TRAIN operator First ScotRail is to bring Nicola Sturgeon's vision of a "Saltire card" for travel around Scotland one step closer with plans to install the necessary technology in scores of stations in the coming months.
The operator has kicked off a project to install 140 validation machines for smartcards in 70 of Scotland's 350 stations, concentrating in the Strathclyde, Stirling and Aberdeen areas. It installed them in 27 stations towards the end of last year and aims to have the rest finished by the end of March.
Building on a pilot scheme for annual season-ticket holders that has been running between Edinburgh and Glasgow on the line through Falkirk since 2011, the move will mean that the stations will have the same integrated transport smartcard organisation technology installed in most of the country's buses.
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It raises the prospect of the same ticketless travel on trains currently enjoyed by the country's concessionary bus travellers. It will also increase the chances of the arrival of the "Saltire card" that the Deputy First Minister announced last October.
The Scottish Government envisages that this would work in the same way as the Oyster card in London, enabling passengers to switch between different modes of transport. The long-term vision is that all journeys in Scotland's bus, train, ferry, tram and subway networks will eventually be accessible through smartcards.
First Group has a duty to roll out a smartcard service as part of its seven-year ScotRail franchise, which is due for renewal this year. However, the service is at least a year behind the target the company publicly set itself in 2009 and it is not yet clear when First will expand the service to the rest of the rail network.
Together with a two-year contract to manage the service, this stage of the project is expected to cost Aberdeen-based First up to £850,000. The Glasgow-Edinburgh pilot is being managed by Japanese group, Fujitsu.
Glasgow subway operator Strathclyde Partnership for Transport is launching a smartcard operation for its service in the course of this year.
Transport Scotland is currently considering what smartcard requirements to put into the next phase of the ScotRail franchise.
A spokesman for First said: "All 70 stations will have the validators by March 31 this year. They will be operational on dates to be announced in due course."