The future just isn't exciting any more. We live in a world of wi-fi, widescreen, HD technology, carrying mobile phones in our pocket with more computing power than Apollo 11, wandering into air-conditioned offices to work on laptops and desktops. We listen to thousands of songs in boxes the size of cigarette packets. We can solve our problems with a touch of a screen. It's all become so... ordinary. Remember the thrill you got the first time you used an automatic door, how it was like being on board the Enterprise? Now you use them so often you're forgetting how door handles work. The future is now, and we're not bothered.
Here's a tip: go to London. Every time I swoosh an Oyster card, I feel a little thrill of excitement at the genius technology of it. A wave of a piece of plastic, and the gates spring open for me; the correct fare is deducted, and the computer keeps track of how much I've spent to make sure I don't pay too much. If there's not enough money on the card, it contacts my bank and transfers some funds across. In split second, lightning fast time. It's so efficient, seamless and, well, futuristic, I've been desperate for it to be rolled out across the rest of the country.
It seems it's now on its way to Merseyside. Starting Monday, Merseytravel began rolling out contactless smart card use. At first, it's just for concessionary pass holders (i.e. pensioners) and it's only on a handful of bus routes. However, the technology is being implemented further and further over the coming months, with the aim of making it available right across the county by 2012.
Buses will be the first to benefit, but, according to the FAQs, the technology will start hitting the rail system next year. Marvellous. The paper tickets are increasingly archaic, and as for those big floppy Trios? Urgh. It's ridiculous that in 2010, you still have to wave a bit of paper that's bigger than your wallet, that gets creased and damaged and folded over. It's daft that you have to queue up every week so a new sticker can be applied to your card and get written in a book and stamped. It's like something from the Dark Ages. The sooner we have a microchipped smartcard we can renew online while we watch EastEnders the better.
I do have a couple of caveats about it, though. The Underground benefits from ticket gates at almost all its stations, so access to the platforms is restricted. I've whined before about how great I think these gates are: they make stations and trains more secure, and they cut down on the amount of ticketless travel dramatically. These are a natural fit for the Oyster-style smartcard, a place for scanners to be located and a way to make sure people use them.
Merseyrail doesn't have these gates, except in a handful of locations (the Loop stations, Hamilton Square, Conway Park and Southport, plus Arriva Trains Wales has them installed at Chester). Rolling them out across the whole network would be expensive. Not to mention the fact that not all stations are suitable for the works. Green Lane, for example, has a single booking hall with stairs leading to the platform: it'd be simple to block off the entrance with ticket gates.
But how about Bebington, which has its tiny ticket office below the Liverpool platform? The ticket office is to one side, and the way to the trains is up a narrow slope in the open air - not the best location for ticket gates. Even worse, there's a car park on the Hooton platform, with direct access, so you'd either need a second set of gates there, or make people walk all the way round and under the bridge to get to the ticket office. Sadly, the brand new Sandhills also comes under this category - the ticket office is up on the platforms. Lack of forward thinking there, I feel.
The solution will probably be the one used on the Docklands Light Railway, and at some Overground stations: no gates, but stand alone readers which must be touched in and touched out to register a trip. It's a bit more complicated, and doesn't have the security or ticket fraud advantages gating does, but it's a cheaper option and easier to implement. I'd personally like to see a mix of the two, with gating wherever possible (stations like Birkenhead Central and Port Sunlight leap to mind) and particularly in areas with high ticket fraud. Somewhere quiet like Capenhurst on the other hand just needs the odd reader.
(And on a related note, let's hope the IT guys are better at updating things than they are now - I tried using a Saveaway on the Moorfields ticket barriers about a month ago, and they're still not recognised).
The security issue leads me to a second downside of the smartcards: staffing. The Oyster card's been so successful in London, ticket sales at the stations have plummeted. This has lead to plans to reduce the staffing levels across the network too - in some cases, so much so that there will only be open ticket offices during the morning peak. The newest Underground station, at Wood Lane on the Hammersmith & City Line, was built without a ticket office: all sales there are through machines. Could Merseyrail go this way too?
Permanently staffed stations are one of the best features of Merseyside's rail network, and are no doubt a large part of the Secure Stations accolades. I really don't want to see them end up like the miserable stations on the Ellesmere Port branch, boarded up and desolate.
The MtoGo scheme could be rolled out, I suppose, to maintain the staffing levels and give them something to do, but that would be expensive and some places just aren't suitable for them. Back at Bebington, the ticket office is tiny (the queue regularly pokes out the door) - how would you fit in the range of MtoGo facilities? And could it compete with the parade of shops over the road?
But I'm seeing the half-empty glass as usual. Kudos to Merseytravel for really pushing this idea forward, and I look forward to brandishing my own Oyster card with pride in the very near future. It'll need a Merseyside specific name though. The M Card? Liver Card? I'll have a think and get back to you on that...