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Interview: Michael Leach, chief executive of ITSO

Gill Hitchcock Published 11 August 2011

Interview: Michael Leach, chief executive of ITSO

Adoption of the organisation's technical standard for transport smartcards could be close to its critical mass

This summer a group of bidders heard they had won shares of the government's first tranche of Local Sustainable Transport funding. The Department for Transport divided its £155m prize between 37 councils for 39 projects designed to cut carbon emissions and boost local economies.

Among the successful schemes were several for smart ticketing projects compliant with ITSO (formerly known as the Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation), the government-backed scheme setting a common technical standard. It allows passengers to use one secure smartcard for payment on different modes of transport, and possibly for other purposes such as accessing local authority leisure services or libraries.

Funding for ITSO schemes included about £5m each for Bristol and neighbouring councils, Cumbria, Leicester, Nottingham, Oxfordshire, Reading, plus £4.6m for Sustainable Transport York and , a consortium of 15 authorities led by Plymouth city council. It says the money will help to equip all local buses with ITSO ticket machines by the end of summer 2012.

These initiatives join a £63m investment programme to make London's transport facilities ITSO-compatible by 2013, as well as nationwide implementations in Scotland and Wales. For Michael Leach, chief executive of ITSO, it all amounts to a tipping point in the adoption of the standard that could mark a big leap forward for public transport.

"It's all starting to come, as it were, to a critical mass, which is what ministers have been talking about for a long time," he says.

Leach says the ITSO concept was born out of a desire for interoperable systems among transport operators, without being tied to a single supplier or set of suppliers.

"It is a security system at the top, and then a specification about how different parts of the system should talk to each other," he explains. "So you can reach the ultimate aim of anybody using a smartcard today, or a mobile phone enabled as a smartcard in the very near future, being able to load it and use it with any operator throughout the country on any mode."

He emphasises that the technology is nothing new, and that an ITSO-compliant card is an evolution of the type of card used by Transport for London under the Oyster brand since 2003.

"Actually, the first use of transport smartcards was in the early 90s," he says. "And all we have seen is the cards getting faster in terms of processing power, just like a computer, and the capacity of it to hold data is improving." The only changes otherwise are "like your bank cards because they've increased the security, or an interface has changed".

The real innovation, he points out, is that one card can be used for different deregulated services. "So in many ways ITSO is literally the world's first; it has just taken a lot longer than anybody thought it would to get to the level of critical mass."

But despite the financial incentives from government, the scheme has a long way to go. Only 30-35% of authorities across the UK, and as few as 20-25% in England, have adopted ITSO to date, and largely limited its use to concessionary fares. So what are the drawbacks?

"When you ask different suppliers to develop things, you discover things that you had not planned for, where you get variances and differences which then have to be ironed out and addressed," Leach says. "Every time you add something new, it's just about making sure that it's a cost-effective solution, where the value outweighs the cost. I think that has always been the difficulty."

He cites Centro, the bus, rail and tram operator for the West Midlands, as an example. The authority, which has finally completed an ITSO roll out for 2,300 buses, had teething troubles around "educating" bus operators about what they needed to do, and making sure the supplier delivered accordingly.

There are also concerns about cost and Leach says ITSO is working with the Department for Transport as well as local authorities to make sure they "don't reinvent the wheel".

"We are now seeing shared service options being created by a number of existing local authorities or urban conurbations," he says. One of these, South West Smart Applications, which covers the south-west of England, has set up an "open contract" which local authorities can use with the aim of saving procurement and other costs.

He maintains that there are significant financial benefits to ITSO, citing Scotland, which used ITSO smart cards to reduce concessionary travel fraud by some £24m over one year, and Cheshire, which is saving £300,000 a year by using ITSO-compliant cards to monitor whether passengers have paid.

But Leach says that ITSO is not appropriate for all transport systems. In rural areas with very limited services, interoperability and cashless payments are of little benefit. But in large urban areas it can, he says, encourage modal shift, which can help reduce congestion and carbon emissions.

"And the lesson we have seen in London is that if you get the availability right, without making major issues on prices, you can start to get modal shift from the ease of having a smart card which is auto top-up, against people having to find £1.20 or £1.80 in their pocket for a bus fare," Leach says.

Cardiff's 'IFF card', introduced last October, allows travellers to go up to £3 into debit, the equivalent of two single bus journeys across the city.

The important thing, Leach argues, is not to treat ITSO implementation as a big IT project, but to examine where it could fit at a local level.

He concludes: "We think it has fantastic benefits, but they need always to have a business case that really stacks up."








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