London integration marred by Oyster short-sightedness

The term ‘integrated transport’ has gone out of fashion largely because ministers realised that it did not mean much in the deregulated and privatised environment they seek to foster. Integration requires the kind of strong central planning and coordinated provision of services which mitigates against New Labour’s reliance on market forces and rail franchising.

Nowhere is the failure to pursue an agenda of integration more apparent than in London. That is because the prospect of a genuinely integrated transport system is so tantalisingly close. London’s buses and Underground are run by the same organisation, Transport for London, which even regulates taxis and minicabs. Since buses have not been deregulated, TfL determines routes and frequency of service. However, the third main mode of public transport in the capital, the suburban train service, is still run completely separately and is controlled by central rather than local government. Moreover, it is split into a number of franchises run by companies coordinated only through the very weak Association of Train Operating Companies.

Transport for London has long been pressing for the trains to be integrated with the other services. In an ideal world, the Mayor would like to be the franchising authority for suburban train services. This ain’t gonna happen given this government’s loyalty to the franchising system for the railways created by the Tories and the fact that suburban franchises like Great Eastern and Thames have been merged in with the main line operators with whom they share a station. Instead, TfL is to be thrown the North London line and the Watford services from Euston as a kind of tidying up exercise but there is no prospect of other lines being transferred.

Given that operational integration is not going to happen, then the next best thing would be to have a completely integrated ticketing system as happens in many German and French cities, where transport may be provided by different companies and operators, but the whole system can be accessed through one ticketing system.

Transport for London and its predecessors have spent a cool £1bn on developing and implementing the Oyster card system. Essentially, this smart card is designed to replace virtually all transactions involving the payment of fares, including season tickets, on the London Underground and bus systems, although TfL do not quite put it like that.

The card has essentially worked well, but then so it damn well should at that price. However, there have inevitably been some teething problems, notably the fact that for over a year the card would not act as a Travelcard because it would not net off the cost of the various journeys at the Travelcard price. This has been solved, but there are still complaints about it and about the fact that if you do not ‘touch out’ at the end of the journey, you are charged the max fare on the system.

But the major problem with the card is that it does not integrate with the national rail system which means that the old Travelcard which covered both underground and overground services does not do so any more. As part of the strategy to push people into using Oyster, there is now a large discount compared with buying paper tickets and from this month pre-pay Oyster card travel Travelcards are 50p cheaper than paper ones. In fact, the paper ones are valid on national rail while the Oyster facility is not. Therefore, the convenient Travelcard system has been broken up because of the incompatibility of the technology and passengers who use national rail are therefore paying more whereas previously they paid the same as those merely travelling on the Tube.

TfL estimate that 1.5 million people could lose out as a result of this failure of integration. The train operators argue that there is no ‘business case’ for them to pay for Oyster card equipment even though mayor Ken Livingstone has offered the train companies £25m towards the cost of installing it but the operators say that they need £65m. The Association of Train Operating Companies takes a pretty narrow view on what will pass their ‘business case’ test, but then businesses cases based on such imponderables as whether more people will use the railway if it is easier to buy tickets are pretty arbitrary.

It is, though, more than just about money. Oyster is not ITSO compatible (don’t ask but if you insist that stands for Integrated Smart Card Organisation) which is the Department for Transport’s favoured smart card technology. Oyster could possibly be adapted, but again at a cost.

ATOC is also worried that more people will fare dodge if all they have to do is touch in and touch out their prepay Oyster cards, though there is no hard evidence for this.
Meanwhile, however, Londoners are finding out just how unintegrated their transport system is compared with those of so many European cities. Is it any surprise that ‘integrated transport’ is no longer spoken about in the corridors of power?

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