iLink – a new era in smartcard technology for Northern Ireland

Posted: 22 December 2009 | Catherine Mason, Group Chief Executive, Translink | No comments yet

Translink is the main provider of public transport in Northern Ireland incorporating Metro, NI Railways and Ulsterbus services. Our success is clearest in the growing numbers of passengers travelling on our bus and train services. Over 80 million passenger journeys per year are now made with Translink – a rise of more than eight million in the last four years alone.

Children using iLink cards on bus

Translink aims to provide integrated travel solutions that are attractive, sustainable and good value. We recognise that our bus and rail services enrich the economy, the environment and the life of the community in a sustainable fashion through innovation, service quality and value for money.

Innovative ticketing solutions with a focus on integration, flexibility and convenience play an important role in attracting more passengers onboard our services. In Autumn 2009, we launched iLink – Northern Ireland’s first commercial integrated bus and rail smartcard representing a major step forward in delivering integrated travel solutions for our customers. iLink is the latest development in our long-running strategy to offer innovative smartcard technology that will help deliver more attractive services for our customers.

Translink smartcard products

Translink differs from most other public transport providers in that it not only operates bus and rail services in Northern Ireland but also performs all administration, maintenance and management of smartcards and ticketing systems. Translink first introduced smartcard travel products in the form of concessionary Smartpasses in May 2002. Now, both concessionary Smartpasses and commercial Smartlink cards are used by our customers on all of our bus and rail services and have proved extremely popular.

The Northern Ireland Concessionary Fares Scheme is funded by the government’s Department for Regional Development (DRD) and managed and administered on their behalf by Translink. Over 10 million journeys currently are made on concessionary schemes cards each year in Northern Ireland.

Catherine Mason and Antoinette McKeown launch iLink

Catherine Mason, Group Chief Executive for Translink (left), was joined by Chief Executive of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, Antoinette McKeown, to launch the new iLink Smartcard

The first free concessionary Smartpass card types to be introduced in 2002 included: Senior (65+) Smartpass, Blind Smartpass and War Pensioner Smartpass. Later additions included: four new categories of half-fare Smartpasses in 2004 covering passengers with a range of disabilities; introduction of the Republic of Ireland Senior Smartpass in 2007 permitting senior residents of Republic of Ireland to travel free on Translink services within Northern Ireland; and in 2008, free travel was extended to 60-64 year olds within Northern Ireland with the introduction of a 60+ Smartpass. In conjunction with the Northern Ireland government’s Department for Regional Development, Translink currently provides nine different concessionary schemes and card types with over 300,000 live photo-personalised Smartpasses currently in use.

A further 6.5 million journeys are made each year on Translink’s selection of commercial smartcards, branded ‘Smartlink’, which were also first introduced in 2002. This portfolio includes a range of discounted zonal and distance-based multi-journey and period travel Smartlink products for all bus services throughout Northern Ireland.

The multi-journey Smartlink products allow the user to purchase between five and 40 journeys, in multiples of five, at a time. All journeys topped up on a Smartlink card last for 12 months. Each time the user places their card on the driver’s ticket machine, one journey is deducted from the card and the customer receives a ticket receipt advising how far they can travel.

Period travel Smartlink cards allow the user to top-up with one day, one week or one month’s travel to be used for unlimited journeys within a zone.

We are using our Smartlink card products to provide the best value for money travel option for customers by providing the highest level of discount to encourage more people away from cash fares and onto smartcards in order to improve boarding times, offer better convenience, increase safety and remove cash from buses.

Smartcard technology

ESP Systex has been Translink’s supplier of the concessionary Smartpass bureau service and associated card management since 2002. As each photo-personalised Smartpass has an electronic expiry date of five years, Translink and the DRD have reissued over 115,000 passes to date to customers who received cards originally back when the Smartpass scheme was first introduced.

Smartpasses and Smartlink cards are electronically read on Parkeon Wayfarer-supplied bus and rail ticketing equipment, including: bus ETMs, office and agent-based POS machines, portable hand-held ticket machines and rail platform validators.

All non-personalised Smartlink cards are produced by Burrall Infosmart and all Translink smartcards are Wayfarer proprietary format (not ITSO).

iLink – integrated smartcard technology

iLink in use

iLink in use

iLink is the latest Translink smartcard developed with more sophisticated technology and is ideal for customers who use both bus and train services or make cross-zonal journeys regularly. The iLink card can be purchased for unlimited day, weekly or monthly travel on Metro, NI Railways and Ulsterbus services within three specified zones covering all of Northern Ireland.

