There have been a few blogs and articles written in the past year or so regarding Manchester’s erstwhile attempt at Smartcard travel but having now battled with it for around six months, I thought it was high time to share my thoughts. If nothing else I need to for my own sanity…
Firstly, a bit of background. Back in 2007, yes over 10 years ago, trials of the Bolton Citizen Card were apparently that successful that Transport for Greater Manchester thought it would be worth rolling out a Smartcard system to the already-complex Greater Manchester public transport network. In fairness, it actually seemed like a good idea with so many companies operating across the network, both Victoria and Piccadillly Station began to install more and more barriers and ticket prices rose year on year, so getting the most cost effective ticket quickly and easily seemed like a plan.
Unfortunately we should have all seen the signs when the sack-the-marketing-agency levels of clunky “My Get Me There” name for the system was revealed in 2013. There was still a grand plan though, a way to shorten horrendous Travelshop queues and also a way to combat the variety of different companies, all with their own individual ticketing systems and prices that it was possible to encounter on a single, relatively short commute. A case in point, my 425 bus was run at one time by FirstBus during the day and Stagecoach in the evening, meaning I couldn’t get a cheaper First-only ticket, just in case. Anyway, we digress.
Fast forward to 2015 and disaster strikes! It turns out that Atos, the company charged with designing and managing the system are next to useless and can no longer do their job for the money TfGM were giving them. Having already installed smart readers at tram stops, TfGM pressed ahead with using concessionary pass holders as guinea pigs whilst quickly knocking together an app that allowed stop to stop, weekly and monthly tram tickets to be purchased; this might have also been a reaction to Metrolink ticketing machines located at tram stops being notoriously temperamental, but that’s pure speculation, of course.
The app was and is actually pretty good. Although you still officially needed to buy a ticket before boarding, you were now able to jump aboard an approaching tram rather than miss it and quickly buy a stop-to-stop ticket there and then rather than being stuck in a queue on the platform behind doddering dullards fishing through their purses for the right change as numerous trams come and go. Obviously people grumbled when caught by inspectors that they didn’t have any battery left and so couldn’t show their ticket, but that’s the general public, not Metrolink’s fault.
The only downside to all this was that you could only get tram tickets on the app so for me, it wasn’t that useful for my regular bus and tram combi-commute. Fast forward again to 2017. The My Get Me There card is unveiled and upon visiting a Travelshop to buy my normal bus and tram combination monthly pass for £112.50 I was informed I could get a whole Metrolink network card along with my bus pass for only £3 a month more rather than the named stop to named stop one I had currently. This sounded good on non-paper; I took the odd journey to Chorlton or on another tram line so this would save me the extra money in one trip. I could also renew it online each month so I wouldn’t have to visit a Travelshop ever again. Bonus! There must be a catch. Well, yes of course there was. In fact there’s more than one as I’m about to explain.
Firstly, despite my card having full network validity, I am still required to tap onto and off my tram. Not a huge hassle I suppose, but something I didn’t have to do with my paper ticket and an utterly pointless task when I’m not having money taken off me depending on the journey I’ve taken a la Oyster.
Secondly, what happens if the card or a reader fails? I soon found out when a bus driver told me my card was “empty” despite it having another two weeks or so to run. I phoned the Get Me There helpline after this embarrassing incident to be told the best thing to do was to keep my paper receipt with me at all times to prove the card’s validity. Yes, that’s right, keep a piece of paper with a new shiny paperless transport ticket. The mind boggles.
Thirdly, picture the scene. It’s January. The month when you’ve eked out the most cost-effective tickets in December to get you through the odd days you’re working. Remember kids, for no good reason you need to buy your new My Get Me There pass the day before you need it! Okay Dad, I’ll go online and buy it on the 2nd so I can use it on the 3rd. But wait! I’ve bought it, and now it says it will only be valid once tapped on a Metrolink card reader? But I use my card to get the bus to the tram stop where the readers are? What am I to do? Onto customer services again, “that’s something we’re looking at in the future”. How about looking into such a fundamental flaw before launching such an inept system?
Lastly, what happens when it ALL breaks down? Having had my card for about three months, it started being a bit temperamental when tapping in and out at Metrolink card readers. I spoke to customer services again and they could find nothing wrong with the card. I took it to a Travelshop (remember I thought I’d never have to do THAT again) and the woman scanned it and said it was fine. It may well have worked for her on that single occasion but there was no getting through to her that it only worked on about 50% of scans for me. Taking the hit, I asked to transfer my pass to a new card in case the physical item was the issue, and here’s the good bit; to do so would take a week. So, for that week, I’d not be able to use the pass I’d already paid for and would have to buy a separate weekly ticket. What on Earth is “smart” about that? Where do they send these cards to transfer an ELECTRONIC balance, Gibraltar?!?!?!? Obviously, an easy way for Get Me There to get around this would be to keep it all electronic, right? Then I could tap my phone or watch on a reader instead. The apps already live and working after all. No, that would be too easy – the app and the physical card are on two separate systems. You cannot see your card in the app, and you even need a completely separate account to use the app and the card’s top up/renewal website. Whoever dreamt that one up honestly needs taking out the back and putting out of their misery.
And these are just my issues, believe me there are plenty of others. Take the exploiters. I’ve now lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people cue up a ticket on the Get Me There app, getting it all the way into their basket before hovering over “buy” in case of inspectors. Judging by my experiences too, inspectors have no way to scan a physical My Get Me There card for validity either so in theory you could just carry an empty one and wave it in their faces and get away with it time and time again. Oh and did I mention you can’t use it at all on trains? Yeah, that…
To be fair to the staff of the Get Me There/My Get Me There helplines and social media accounts, they are responsive and they do their best, but you can’t help but think they’re battling in similar ways to us commuters. As for the Travelshop staff, they seem so bitter that someone’s taken away their 1980s inkpads, they’ve reverted to computer-says-no levels of idiocy and denial just to make things even worse.
So, what are we left with? A system that doesn’t make sense. A system that was designed in 2007 FOR 2007. A system that leaves Greater Manchester public transport even more disjointed than before, and in a similar state of underfunding and complexity that the card was meant to eliminate. Hopefully there will be improvements, or it might be an idea to scrap it and start again, accepting contactless payments at readers instead. After all that seems to work okay for London, right? Either way, Manchester is a bit of a laughing stock over the whole thing and with 2018 price rises again, it seems only more and more frustrating to those of us having to deal with it day in, day out.