West Midlands’ smart success

Posted: 20 June 2016 | Chris Lane, Swift Commercial Specialist | No comments yet

Many public transport users in the West Midlands are now travelling smarter with a range of ticketing options thanks to Centro’s ‘Swift’ Card. As Swift Commercial Specialist, Chris Lane, explains, passengers no longer have to delve into their pockets to find the exact change to travel and in giving passengers effective and efficient smartcard ticketing products, patronage has increased and satisfaction improved…

West Midlands’ smart success

For more than two decades West Midlands’ passengers had to rummage around in purses and pockets to find the exact change for bus fares, often paying more or asking others for change. Passengers criticised this ‘exact fare’ policy and non-bus users told us that not knowing the precise fare and the insistence on having the right change was a significant barrier. Further problems occurred on the Midland Metro tram system – conductors gave change but when several customers paid with £20 notes, all the change was quickly used. This was poor customer service and an added risk for conductors to carry so much cash.

We implemented Pay-As-You-Go on practically all buses and the Midland Metro and, whilst it is difficult to compete with cash, we’ve made it easy and convenient. Our products are available online 24/7, with new smartcards being delivered within 24 hours or provided immediately over the counter at our travel centres, as well as many convenience stores.

Passengers can choose to ‘auto top-up’ which means they never run out of money, or, if they want greater control, can buy online and collect at remote readers located at bus stops and stations or by simply using an NFC-enabled Android mobile phone.

Pay-As-You-Go created a step-change in the use of smartcards. When we asked our customers what they thought, the option of buying and topping-up online was a popular response along with being able to share the card with the whole family with many explaining that they increase their daily travel as a result. Furthermore, customers like the auto top-up option, valuing the card as a convenient way to travel and meaning they no longer need to worry about having the right change.

Early research showed that users began to travel more on a daily basis as a result and with discounted fares now available through Swift, customers should remain happy.

We anticipate significant growth for bus and the Midland Metro tram service as passengers find using a smartcard secure and convenient. Having successfully implemented ITSO smartcards for our direct debit customers on rail and with smart products working seamlessly across all modes, we aim to continue to roll-out more products in Swift.

As soon as you embark on the smart ticketing journey there’s no turning back; demand for new and innovative products is relentless.

The challenge is to achieve the balance between delivering the next initiative for the customer or commercial transport operator whilst ensuring a robust and fit-for-purpose smart eco-system which, in a deregulated bus and franchised rail environment, is a real challenge. We achieved continued innovation and product delivery whilst at the same time making fundamental changes and future-proofing our core infrastructure in a period of significant political change.

The West Midlands Combined Authority

The West Midlands Combined Authority is the 12 local authorities and three Local Enterprise Partnerships working together to move powers from Whitehall to the West Midlands and our locally elected politicians, who know this region best. Individual councils will still deliver services and retain their identity but the combined authority will have the resources to work together.

Historically, the West Midlands was known as the workshop of the world. Now our challenge is to create jobs, enhance skills, develop prosperity and drive economic growth. The proposed agreement with government will see it make an annual contribution worth £40 million for 30 years to support an overall investment package that will unlock £8 billion, alongside the creation of up to 500,000 jobs.

A key responsibility is the delivery of public transport. We have a successful track record of working in partnership with transport operators and suppliers, and this helps us ensure everyone benefits from an effective transport system that meets the economic and environmental needs of the region. It also ensures access to jobs, as well as finding innovative ways to help reduce congestion and offering seamless connections for people and goods to home and overseas markets. 


Swift is the brand we have used to build our smart ticketing systems; it is a registered brand and for some time now has been quietly building a reputation for quality. Swift was chosen to not be specific to any organisation or geographic region meaning that it can operate outside the West Midlands without the problem of being politically unacceptable or can be adopted by commercial transport operators without diluting its brand. Swift can easily co-exist with other brands allowing public transport operators to promote their services whilst ensuring that passengers know the card in their hand will work on any bus, tram or train in the West Midlands. 

Free travel

We manage the English Concessionary Travel Scheme in the West Midlands for those at the age of entitlement, for people with disabilities and for children. There are approximately 537,000 current card-holders making 75 million journeys a year. The scheme entitles eligible card-holders to free bus travel in England and is enhanced in the West Midlands to include free rail and Midland Metro travel.

The Department for Transport (DfT) legislated that all elderly persons and eligible disabled people would be entitled to free off-peak (i.e. after 9.30am on a weekday and all other times) bus travel across England from 1 April 2008. Demonstration of eligibility for the free concession was mandated via a new national design of smartcard which was required to meet the ITSO interoperability standard.

A project was put in place to support both the issue of the concessionary cards (more than 400,000, initially) as well as the back-office system including card and customer management. The key element of any smartcard scheme is the HOPS – that is the system that processes all of the smart transactions. Centro met the DfT timescales with operational cards being produced from the recently installed AMS/HOPS. 

Smaller transport operators

In support of delivering English Travel Concessions we established a managed service for small operators which takes the complexities of smart ticketing away from them. Levels of bus operator satisfaction have been ascertained by survey and found to be very high and we now have greater levels of trust with transport operators than we have ever had. This allowed all small operators to participate in concessionary travel and provided the platform for multi-operator smart ticketing, where now some products are only available on smartcards. 

