the other hand I am not sure I would like my bank card to work on the buses without my express permission. If someone else took my card they could end up using it, even if it was capped in some way.

The other big issue will be how well it works from the start. Plymouth Citybus seems to have benefitted from being well down the queue of operators being transferred over to The Key. Many of the issues which plagued The Keys introduction in places like Oxford seem to have been avoided in Plymouth. If there were problems then they certainly have not hit the local news headlines like they have elsewhere. Any new scheme of this type can be difficult to manage and once it hits the local news any issues can be blown out of all proportion and become a real nightmare. First trying to introduce this nationally could have an even bigger problem if it all goes wrong, although I am sure that they will introduce it all gradually after local trials.

One more interesting aspect of the new travel options is the idea of "touch in and touch out". Not having to tell the driver where you are going and just paying the the journey you take sounds like a good idea. It does give flexibility and allows you to change your mind once you are on the bus which is useful. The downside is that you are then relying on knowing you are on the correct bus which isn't always that easy. At least one local company has difficulty displaying the correct route and destination on its buses and its not unknown for drivers to forget to reset the blinds properly. At places like Derriford Hospital where buses can be heading off in opposite directions it is all to easy to get on the wrong bus. I have done it myself and I like to think I know what I am doing!

It also puts the onus on the passenger to remember to touch out. It is all to easy to forget to do something like this. Maybe once you have done it a few times and been stung for a more expensive journey then maybe you will remember next time but I know what I am like first thing in the morning. I have even forgotten to get off at my stop before and ended up having to walk back.

This issue is currently being highlighted in London with their Oyster Card:

"After many months of campaigning to highlight the scandal of Oyster overcharging it is good news that they are at last beginning to accept that a problem even exists. It is however regrettable that the new system only addresses just one form of Oyster overcharging caused by people who occasionally forget to touch out. The Mayor and TfL must address the much bigger problem of Oyster overcharging caused by the system not always working properly, for example when barriers are left open, or the machines are not working at the start of the journey. There is a huge problem in particular when there are large crowds at stations and TfL open the barriers and implement a system called ‘autocomplete’ leading to passengers automatically facing a maximum fare, irrespective of the length of their journey" Caroline Pidgeon

Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo shared by Diamond Geezer
The biggest potential problem is of course the reliability of the ticket machines and card readers. Omnibuses had the story this week of issues at Trent with a system that has been seen as a success so its not just brand new systems that can have problems. Any new technology is going to have problems, the big test is how the operator handles it. We will have to wait and see how First do!

As usual your comments are welcome. Is this new ticket revolution a welcome thing or not? Will it work in Plymouth? Will it give First an edge over Citybus?

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  • News & Initiatives First

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  1. Just a way to try and beat the competition in my opinion.

    Citybus key is fine in my opinion.

  2. This is way superior and advanced to the Citybus Key!! Being able to pay by debit card!!!

  3. Oh dear, hope its not as awful as Oyster. Two past blogs refer:-



    So it may yet turn out to be very touchy technology.


  5. it makes a change for citybus to jump the gun and introduce a inferier machine,its normally first lagging behind! well done first! and btw contactless payment is already available at the mcdonnalds at plymstock, so it must work???

  6. Can't be secure though?


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