ITSO: Fulfilling the Ticketing Challenge
10 June 2016

ITSO: Fulfilling the Ticketing Challenge

ITSO continues to evolve and improve, with coverage of the UK growing

This article appeared in Transport Times, June 2015

Last century - well, 1999 to be exact – two northern passenger transport executives realised that public procurement rules could result in adjacent transport authorities being forced to acquire ticketing equipment on buses that would not interoperate across their boundaries with neighbouring areas. This would benefit neither operators nor passengers.

Many PTEs had already created multi-modal and area-wide travelcards, which had only just gone through the upheaval of bus deregulation and rail franchising. The question remained: how could adjacent authorities integrate ticket-ing while allowing procurement of equipment to remain competitive?

They could have buried their heads in the sand about the national problem and opted for area-specific solutions that were not compatible across boundaries. Instead the stakeholders in this debate opted for a potential pearl. This pearl came to be known as the Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation, originally conceived by PTEG and now commonly known as ITSO. The problem remains that we tend to underestimate just how long a pearl can take to grow.

Systra undertook the initial ITSO scoping exercise for PTEG in 1999, involving bus and rail operators, interested suppliers and the Department for Transport. Back then, the company was asked to lead a team of six to draft the first iterations of the ITSO specification, which was funded by the DfT.

Today ITSO is made up of members from different sectors representing public transport operators, local transport authorities (including from Scotland and Wales), suppliers and the DfT.

It is timely, given that we have a new government (with its city devolution agenda), to consider what has been achieved and what is next for ITSO. Industry views vary. Many have previously predicted ITSO’s demise, but after a bumpy ride and some false dawns ITSO doggedly ploughs on. Why? Many fail to appreciate the complexity of smart ticketing and fares. It’s not just about the customer proposition or the technicalities; there are significant business imperatives to consider, for example the capital investment in equipment and its timing (equipment lasting for several years and not falling due for renewal all at once, nor coinciding with scheme priorities).

Although 12 million concessionary entitlement cards have already been issued using smart ITSO format throughout Great Britain, it has not been a straightforward exercise. It takes time to define the full scope of a scheme, to specify and negotiate terms and then thoroughly test it.

By March 2004, ITSO had successfully overseen the completion of a workable specification, including prototyping of the security environment. Thereafter schemes, many of which were customers for Systra’s advice, turned to ticketing system delivery mode.

The first fully fleet-wide ITSO-capable operator was Blackpool Transport with its NoWcard scheme in 2006. It was ready in time for the National Pensioners Convention that same year, and enabled the local authorities to capture visitors’ origin data for the first time, together with complete boarding and alighting data and fares forgone for concessionary reimbursement purposes. The government and operators must work together to plug the remaining gaps in coverage.

Great strides have been made since with issuance of national concessionary cards and in equipping buses to accept smart tickets. This has been complete in Scotland and Wales since 2011; most of England is now equipped and all cards issued. The rail industry ITSO programme began at a later date but has now progressed to midway, alongside the franchise renewal programme. It has been accelerated through the South East Flexible Ticketing initiative, led and monitored by DfT. The momentum will continue through continuing rail franchise renewals and passenger demand on the railway for going smart.

TfL now accepts ITSO cards for cross-boundary through ticketing. TfL has also embraced a migration from its Oyster card to EMV contact-less bank cards for payment, which allows capping of fares to the zonal daily or weekly rate. But until this solution can be extended beyond London, including fitting the necessary equipment and back-office processing software, it will not supersede current ITSO payment-based schemes.


A future solution must overcome the practical constraints such as the spending limits on contactless bank cards and the monitoring of credit-worthiness within a journey. Mobile devices displaying a numerical code, bar code or emulating a smartcard may also be part of the answer but have yet to achieve standardisation of approach or applicability beyond niche markets. Popular print-at-home and even paper tickets still need to be considered as part of the mix. Furthermore the types of ticket-checking equipment such as rail gates and on-bus equipment must be compatible with the chosen mix of options and remain cost-effective to be at all viable.

How the use of smart tickets could also be expanded beyond public transport to include cycle hire, car clubs and even access to emerging technologies such as driverless cars,relevant to more than a single opera-tor or mode.

Smart ticketing is progressively being extended. The Government and operators must now work together to speed up the final deployments, plugging the remaining (and now relatively few) gaps.

Many PTEs (Centro, Nexus and ’Yorcard’ for Metro/SYPTE, to name but a few early trailblazers) are working with the remainder, and other city areas, in the Smart Cities initiative. This includes sharing common approaches and accelerating introduction through a combination of new product initiatives and improved retail options, including the ability to buy through web portals, remote download and auto top-up and renew. There will be more to look out for in the coming months.

Smart ticketing applications must evolve to meet growing customer requirements. The UK is at the forefront to lead this revolution.

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