London's Mass Transit to Go with Smartcards

Riders of London's underground subway and its famous red double-decker buses will be paying for their journeys using a high-tech, contactless smartcard system come 2002.

The "Tube," as London's subway is called, as well as the city's buses, are set to benefit from a facelift that will see the transport system adopt smartcards as the main method of payment for travel in four years, according to London Transport, the government organization responsible for both systems.

Smart cards resemble credit cards but include a microprocessor capable of storing data and executing simple computational processes.

London Transport has awarded a contract worth 1 billion [B] pounds (US$1.65 billion) to build, implement and maintain the system to a consortium of companies known collectively as TranSys, which includes San Diego-based Cubic Corp., as well as Electronic Data Systems Corp. Also part of TranSys is British computer maker ICL PLC, as well as AS Atkins, a management and engineering consultancy. London Transport will pay for the TranSys project over a 17-year period.

The upgrade to the current system, which uses a combination of disposable, paper magnetic-strip cards on the Tube and paper printed tickets on buses, will include the installation of smart card-reading machines on all 5,800 buses and the replacement of existing ticket gates across the entire Underground network, London Transport said. Riders won't have to swipe the smart cards, as the ticket gates will be able to read the cards even if they are in a pocket or a briefcase.

London Transport is hoping the high-tech machines will virtually eliminate fare dodgers trying to take free rides on the Tube and buses, a problem that costs the organization millions of pounds each year. A rider who is not carrying an appropriately-loaded smart card won't be able to pass through the gates at all, the organization said.

Travelers will be able to buy and add value to smart cards at touch-screen machines in the tube stations or from news agents currently equipped to sell the magnetic swipe tickets, London Transport said.

London Transport hasn't spelled out exactly how the smart cards will replace the existing system, which offers riders everything from one-way tickets to year-long, long-distance travel cards. Most likely, users will pay for the services they require and machines will download the appropriate information onto the card. For example, a rider who purchases a monthly travel card for three zones could have this information stored on her card, while another card could hold 10 one-way rides. It isn't clear if the cards will have to be carried in conjunction with a valid photo, as the magnetic travel cards currently require.

Should the system deliver on its promises, public transport will be easier to use and ticket purchases will be faster, London Transport claims. With falling government subsidies over the last few years, the much-used Tube has been left in a lamentable state on certain lines, with frequent break-downs and rising fare prices.

More information on London Transport can be found at http://www.londontransport.co.uk/.

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