Why Lothian Buses Don’t Use an Oyster Style Pay as you Go System

It often bothers me that to take the bus in Edinburgh, I need to find change to pay for the fare. I almost never carry cash, and coins are even less likely than notes.

I decided to drop them an email asking why this was and if they had any plans to incorporate this functionality. To be honest, I expected to wait a week and then get a 2 line response.

I was very pleasantly surprised to get a thoughtful and comprehensive response within a few hours of sending my email. Very impressed Lothian Buses – jolly good job.

I said:

I’m wondering if you guys have thought about or plan to introduce a pay as you go system for ridacards, similar to the oyster system in London?

As an infrequent bus user, a subscription card is not really worthwhile and I never carry cash, so finding change for the bus is a hassle. Having a cashless system would be very beneficial for me and presumably others in similar positions.

They replied:

Thank you for your email regarding our smartcard system.

You might imagine that our well established Ridacard scheme would put us in good stead for introducing a Pay As You Go (Oyster style) card. Possessing the hardware necessary to produce and electronically read smart-cards is a good start however a great deal of hardware and in particular software development would still be required to provide the infrastructure and customer relationship management systems necessary to support a purse style product. On that point, it’s worth pointing out that unlike Transport for London, who operate in a regulated environment and receive very little of their income from the fare box, we do not have access to the same level of state investment with which the Oyster card was funded. Indeed, a quick check of Tfl’s most recent annual accounts shows that the annual subsidy (i.e. in addition to what they received as payment for fares) for the bus operation alone was £428m. The equivalent subsidy received by Lothian Buses in Edinburgh is NIL.

Another difficulty within our network is the lack of fixed, hardwired terminals with which to “deliver” online top-ups to cards. In London, this task is carried out by the sophisticated ticket gates leading into every underground station but even then, if you are an Oyster customer who travels exclusively by bus you would not be able to top your card up online – a presentation at either a ticket office, agent kiosk or station terminal is required to “load” the top up. The mobile nature of buses makes it difficult to establish a secure and fast connection with which to process the kind of messaging required for “true” online top-up of cards. Though some ticket machine suppliers are making advances in this area with the use of GPRS and cellular data networks, we’re not yet at the point where those systems are proven with an operator of our size or passenger volumes.

Having said that, we are continually researching innovative methods of payment for travel for our customers and are actively engaged in developing our ticketing portfolio. Relatively recently, we replaced our entire on-bus ticketing system as part of the National Transport Application for Concessionary Travel. Every bus operator in Scotland was provided with Electronic Ticket Machines (ETMs) in order to facilitate electronic reading of the National Entitlement Concession cards. Although we have had our own proprietary smart card in place for over decade (indeed, our Ridacard actually predates the Oyster card by a couple of years), our previous ETMs and back office systems which supported Ridacard were very limited in functionality. Our new ETMs are far more advanced than their predecessors and will allow us to explore many new forms of ticketing which our previous equipment simply couldn’t support. Unfortunately, at this stage I can’t say for certain which types of new product we are actively considering, nor am I able to offer any indicative timescales for their introduction.

We do have books of CitySingle pre-paid tickets and also DAYtickets, these can be purchased at one of our Travelshops or online with free P&P at http://lothianbuses.myshopify.com, the Daytickets can also be purchased from the driver for travel on that day

On behalf of Lothian Buses may I thank you for taking the time to contact us.

3 thoughts on “Why Lothian Buses Don’t Use an Oyster Style Pay as you Go System

  1. I never realised how great Edinburgh buses were until I moved away. When I last lived there (2004) you could get a monthly pass for £30 which automatically renewed by direct debit.

    They also introduced contactless smartcard technology years before the Oyster card 🙂

    I’m amazed that London buses are subsidised by as much as £400m each year. I would have thought it should be possible to make a profit with so many passengers. As pointless as it is, that makes the Edinburgh tram system seem quite cheap.

    Many thanks

  2. Just as a very late addendum: Lothian Buses have now launched the CitySmart card, which is a wee bit closer to the spirit of the Oyster card (pre-pay top up), although there is no fare capping. Still, a step in the right direction!

    1. Good find! Love that Lothian Buses do stuff like this when they really don’t need to. We’re lucky to have such a good bus company.

      I also use the mobile ticketing app on my phone which is quite good. Lots of handy options for people that don’t carry cash.

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