Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Un pas avanchi, two steps back…

I have today a guest posting from a correspondent on the Avanchi card which makes some interesting comments:

Un pas avanchi, two steps back…
from a correspondent

Not that long ago Transport for London made a radical change to its policies. In July 2014 it ended cash fares on buses, a practice going back well over a century. Henceforth bus users had to have a contactless payment card, a travel pass or an Oyster card to use the buses.

Concerns were raised – in fact two-thirds of the respondents thought that the time was not yet come for this to happen. But TfL pressed on regardless. To meet the biggest objection - that potentially vulnerable passengers could find themselves stranded if they lacked sufficient funds on their Oyster – TfL introduced a one more journey feature on Oyster cards to ensure that people who don’t have the value of a full fare (£1.45) can still make a journey and then top up their card. They also undertook to review the spread of retailers offering Oyster top-up to see if additional locations were needed, and to ensure the capital’s 24,500 London bus drivers received “refreshed guidance” on how to assist vulnerable passengers travelling without a valid ticket.

TfL insisted that the removal of cash fares “will not affect 99 per cent of bus passengers”, and that “Paying with Oyster or a contactless payment card is not only the cheapest option, but also speeds up boarding times at bus stops and reduces delays. It costs £24 million a year to accept cash on London’s buses and by removing this option we will generate significant savings which, like all of our income, will be reinvested in improvements to the transport network.”

TfL are undoubtedly a large and well-funded operation, and they have invested significantly in Oyster. I can confirm from my own experience that the number of cash fares was very low: I travelled from Shepherd’s Bush to Willesden Junction one Saturday afternoon earlier in the year, and upwards of fifty people got onto that bus. Not one of them paid cash.

I was rather hoping that LibertyBus might emulate TfL, albeit on a much smaller scale – after all, their parent company HCT run buses in London and have experience of Oyster, and part of their pitch for the contract was that they would introduce card payment.
I regret to say that at the moment I can’t see it happening. Avanchi is rapidly becoming a nightmare, and to make it work will require a major rethink, and (I suspect) a fair degree of expenditure.

The problem begins with the most fundamental difference. Oyster is simple: touch your card to the reader and it deducts the fare. Because the fare is a flat rate, that is all the interaction you need – so as TfL say, it is quicker to use.

The pay-as-you-go Avanchi is not simple. You place the card on the reader, the driver selects the fare (assuming he knows where the stop is!), and the machine issues a ticket. The touchscreen ticket machines are not easy to operate, and the process is slower than issuing a cash fare ticket. A little observation suggests that tickets for cash take about 3-4 seconds to issue, but tickets for Avanchi cards take about 8-9 seconds. Four to six seconds multiplied by ten passengers is 40-60 seconds added to journey time – and that assumes that the ticket is issued correctly. But if the ticket is issued incorrectly, it takes around 30-40 seconds to issue a corrected ticket – and that, in terms of getting on a bus, is eternity. (Though the drivers have now, I think, got used to the fact that the card has to go on the reader before they issue the ticket - you could get a free ride if they were too quick)

LibertyBus have recognised that in the case of the 15 route, most especially at evening peak time, this cannot be sustained without breaking the timetable. Their solution is to have a member of staff on the pavement with an Avanchi machine jury-rigged on a trolley to issue tickets before passengers get on the bus. Last night (26 August) the pavement machine broke down. All passengers who got on at Liberation got a free ride west, the driver being instructed to make the system understand that there were about 70 people on the bus.

Now this is truly revealing. What this seems to show is that the value of collecting fares on the bus is now secondary to the value of collecting (or fudging) data. That data is undoubtedly valuable isn’t at issue – a clear indicator of how many people are getting on the bus and where gives you a head start in route planning. Or it would if the route management software worked and the place of issue matched the stop location (and anecdotal evidence suggests that the data is wrong about one time in four).

But there is a secondary problem with Avanchi. TfL set Oyster up so that it can be registered to a user (indeed, any user who wants to load on anything more than a monthly pass has to prove identity), but it doesn’t have to be – visitor Oyster cards are anonymous. All cards also only retain eight weeks worth of transactions specifically associated to the card: after that they just become anonymous statistical data. To get a PAYG Avanchi you have to register, the card has your name on it, and I for one have no idea of how long the log of transactions is kept. This, I would argue, should be covered by Data Protection (after all, LibertyBus are contractors appointed by TTS), and I would very much like to know what processing is being done with it.

What else? Well, there’s the fact that there is really only one place to top up Avanchi – Liberation Station. LibertyBus will claim an online top-up facility exists, but the fact that it takes up to 48 hours to be added to the card (where the bus station machine works instantaneously) is indicative of the mess that has been made of this.

What needs to happen? Well, the very simple answer is that Avanchi should be ticketless (like Oyster), and the easiest way to implement that is to abolish the two fare bands and implement a flat fare – say £1 anywhere. If (as the experience on 26 August seems to indicate) the cost of collecting fares is less than the value of the data, fares could be set at any level the States is prepared to underwrite. Result: customers get on buses faster, buses run to time better, more satisfied customers, more users…

Sadly, the really disappointing thing is that LibertyBus have done one thing exactly right. They know their market: they are quite aware of the tendency of Jersey people to spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar, and that most people won’t complain about a badly-implemented system if they get 10p off the fare for every journey!

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