It is available for both adults and children (5-16 years) and has been designed with a focus on passenger ease of use. iLink cards complement rather than replace Translink’s existing suite of commercial smartcard products.

iLink customer benefits

With integration, flexibility and convenience at the forefront of iLink’s development, customers can enjoy a range of benefits, including:

  • No restrictions on the number of journeys you can make within the zone you have purchased
  • More convenient, safer, cash-free way to travel
  • Speeds up boarding times on buses making overall journey times faster for everyone
  • More flexible – iLink cards can be passed to other family members or friends if they are travelling at a different time within the same zone. It also allows the customer the flexibility to select the product which best suits their travelling pattern and be charged an appropriate price
  • If a card is lost or stolen it can be ‘hotlisted’ (electronically deactivated) to prevent anyone else from using it fraudulently

Using iLink

iLink is initially purchased at a set charge of £1.50 with an online purchase facility also available. There are three types of card depending on the customer’s preferred zone(s) of travel with a ‘Zone 3 card’ covering travel across all of Northern Ireland. Customers can easily decide on their zonal requirements using an easy-to-read Translink zone map. Validity of each period of travel commences from the first time the card is used on bus or train.

Each card can be topped-up for unlimited day, week or monthly travel on Metro, NI Railways and Ulsterbus services at:

  • Any Translink bus or rail station ticket office
  • Any of Translink’s 80 designated agents in the Greater Belfast Area
  • Both airports in Belfast
  • On-bus and on-train (day and weekly top-ups only)
iLink is ideal for customers using buses and train services

iLink is the latest smartcard developed with more sophisticated technology and is ideal for customers who use both bus and train services

On the bus, customers simply place their iLink card to the target of the ticket machine reader. When the card reads successfully, the machine bleeps once and shows a green light. Bus passengers are issued with a paper ticket showing their boarding stage, limit of travel on that route and expiry date of their card.

On the train, customers simply hand the card to the conductor who will validate it with no ticket receipt produced. Translink iLink platform validators are located at main stations along the NI Railways network to help facilitate each leg of the customer’s journey as they pass through the ticket barrier.

iLink project delivery

Translink undertook a huge exercise to allocate the correct iLink zone to every bus fare stage and every rail station in Northern Ireland. The iLink card is encoded with the correct zonal reference at the time of card issue. Each time the card is validated, the reference on the card is compared to the boarding stage and also calculates the alighting stage (i.e. furthest point within that zone.)

Translink provided all software specifications, administered the necessary fares and ticket type configuration changes, carried out all software testing, produced all marketing literature and advertising, trained all operational and systems support staff and project managed delivery on a day-to-day basis.

Parkeon Wayfarer developed the necessary software for ETM, POS, Hand-held and Platform Validator ticketing equipment as well as the associated back office software for reporting.

Payne Security produced the non-personalised Adult and Child iLink cards for sale to Translink customers.

iLink employee training

A comprehensive training programme was rolled out to ensure employees were fully informed and familiar with iLink, including:

  • Bus ETM Training: Driving Instructors trained by Ticketing Systems Department Managers provided training sessions for all Translink bus drivers
  • Hand-held ticket machine training: Rail Customer Service Instructors trained all NI Railways conductors and hand-held operators. This was the first time that commercial Smartcards had been issued and topped-up on rail ticket machines
  • Bus and Rail POS ticket machine training: Ticketing Systems Department Managers trained all bus and rail ticket office employees on how to issue and top-up cards, ensuring that the correct version is sold for the correct zone
  • A simple but comprehensive employee guide booklet was produced to assist with the training programme for all bus and rail operational employees
  • Translink’s Contact Centre and Ticketing Systems Department staff also received iLink training to ensure they could deal effectively with customer telephone enquiries

Future developments

iLink is just one example within Translink’s innovative ticketing development programme to offer passengers with convenient cash-free value-for-money travel solutions. Since the launch in early Autumn, we have been encouraged by customer interest and uptake in iLink and look forward to building on its success to develop even more attractive smartcard technology.

In 2010, Translink will launch a new ‘TaxSmart’ card under the HMRC Salary Sacrifice Scheme for employers and their workforce. TaxSmart will give significant Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions savings on annual bus travel to bus users who join the scheme. All TaxSmart cards will be photo-personalised smartcards to allow the card holder to travel mainly to and from their workplace.

Smartcard technology development is an important part of our strategy to successfully meet the needs of our customers and adapt to rapid changes in the environment in which we operate. We remain focused on innovation across all programmes of work including ticketing solutions to help ensure we offer our customers better convenience and flexibility, maximise value for money, improve efficiency levels and provide attractive journey choices.

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