Smartcards Slowcards


I recently tried out the ScotRail smartcard system for buying paperless train tickets. The intent is to make journeying easier, however the actual experience is anything but.

Markinch Train Station at night
Markinch Train Station at night

ScotRail and the quest for Satisfaction

It is no secret to anyone who has used the British rail transportation system in recent times that the overall experience is sub par. I’ve been lucky of late with no frequent cancellations, instead just delays and carriage shortages.

So it’s fair to say that Abellio, the company that currently operates ScotRail have an uphill battle with regards to achieving a high level of customer satisfaction.

One of their tactics to achieve this is to modernise the rail system. In some respects they are doing well (rail line doubling). However in others, they are investing money in solutions to solve problems that don’t exist.

Enter, the Smartcard™

Buying and using paper tickets

Before tearing down the modern innovation, I want to take a moment to remember the “old fashioned” method: the humble paper ticket.

Paper train ticket
The classic National Rail paper ticket

Now note this: Buying and using paper tickets is fast. It’s a near frictionless process. To demonstrate, allow me to walk you through my day on the trains.

  • I enter the ticket office in the morning and exchange brief pleasantries with the ticket salesman.
  • I request my ticket. As it is much the same every day, the ticket salesman is usually requesting my order from the counter by the time I’m finished speaking.
  • I pay with a contactless payment method, which completes in a few seconds, and then I am on my way.

The actual journey using the paper ticket is simple as well. If the train conductor requests to see it, I take the ticket out of my wallet and show it. And at the end of the line, I pass the ticket through the ticket barrier. The transaction for the return journey is much the same.

The process is, in my mind, as streamlined as it could be.

Buying and using paperless smartcard tickets

But could it maybe, just maybe, be more streamlined. With smartcards perhaps? Not really.

Scotrail smartcard
ScotRail “Smart”cards – the graphics are not too terrible, so they’ve got that going for them

The app

Paperless tickets are purchased via the mobile app, and subsequently loaded on to a smartcard.

The app is not pleasant software to use.

  • It hangs if you don’t have a perfect Internet connection
  • It will randomly open up when you are browsing other apps
  • It lets you log in to remember your payment details and smart card number
  • (it doesn’t remember your login details nor your login session)
  • It offers a feature to remember your favourite journeys so you can quickly purchase that ticket
  • (only works on the website)
  • Finding journeys and purchasing tickets in this app is severely un-user-friendly with fancy dials and many screens to go through

Oh, and once you’ve purchased the ticket, you have to wait 4 hours before you can actually load it onto your smartcard. So good luck if you needed to purchase a ticket in a hurry.

Using the smartcard

Once you’ve purchased your ticket though it’s plain sailing (riding?) from then on. Kind of. Not really.

I have found that over a few weeks of use, it seems to take a perceptibly longer time each day to actually load the ticket onto the card.

When the conductor wants to check your ticket to make sure it is valid, there’s a whole other saga to endure. On a printed ticket, the details can be seen at a glance. On a smartcard the conductor needs to whip out a special reader first (they already have a ticket printer & bank card reader, why they need another gadget is beyond my comprehension). Just for giggles, the special reader to read the smartcard… is the conductors smartphone with the app installed on it.

To summarise: at no point is a smartcard ever faster or more convenient than a paper ticket. The website advertising them says “whoosh” but they are not deserving of that word.


Now, I do recognise that there may be some benefits. If you had a season ticket rather than buying a new return every day, you might not want a piece of paper that can easily get wet or rip. In this case perhaps the trade-off is worth your time.

As for the operating company, if they can phase out ticket offices and render associated staff redundant, well, they stand to save quite a few pennies. I’m not sure if that’s much of a benefit to me though.

Why it works elsewhere

Edinburgh tram line
Edinburgh trams have a working smartcard, so it can’t be that difficult

I have seen smartcards work elsewhere with no difficulty. Such as the smartcards used on Edinburgh buses and trams. There, you can load up multiple tickets at once in batches at a travel shop, and you just tap and go when you’re on a bus.

ScotRail could easily have a decent smartcard system, if they would let you load multiple tickets in advance at a ticket office, and clear them off the card if and when you need them.

But the paranoia surrounding tickets is too prohibitive to allow this. For now, it’s easiest to just stick with paper.


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