Pay in advance

There is a broad range of multi-operator, multi-modal tickets available in the West Midlands. For all bus multi-operator tickets we are completing the migration of season tickets to smartcard. We are encouraging operators to convert their own ticketing to Swift. In addition, we are operational with what we believe is the country’s first direct debit bus-rail-metro ITSO smart ticket, which requires no paper counterpart, allowing customers to travel freely through the rail gates at West Midlands stations and board any bus or tram. 

New tickets only on Swift

New area segmented season tickets have delivered significant savings for people travelling on multi-bus operator services within Coventry or the Black Country1. These tickets were the first to only be available in ‘smart’ form.

We have encouraged transport operators to innovate and a ticket giving 5, 10 or 15 days of travel on National Express services has been delivered. This is perfect for shift-time workers as they can be used anytime to fit in with irregular travel patterns – these tickets are 20p cheaper (per ticket) than the amount you would pay if buying with cash on the bus. This ticket was the first of its kind in the West Midlands and has proven popular. 


We have a comprehensive Pay-As-You-Go scheme accepted on 23 out of 27 operators within the West Midlands, including our largest, National Express. Passengers no longer need to have the exact change before they travel and most of the operators offer a discount compared to the standard cash fare. We also have enabled an automatic top-up function that can link to customers’ bank accounts and ensures that they never run out of credit.

An excellent on-line retail solution is available where customers can register and top-up. This includes the ability to transfer purchases from an NFC-enabled Android phone directly onto a Swift Card so users can now buy a product whilst waiting for a bus, transfer it to their Swift Card and use it instantly.

There is a wide-ranging retail solution including 250 convenience stores through PayZone and eight Travel Information Centres with plans to be available at over 1,000 locations by the end of 2016. 


For a public body such as Centro, many of the benefits, including increased patronage, mean that private transport operators actually accrue the financial benefit. We do generate a modest income through charging for the use of our shared systems and through a small commission rate on the frameworks we have let.

For the customer, Swift has meant real savings (in some instances up to £124 per year) by switching to new regional products only available on Swift and for Pay-As-You-Go it has meant a discount on cash fares.

Customers have easy access to travel products from the Swift Portal, Centro Travel Information Centres, transport operator shops and from around approximately 1,000 PayZone outlets. This makes public transport more attractive, convenient and a far better experience. A particular benefit for customers in the West Midlands is that smartcards remove the need to have the exact fare, which, for cash, is required on around 80% of buses. The smartcard also brings the benefit of security over cash, as Swift Cards can be replaced at a nominal administrative cost.


It can be very difficult to get smartcards into everyone’s hands, however. The initial strategy has been to move paper-based season ticketing onto smart offering; we also introduced products that are only available on smart. However, for the individuals who use cash we wanted to convert them to Pay-As-You-Go. Therefore, alongside the standard ways to promote smart products such as social media and outdoor, we took the approach to put the products into the hands of customers with credit already loaded on the card; effectively free travel using smartcards. Through this approach we were able to accurately track how successful this promotion was, unlike standard marketing techniques. During the first phase we found that 80% of all the cards issued as part of the promotion were used on buses with over 10% continuing to be used after the free travel had expired.


When we were rolling out new products, contracts for our core systems were coming to an end. We had set ourselves an ambitious target to further develop smarter mobility, journey planning and integrated ticketless travel across the conurbation, in line with ongoing Smart Cities work.

To achieve this, a procurement programme was set up to deliver the following:

  1. Improved customer experience by providing a wide range of easy-to-use and accessible retail channels and self-service facilities offering multi-modal smart ticketing
  2. Customer insight; helping us to know our customers better through a single view of the customer, high levels of automation and streamlined back-office processes
  3. Commercial opportunity for developing innovative technology with partners.

We used the Competitive Dialogue process for the procurement utilising the stages as shown in Figure 2 on page 00.

The dialogue was particularly important allowing us to shape the procurement with the suppliers and to refine it to one that could be practically delivered. We awarded framework for up to 10 years recognising the investment and effort required to set up these types of systems and to develop a partnership way of working with a supplier who would participate in our ongoing innovation of smart ticketing.

As a result of this process we have frameworks that offer improved smartcard services to customers, efficiency through self-service, and reduced operational costs. Each framework:

  • Is offered through a single supplier who may be directly appointed
  • Is open to any public sector or private organisation
  • Runs for up to 10 years.

Take-up and what next

By the end of 2016 all of our adult bus season tickets will be smart. We will continue to introduce products on the rail network and work with partners from other regions as we see Midlands Connected develop. The future will see a lot of momentum to increased use of contactless bank cards and we are currently investigating this. We aim to continue building on the excellent work we were involved in with the UK Cards Association and DfT in setting a standard for the use of contactless in a transit environment.


  1. £126 per annum saved in Coventry and £86 saved in the Black Country. 


Chris Lane has worked in the public transport industry for most of his life and has had the opportunity to deliver significant changes to public transport. In his role at Centro Chris is able to deliver change through people, processes and technology; in particular the application of modern technology and working practices to deliver new and innovative services to passengers. Chris’ background encompasses delivering significant business improvement programmes, implementing innovative ITS and ICT systems, modernising and managing a large data collection team and playing a major role in the successful delivery of Centro’s smartcard and passenger information schemes. Chris is currently leading the refresh of the Smartcard Systems through an innovative procurement approach.

Related cities

Related organisations