End of the line for smart ticketing across the North

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Transport for the North will meet next week to agree the closure of its planned £150m smart ticketing programme after the Department for Transport (DfT) slashed the organisation’s funding.

The regional transport body learned last month that its funding from Government would be much lower than for this year and would not cover the costs of its plans.

This put its smart ticketing ambitions in jeopardy and TfN’s board will now meet next week to approve the closure of its Integrated and Smart Travel (IST) programme.

The programme’s director Jeremy Acklam, who only joined TfN last July, said: “TfN have tried a variety of approaches to DfT to see if even limited funding could be made available for quick wins and we continue to have discussions with DfT’s Acceleration Unit to look at in year opportunities.

“However, as yet, no funding has been secured, and any such funding if agreed would be on much more limited basis.”

TfN had requested £33m for the year ahead to deliver contactless payment on rail, light rail and buses across the North, which it believes would have been “a key element in providing travellers with the confidence to use public transport as we recover from the pandemic”.

The DfT will now use “wider rail reforms” to deliver pay-as-you-go and other ticketing changes.

The IST programme first two phases has delivered smartcards on rail and an open-data-driven approach to using live information to deliver joined-up travel solutions.

But subsequent phases – which were to include contactless, pay-as-you-go travel on rail and supporting local smart ticketing – will not now go ahead.

TfN’s core funding has been slashed to £6m – despite seeking £11.2m for 2021-22 and having been promised £10m this year.

However the DFT has also slashed this year’s £10m to £7m – even though TfN has already incurred five-sixths of the costs. It will need to take £1m from its reserves so it can “manage
through to the end of the financial year”.

The organisation plans to get a further £2m from its reserves to plug some of the gap for next year. It has also received approval from the DfT to move £2.5m costs from its core funding into the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme.

A report co-authored by TfN’s finance director Iain Craven and its interim programme and strategy director Tim Foster said: “Delivery of the core TfN programme requires a significant scaling back of plans compared with the CSR [Comprehensive Spending Review] submission, careful prioritisation of activity and a more efficient use of existing TfN assets.

“This will mean activity stopping or not progressing some planned areas of work; finding more efficient and lower cost ways of working and delivery; and actively managing budgets in year.”

They also warn “the uncertainty created by the funding cuts and the ongoing impact of lockdown continue to impact upon TfN’s month-on-month expenditure.”

It said the uncertainty over its future funding and role has resulted in TfN having around 30 roles vacant.

TfN said it plans to produce a balanced budget – based on £8m funding from the DfT and reserves – to be approved by its board next month.