Ah, yes. Tokens. I remember them. A couple of comments yesterday aroused fond memories of coloured plastic or shaped silver metal as issued by local transport authorities to older people and redeemed on the bus in lieu of cash. Yes, they worked… but did they work *well*?
So, why give them up, only to be replaced by smartcard technology that relies on complicated algorithms, a steady vehicle electrical supply, corruptible computer technology and an electronic ticket machine on the bus that might scramble at any moment. One good reason, of course. National policy.
Smartcards may have their downside and they may not be quite as robust as we all like to think. But tokens were never much of an answer, if we’re honest. Their genesis came from the age of the tram, when tram operators were trying to fill off-peak capacity allied to when municipals wanted trams to consume the electricity supply in which they’d heavily invested. Not perfect arguments for tokens and I doubt anyone would re-invent them today.
The main downsides to tokens were:
- They were open to fraud. Car driving older people would pass them off to some driver, taxi proprietor or even shopkeeper for various rates of returns, notably half their value. To those not needing them, they were seen as a perk. The driver would then cash the lot in and make a few bob. It was a universal benefit and easily exchanged for ready cash.
- Some people who didn’t use them would horde them instead. When the person moved, say, to a nursing home or perhaps died, relatives would unearth piles of unopened bags of tokens (and, often, would then try to palm them off through a friendly driver).
- Tokens used to run out. Everyone in a district got the same amount regardless of (a) need, (b) how often they used the bus or (c) the distances, relating to higher fares paid, that they travelled. They weren’t targeted to those who really needed them.
- The benefit was never universal. People in one district had a different allocation to another. Some benefited from half fare. Others got nothing. This was again highly inequitable.
- They were usually administered by treasurers who only saw the cost of the tokens and not their value. Some were trying their hardest to drop their schemes quicker than a burning potato.
- They needed counting, sorting, bagging and redeeming, usually via National Transport Tokens, with its margins.
- There was no easy method for an operator of understanding usage.
And the positives? They were easily understood by both customers & drivers. They could be used before 0930. And they ensured the LTA knew its budget: there was no variation according to usage, fares or honeypots.