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The sad state of travel smartcards outside London

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Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester

If you have a spare 10 minutes, and like despairing at your computer screen, read this introductory guide to Greater Manchester’s ‘My Get Me There’ card. ‘My Get Me There’ (yes, that’s what it’s really called) is supposed to be Manchester’s answer to London’s Oyster card. But whereas Oyster is a pervasive and simple presence across all of London’s transport modes, My Get Me There, well, isn’t.

My Get Me There versus Oyster

In London, you can travel by Train, Tram, Underground, Docklands Light Railway, River Bus or Cable Car, and on any of these you can use your Oyster card. Your card may have a weekly, monthly or annual travel card loaded onto it, but if not, there’s a pay-as-you-go balance that you can top up at hundreds of locations across the capital. And you’ll (almost) always pay a lower fare than with a paper ticket, which will also be capped if it would’ve been cheaper to buy a daily or weekly travel card.

In Manchester, My Get Me There works on just the buses and trams. Manchester does of course have trains, but none of the train companies that operate in Greater Manchester accept it. And there’s no pay-as-you-go option. In effect, all My Get Me There does is enable you to load a virtual ticket onto it, provided that you don’t buy it too far in advance. A ticket that would cost the same if issued on paper.

So My Get Me There doesn’t really save you money, and doesn’t offer much convenience over a paper ticket.

De-regulation

What the article doesn’t go into is why such a ludicrous situation has come about. I touched on this a couple of years ago in how London’s buses differ from the rest of the UK. In the 1980s, bus services outside London were de-regulated, such that almost all buses are now run by private companies who set their own fares. London buses remained regulated, and so Transport for London (TfL) sets the fares and routes. When Oyster was introduced in 2004, TfL was able to ensure that it was accepted on every bus, and that Oyster fares would be cheaper than cash. Consequently, Oyster has been a massive success, and now London buses no longer accept cash payments. Instead, you can use Oyster, contactless credit/debit cards, or Apple/Android Pay.

TfL also has more leverage over railway companies. It controls the TfL Rail (soon to be Elizabeth Line) and London Overground franchises, for example. All other London train companies now or will soon accept Oyster, including pay-as-you-go.

In Manchester, TfL’s northern counterpart, Transport for Greater Manchester, only controls ticketing for the Metrolink tram network. So acceptance of My Get Me There cards on buses is by agreement, as far as I am aware. And this doesn’t stretch to the railways, where TfGM has almost no say.

West Yorkshire M-Card

Over here in West Yorkshire, we have the M-CardI get an annual card through work. Compared with My Get Me There and Oyster, it’s somewhere in the middle. You can load daily, weekly or monthly tickets onto a pink M-Card, or buy a yellow annual card (this is what I have). There are also green and blue cards for young people, and a white pay-as-you-go card. All of these are valid on (most) buses, and the pink, yellow and green cards are valid on trains too.

Which sounds good, but it’s worth taking some time to break this down. Firstly, the white pay-as-you-go card is a separate product that can’t be combined with, say, the pink card. So you can’t have a monthly travel card with a pay-as-you-go balance for journeys not covered by the travel card, like you can on Oyster. In this case, you would need two separate cards.

Pay-as-you-go is only available on buses, and not on all operator’s services. And, you’ll pay the same price as you would if purchasing a paper ticket – there’s no financial incentive to use M-Card over cash fares.

Whilst M-Card is better than My Get Me There, it’s still nowhere near as good as Oyster is in London, and I doubt it will ever be. Unless bus services in these areas are re-regulated (something the bus industry is dead against), I don’t think we will see such a successful system as Oyster. Which is a shame; bus usage outside London is falling, and simplified ticketing would be a great way to get people back on board.

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