Did vested interests of bus companies block the path to a workable MaaS system in the north? Or it that ‘complete nonsense and an urban myth’? Mark Smulian reports
Who killed the Abbott? It sounds like a question in Cluedo, but this abbott was not an ecclesiastic in the library with an iron bar but the back office system for an all-embracing smart transport ticket for northern England.
How and why it hit the buffers (or bus equivalent) is disputed, but the fate of Transport for the North’s (TfN) Project Abbott shows just how complicated it can be to implement a multi-operator and multi-modal smart ticket system.
Multi-operator and multi-modal schemes are individually complex enough, and, while doing both at once is desirable, the technical and commercial challenges become even more formidable.
The best known multi-modal smart ticket is the Transport for London (TfL) Oyster. But TfL had an advantage. It already controlled London’s buses and London Underground trains, and later the overground ones.
It could simply require these systems to accept Oyster, though it had to negotiate with National Rail franchise holders to include trains.
Transport authorities elsewhere must contend with myriad bus operators – some of which may already have their own ticketing systems – plus rail firms and any light rail operations, never mind adding taxis, bicycle hire and any of the other possibilities of Mobility as a Service (MaaS).
Project Abbott would have been the back office that carried out the vital apportionment of revenue between operators from users of a colossal smart ticket system embracing buses and trains across TfN’s area of the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber.
There are conflicting views on why it has failed, which perhaps illustrate why the differing perspectives of participants in a smart ticketing system must be accommodated for it to work.
Jeremy Acklam, TfN integrated and smart travel director, says: “We believe public transport should be easy to use and pay for, and that the north’s passengers should be able to travel with confidence using ticketing options that suit their needs.
“We continue work at pace on the revised approach to integrated and smart travel, which, in light of the way the Covid-19
pandemic has changed travel behaviours, is more important than ever.
“Alongside our members, the Department for Transport (DfT), local transport authority partners, bus, tram and rail operators, and other industry bodies, we are considering the best options for the digital infrastructure that will support our ambitions for smart travel across the north of England.”
Project Abbott was killed off last January when TfN’s board concluded that consultations with partners and public transport operators showed the growing prevalence of single bus operator contactless services had evolved to the extent that a central back office might no longer be practical.
With the bus industry having committed to develop multi-operator contactless capped payments systems as part of the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) ‘moving forward together’ initiative, TfN decided to focus on ensuring that rail and tram systems had enabled contactless payments using supplier EMV’s technology, with a view to integrating these with buses at some future date.
The CPT initiative calls on the DfT to “endorse bus operators as the preferred delivery partners of government for smart ticketing solutions based on our proven track record of successful project implementation”, a statement that might raise eyebrows in the rail sector.
Less contentiously, it says bus operators should have access to the same data as other providers of integrated transport.