Contactless bank card payments for ticketless National Rail journeys outside London is such a good idea that it has been announced many times, over many years, by many transport secretaries.
The latest re-announcement, with dates for delivery rather than seasonal timeframes, suggests we might be getting closers to it actually happening.
The popularity of paying for public transport with a bank card, smartphone, watch or other wearables took Transport for London (TfL) by surprise. Now more journeys are paid for that way than using their own proprietary smartcard, the Oyster card.
A happy consequence of the enthusiastic adoption is that it costs less to administer the ticketing system and reconcile payments because more of the work is done by the card companies. TfL also had the added benefit of being less reliant on their now aged Oyster card system, which has struggled to adapt to more complex fare regimes and additional fare zones.
This move suggests that the extensive variety of National Rail operator branded smartcards will disappear. The implementation of these products has been a disaster and never fully completed. With the dramatic decrease in the number of regular season tickets sold they have become obsolete for even the most basic task they were designed for.
The experience of TfL customers suggests that extending contactless to the Greater South East rail network will prove popular, with most regular commuters switching to the convenience of contactless payment and to take advantage of additional products not found on other ticketing systems, like weekly fare capping.
One of the worst limitations of the existing smartcard system is purchasing tickets for journeys that begin on National Rail outside London and end on the Underground within London, such as Basildon to Canary Wharf. Contactless removes the need to specify the ticket in advance and requires only a touch in and a touch out.
However, there are some problems. Firstly, railcard discounted tickets cannot be purchased using the contactless system. Extending the system deeper into National Rail territory without fixing this problem would eliminate the convenience for many passengers.
Secondly, we need to be careful to ensure that changes to the ticketing system do not harm the underbanked. Fee-free contactless debit cards are not available to everyone. This is one of the reasons TfL has to retain the Oyster card as a payment option, in particular if they plan to do away with cash-for-paper ticket sales on the Tube as they did with the buses.
See you all at the next re-announcement!