LESS time spent in queues: for that reason alone, the Scottish Government's proposed new Saltire smart card is likely to appeal to public transport users.
A commuter between, say, Dalkeith and Glasgow, could "load up" their card with credit and then swipe it across the card reader on the bus and again at the barrier at Waverley station. The cost of the bus to Edinburgh and train to Glasgow would be deducted automatically, saving the hassle of fumbling for change at the bus stop or buying a ticket at the station; no queuing required. Taking public transport would be quicker and more efficient as a result.
Perhaps, but would it be any cheaper? That seems less likely. Announcing pilots of the so-called Saltire Card yesterday, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was keen not to create hostages to fortune with overblown rhetoric, saying: "It will make it easier, more attractive and possibly cheaper for people to get around using public transport and will help further connect our cities."
She was hedging her bets on the potential savings to consumers because it is not certain that transport operators would be prepared to work together to offer integrated tickets. These work by allowing passengers to use different types of transport in a given area – train, bus and tram, say – often at a lower cost than buying tickets from each company separately. A report by Transport Scotland last year, however, found that companies were "sceptical" about introducing tickets that could be shared with other operators, as they feared it would harm their market share and erode brand loyalty.
In London, the Oyster card system uses similar technology, of course, and integrated tickets work well there, but there is a major difference between the two transport networks: the public transport system in the UK capital is subject to heavy regulation to ensure it runs smoothly due to the high number of public transport journeys that take place in London each day (10 million). Here in Scotland, where 1.5m journeys are made daily, the system is largely deregulated. A history of fierce competition between bus companies does not lend itself to integrated ticketing.
What operators must recognise, however, is that introducing tickets that would allow users to play a flat fee and use several types of transport would entice new users out of their cars and on to the public transport network. Such a shift would not only benefit those companies, but would be essential if Scotland is to meet its world-beating targets on reducing carbon emissions. Better synchronisation between the timetables of different types of operators would also help boost the appeal of public transport in a country wedded to the private car.
The introduction of the Saltire Card shows that Scottish Government plans for the transport network are well-intentioned, but it will take more than this to build the integrated transport network Scotland needs for the 21st century.
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