I’m now the owner of two smartcards for travel, pictured above.
On the left is my Oyster card. I don’t live in London, and generally only visit once or twice each year, but it’s cheaper to travel with an Oyster card than to pay cash. I keep it topped up, and just use the pay-as-you-go balance when I’m visiting. Whilst nowadays contactless bank cards can be used in place of Oyster cards across London, my bank hasn’t given me one yet, and as London buses no longer accept cash it’s almost a necessity.
I’ve had an Oyster card since around 2005, although this specific card is quite new as I managed to lose my previous one, again.
The other card is my MCard, which is also new and is the card I use every day for commuting to work. West Yorkshire has been somewhat behind, when compared to London, at rolling out smartcards – the MCard only began rolling out last year. It replaces the paper MetroCards that have been used up until now. Usefully it will open the ticket barriers at Leeds and Bradford Interchange stations so I don’t have to queue to be let through with my paper card as before.
The two cards are quite different. My MCard has my photo on the other side – presumably because it’s an annual card. But they also use different systems. Oyster uses MIFARE, a proprietary system first made available in 1994. MCard uses ITSO, which is an open specification, so it can be used with equipment from a variety of different manufacturers. Almost all travel smartcards, barring Oyster, use ITSO, including the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme which provides free bus travel to retirees and disabled people.
Each area has its own brand of ITSO smartcard with MCard being the name used in West Yorkshire, by Metro. For example, in Greater Manchester, the cards are known as ‘getmethere’, ‘Walrus’ on Merseyside and ‘TravelMaster’ in South Yorkshire. There are also some national schemes run by operators – ‘The Key’ is branded by the Go-Ahead Group and used on its buses on the south coast, Oxford and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as well as its rail services (Southern, London Midland, and presumably Thameslink and Great Northern).
However, all of these ITSO systems should be interoperable with each other. So I could, at least in theory, add a season ticket for London Midland to my MCard, in addition to the existing West Yorkshire Zones 2-5 season ticket that’s already on there. In reality, having a card from a different area may confuse human ticket inspectors.
As far as I am aware, all of the Oyster card readers in London can also read ITSO cards so it could be that the current MIFARE-based cards are eventually discontinued. That would mean that all cards use the same standard. Transport for London seems more keen on contactless cards, but as these can’t hold season tickets, and are only available to those with bank accounts, I imagine that the Oyster card is here to stay.