Transport for the North ("TfN") aims to digitalise the transport industry in the North. Almost all major transport providers in the North have committed to investment of some kind over the coming years. Customers are set to benefit from new smart-ticketing systems, which allow them to use their tickets electronically without having to queue up at ticket machines. Integrated tickets will also allow customers to use contactless payment technology for multi-modal travel, switching between trains, trams, buses and ferries with relative ease. It is hoped that this coordinated investment will ultimately boost economies across the North.

Such an initiative is congruent with the growing trend of people paying for goods or services by "tapping" their card or mobile devices against a reader. When paying for transport this form of payment needs to come with the added benefit of the "fair price promise", ensuring that the customer pays the cheapest rate available, whilst also benefitting from automatic capping technology which recognises when you have reached daily or weekly thresholds, preventing the customer from paying more than they should.

Progress so far

Smart ticketing technology is already emerging in cities outside of London, with smart cards such as 'Get Me There' in Manchester, 'Pop' in the North East, 'Walrus' in Liverpool, 'Robin Hood PAYG' in Nottingham and 'Swift' in the West Midlands. The new TfN "Integrated and Smart" programme, which plans to further develop such technology in the North, will be rolled out via a 3 stage process:

  1. A national smart-ticketing programme on railways.
  2. Improved customer information services.
  3. Back-office and equipment integration for the use of contactless bank cards.

While the new technology will be welcomed by the majority of public transport users, there are many commentators who have voiced their frustrations over the belated timing. For example, contactless payments on Greater Manchester's trains and buses will not be completely rolled out until 2021. Sympathy can be felt for the commuters of the North when you consider that the Oyster card in London will be celebrating its 15th anniversary in August 2018. To quote John Moorhouse of the watchdog TravelWatch NorthWest: "Whether it's electrification, the quality of our trains, our buses, or this [smart ticketing], we are lagging behind because for too long public transport in the North has not been prioritised."[1]

The disparity in funding between London and the North has been commented on at length. However, funding is not the sole cause of the North's relatively sluggish transport improvements. Transport for London, a single body acting to lead and coordinate transport policy in the Capital, rolled out London's famous Oyster card back in 2003. Oyster's success has been evidenced by its sustained use across an increasingly wide geographical area, however, now even Oyster is becoming old news as passengers tap in and out of the transport system with contactless payment. This joined up approach helps to ease the bureaucratic burden on transport operators who are trying to implement policies and procedures. In the North, various competing transport operators, local authorities and decision makers have often been blamed for restricting progress, as they take longer to reach agreement or compromise on the terms upon which new and innovative technologies should be rolled out.

Potential issues

Introducing contactless payment across a city is especially complex where there are different rates and deals being offered by multiple operators. It requires a joined up approach to transport – which TfN is seeking to coordinate for the region – and agreements to be put in place between the relevant stakeholders, something which our Transport Team has extensive experience in the complexities of.

From a legal perspective, it will also be interesting to see how much of an impact the NIS Directive will have on the future implementation of smart ticketing initiatives. The Directive, which the UK must transpose into domestic legislation by 9 May 2018, requires the adoption by operators of essential services (e.g. train operating companies) of appropriate steps to minimise, manage and report security risks (including cyber attacks).


Progress has been made in the North and contactless smart-ticketing systems will soon be a reality in most major cities. While that progress has at times been frustratingly slow, the work of TfN means that the benefits of these technologies will soon be available to passengers, operators and businesses alike.[2] Improvements such as these will increase connectivity and be an essential part of establishing a truly competitive marketplace in the North.

[1] "Why will it take until 2021 for us to get a proper transport ticket system like they have in London", Charlotte Cox, Manchester Evening News, 3 August 2017.

[2] "Smarter Travel: The future of ticketing", PWC, April 2017,

This article is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice.