Ticketing: Pop card’s bright future with the backing of Nexus

Posted: 15 June 2014 | | No comments yet

One of the largest scale implementations of an ITSO-compliant ticketing system is taking place in North East England. Nexus – the Passenger Transport Executive for Tyne and Wear – and part of the newly formed North East Combined Authority and the body which owns, manages and is modernising the Tyne and Wear Metro, is investing £25 million to fit the 34 year-old Metro system’s 60 stations with ITSO smart technology.

New train ticket machine

Smart technology for North East England

This is an exciting time for North East England in terms of smart travel. Nexus, part of the newly-created North East Combined Authority (which sees seven different councils collaborating on economic growth, transport, and skills), is delivering three major and interlinked projects to this end: the installation of smart station infrastructure; the roll-out of the Pop smartcard for commercial smart products; and NESTI – the North East Smart Ticketing Initiative. This is a partnership between the North East Combined Authority and 12 local councils across North East England to create a single smart infrastructure with applications beyond transport for other public services. 

The Pop card

Nexus launched the Pop card in February 2011. This is believed to be the largest scale implementation of a smartcard system using automatic ticket gates in the UK outside of London, and paves the way for new ticket products and sales channels to be introduced. Passengers have the option of uploading their annual and monthly Metro season tickets straight on to a Pop card. Nexus has installed automatic ticket gates at 13 key stations and smartcard validators at all other stations across the Metro system. A future launch in late-2014 will see a new ‘Pay As You Go’ option introduced on to the Pop card, allowing customers to hold a cash balance on a Pop card for travel when and where they want. Metro is believed to be the first in the country to offer a nationally interoperable smartcard system, meaning any ITSO compliant smartcard can be used to carry Metro ticket products, initially the range of weekly Metro passes.

Leading the way in smart travel

North East England already has a single smart infrastructure across an area stretching from Middlesbrough and Darlington in the Tees Valley, through Durham, Tyne and Wear and Northumberland, all the way to the Scottish border. And it will see the first pilot use of a stored travel rights ‘Pay As You Go’ credit as the prelude to the roll-out of a single multi-operator smart product later in the year.

Within Tyne and Wear, the Pop card is already well-established for travel on Metro and the cross-Tyne Shields Ferry service – both owned and managed by Nexus. On Metro, more than 100,000 people are now using smart cards to pay for and make journeys with season tickets, touching in and out at station gates and validators. It is the first railway network outside of the London area to provide a fully operational ITSO smart travel system, including the facility to renew tickets at every station or local retailers.

A pilot project which got underway in April 2014 will lead to the roll-out of a fully commercial ‘Pay As You Go’ product alongside season tickets in late-2014, offering a discount on standard fares and a daily price cap for Metro and Ferry journeys.

As part of the North East Smart Ticketing Initiative (NESTI) agreements have been signed with local operators of all sizes which has channelled investment of more than £1 million to put smartcard readers on to more than 1,000 buses which now communicate with a single HOPS (Host Operator Processing System) for the whole region. Through the NESTI agreement, local bus operators will accept ‘Pay As You Go’ using ITSO Stored Travel Rights (STR). Smartcards bearing the NESTI ‘double smile’ logo, including the Pop card, will be used to carry the ‘Pay As You Go’ product. A separate agreement with Payzone UK means that passengers will be able to top-up smartcards at approximately 500 local shops, serving a population of almost two million across the whole of North East England.

ITSO ticketing compliance

ITSO is the UK Government mandated open specification for interoperable smart ticketing. The specification was developed with the aim of ensuring that public transport operators throughout the UK can develop compatible smart ticketing systems. The ITSO ‘trust model’ ensures that smart ticketing is both fully interoperable and highly secure. In 2010, the UK Government committed to a funding package worth £389 million over 11 years to modernise the Tyne and Wear Metro system. Some of that investment programme was earmarked to transform the ticketing systems on Metro. The need for ITSO compliance was something that Nexus wanted to deliver at the outset, with new hardware to facilitate ticket validation and access control as well as ITSO back office systems being required. A total of 13 key stations were earmarked for automatic ticket gates, with the remaining 47 stations to get smartcard validators. The German-owned global solutions provider Scheidt & Bachmann (S&B) won the contract to supply the technology together with Ecebs who provided the ITSO compliant back office, card management and online ticketing solutions. The contract commenced in 2009 and was for the design, supply, installation, commissioning and bringing into service a complete AFC system.

Infrastructure flexibility

A key deliverable was flexibility in how hardware could be configured for the addition of new smart ticket products while still supporting traditional paper-based ticketing.

To date, a total of 227 Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) have been installed on each of the station platforms. The TVMs offer the latest in touch-screen technology, with passengers having the flexibility to purchase via debit/credit card or cash.

In addition there are 31 Ticket Office Machines (TOMs). These are point-of-sale-terminals which support advance ticket sales and are installed at Nexus nominated locations, including travel shops and other third party outlets accessible to the travelling public. They allow top-up of a purse and uploading of products onto a smartcard.

Automatic Ticket Gates (ATGs) are an essential part of any modern revenue management system. They provide secure entry and exit control within specific and unique Nexus-designed business rules. The ATGs are installed at 13 key Metro stations across the network. For stations without ATGs, S&B have installed ticket validators, 207 in total. These are rugged, stand-alone devices which are fixed to station platforms that allow passengers to effectively ‘tap’ in and out at the start and end of each journey with their smartcard tickets, plus also deducting required fares/fees as required.

The gates, ticketing machines and validators are connected to a centralised control system management and back office facility which is interfaced to Ecebs’ ITSO certified Paragon software.

The CSS consists of Database Server(s), Application Server(s) and Workstation(s). It is the single hub for all data gathering and reporting for the Nexus AFC system. The system is comprised of hardware, various software applications, and networking to assist in the operation and management of the individual devices installed onto the system, plus also detailed monitoring, reporting, system configuration, accounting on a system-wide or device-by-device bases. S&B are also responsible for the on-going support and management of the maintenance of the new AFC system.

Underpinning all of the above, S&B was also commissioned to provide the required infrastructure at each of the 60 stations. This involved a detailed and major piece of civil engineering.

Delivering smart ticketing solutions

Ecebs is a smart technology company based in Scotland specialising in solutions and services within transport, payment and local government sectors. Ecebs’ experience in transport and interoperable ticketing, specifically relating to the UK’s open standard known as ITSO, is extensive. The company supplies the building blocks of the ITSO ecosystem including the ITSO key management system (known as the ISMS) and ISAMs (ITSO Secure Authentication Modules). Ecebs was chosen by Nexus to provide the ITSO compliant back office systems that work together with the S&B systems. Their Paragon range of transport products are deployed in the largest ITSO ticketing schemes in the UK and this suite of smart ticketing software products currently underpin the Nexus smart ticketing deployments for both concessionary and commercial smart ticketing. Tickets can be purchased and delivered via a wide variety of attended or self-service points of sale and this will soon include internet and mobile options.

Russell McCullagh, Managing Director of Ecebs, said: “Nexus is a forward-thinking PTE delivering exciting new services for its customers, the development of public transport into a smart integrated system in the North East is a great example of delivering cheaper, faster transport serving customers over a wide geographical area. We have been working with Nexus since 2009 and our products already support over 850,000 smartcards and up to 150 million journeys each year. Once fully operational, passengers will be able to use their Pop cards on a pay-as-you-go basis or by using a variety of season tickets, and will be able to upload credit onto their smartcard using a variety of methods including their NFC mobile phone, their home computer, at local shops, Nexus travel centres and at Metro stations.”

Improved customer satisfaction

Transitioning from paper to smart tickets can be challenging, however, Ecebs have been assisting with the migration to smart with Nexus customers benefiting from its innovative new NFC-based smart ticket converter app, which converts their existing paper season ticket into a smartcard product. The app connects to Ecebs Paragon software, when product and expiry information from a valid paper ticket is entered it is converted to a smart product by the software system. The Android tablet which uses the app then acts as a terminal, meaning that a Pop card can be held against the tablet and the system will immediately download the converted smart products for the customer. This service is operated by Nexus staff, allowing them to get out from behind their desks and fulfil new smartcard-based season tickets to the travelling public on the platform, on the concourse or while in the ticket office queues. This has led to a more positive experience for the travelling public and provided staff with the tools to give true customer satisfaction.

The latest innovation for Nexus travellers is the recent introduction of ITSO-based smart ticket retailing for the Tyne and Wear Metro thanks to a technology partnership between Payzone UK and Ecebs. This move comes as the use of smartcards on the Metro system increases with 100,000 Pop cards and other smartcards in circulation. Customers can now buy season tickets at 474 different retail outlets across the North East region using their Pop smartcards via Payzone contactless payment terminals. The Metro ticket is uploaded directly on to a Pop card at any Payzone point which have been integrated with Paragon ticketing software. This provides the best elements of retail convenience with smart ticketing expertise for the travelling public and is an historic development for Nexus in the way that we are able to sell smart tickets.

A future launch in late-2014 will see a new pay-as-you-go credit option introduced on to the Pop card, allowing customers to hold a cash balance on a Pop card for travel when and where they want.

In late-2014, Pop card holders will be able to take advantage of new methods of paying for and receiving their travel tickets with the introduction of Paragon ticketing for use with NFC mobile and tablet devices. Pop card holders can use their NFC device to download their smart ticket product directly onto their smartcard simply by holding the card against their phone or tablet. This can also be used to pay for and top-up their pay-as-you-go balance.

A scheme of this size can face a number of challenges. However, previous experience with deployments of this kind meant that a planned, phased approach was taken. The introduction of Paragon software integrated with other suppliers’ technology platforms required detailed defining and running of integration tests early on to mitigate any potential risks to the project. The integration and overall deployment has been successfully completed with an on-going managed service being provided by Ecebs.

The foundation laid by these building blocks has meant this challenging and complex transition from ‘paper to smart’ has positioned Nexus as a leading example of what can be achieved with vision, determination and the right technology partners. The future for the travelling public in North East England is every bit as bright as the Pop cards in their pocket.


Tobyn Hughes is the Deputy Director General of Nexus – the Passenger Transport Executive for Tyne and Wear. Tobyn joined Nexus in 2007 as Head of Strategy, later becoming Director of Customer Services and then Deputy Director General in 2013. Over the last seven years, Tobyn has led customer-focussed teams delivering services to 37 million Metro passengers a year, taken Tyne and Wear’s first ITSO compliant smartcard – the Pop card – from its creation to its wide-scale implementation, and developed a bus strategy that has the potential to transform the way bus services are managed in Tyne and Wear.