Over the years many bus operators have trialled exact fare services. The premise is straightforward enough: passengers who wish to pay cash to travel do so using the correct fare for their journey. They drop this into a ‘hopper’ and a printed ticket then presents itself, which the passenger takes and retains for their journey.
Operators cite reduced dwell times and better punctuality as a consequence of exact fares, as passengers tend to better research their fare and ensure this is then paid exactly. Problems occur for those who do not – be they infrequent users or tourists – as this causes delays and can see a passenger have to part with more cash for their fare than they need to, which often results in resentment.
Are exact fare services more acceptable today than, say, 10 years ago?
Two prominent bus operators continue to offer exact fare services. Lothian Buses and Nottingham City Transport. Both operators have a multitude of goblets, trinkets and silverware in their respective trophy cabinets. They are seen as progressive, forward-thinking, environmentally conscious operators, who commit large sums of money into ‘green’ travel and to offer a genuine alternative to the car.
Neither operator appears to be adversely affected by their exact fare policy. There are exceptions within each operator, where certain services/brands permit change to be offered, but on the whole these operators are wholesale purveyors of ‘exact-fare only, please!’ bus services.
How do they both manage to pull off something that their competitors have often used against them?
Publicity by First in years gone by (competing with Lothian) showed how their buses were ‘more convenient’ as they offered change, while Trent Barton (competing with Nottingham City Transport) makes very clear in its publicity that its drivers offer change.
Both Lothian Buses and Nottingham City Transport provide high-frequency urban services and carrying millions of passengers a year. They benefit from economies of scale that other operators do not and can therefore afford to offer very competitive bus fares. Their range of tickets is reduced compared to other operators locally, with singles and day tickets being the staple diet.
Those travelling regularly over longer periods of time can benefit from week, month, quarterly and even annual tickets, affording their holders unlimited hop-on, hop-off travel for extended periods.
This they do with no need to offer an exact fare to the driver.
Both operators are keen to offer and maintain travel shops – Lothian Buses especially, who has many dotted in and around Edinburgh. Sales of unlimited travel tickets are high here, where staff can offer further assistance and information, not to mention those lesser-spotted timetables and network route maps. Not everyone has access to the Internet or, indeed, wants to have to print out their own timetables at home!
Nottingham City Transport’s Easyrider ticket, once purchased, can then be topped-up by direct debit. The holder need worry no more about ensuring they have sufficient credit loaded onto the card, provided they have sufficient funds in their linked account.
These travel options, along with the use of the Scottish/English National Concessionary Travel Pass (‘free over-60s bus pass’) has seen a marked reduction in the number of passengers actually needing to pay cash. What few fall into this category are catered for with simplistically-priced single and day fares, generally seeing their cost being to the nearest pound.
In years to come and with the advent of technology (which is already with us, though not yet used widely on public transport due to ‘back office’ issues) passengers will be able to pay by debit or credit card as they board. They would have no need to link their card to an operator’s specific brand of travel card; they could also benefit if travelling in a progressive local authority’s area by using the same card for multi-mode journeys that are automatically capped, as TfL has succeeded in achieving in London.
There will always be a place in society for cash. There will always be a need – latent or otherwise – to pay by cash to travel on public transport. This is something bus operators readily accept and indeed have to offer.
Lothian Buses and Nottingham City Transport, through historic decisions made concerning the type of cash collection method they wanted to employ, have effectively been ahead of the curve when it comes to offering alternative payment methods to cash. They’ve had to be to prevent damage to their carefully cultivated brands. Other operators are playing catch-up.
Not all operators are as enamoured with exact fare systems, however. When Go-Ahead Group’s Go South Coast bought Thamesdown from the local authority in Swindon, it chose to end that operator’s association with exact fares in spring 2017. Go South Coast said they felt passengers would let its buses go by and flag down a competitor’s for the convenience of being able to receive change.
You may wonder how some bus operators are legally able to not offer change, yet as consumers we are never told when purchasing an item from a brand of WH Smith, for example, that their cashier is no longer permitted to give change.
The answer is that change does not have to be offered if, at the time of purchase, credit does not exist.
What does this mean exactly? In Tesco, we pay for our goods at a check out. This is seen as the consumer being in credit since we have acquired the items in our basket or trolley as we’ve perused the aisles and will pay for them later. Bus travel is of course not like that. Payment is made before travel is undertaken, ergo credit does not exist.
Technicalities aside, not offering change is no longer seen as a negativity on the same scale as years gone by. The ever-changing payment methods has ensured that fewer and fewer passengers pay cash, and those that do now have a more simplified fares and ticket structure from which to choose. Add in all those travelling free with an over-60s bus pass and the chances of Nottingham and Lothian opting to ditch their exact fare systems is more unlikely than ever.