Smart-card ticketing goes Underground

Smart cards using radio frequency ID chips have begun mass trials on London Underground in preparation for a consumer launch next year

The London Underground has begun rolling out a smart-card ticketing system in what is billed as a major new showcase of contactless smart-card technology in Europe.

This month 80,000 of the cards were issued to staff of London Underground and Transport for London under the "Oyster" smart-card programme, a £1.2bn, 17-year project intended to ultimately replace current ticketing systems. TranSys, a consortium of companies led by Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and Cubic Transportation Systems (CTS), designed the system and has so far outfitted 6,000 buses and 255 Tube stations to use the cards.

The smart cards are manufactured by Giesecke & Devrient and SchlumbergerSema using MiFare chips from Philips Semiconductors.

London mayor Ken Livingstone said that the trial was aimed at ironing out any remaining bugs in the system ahead of introducing the smart cards to consumers beginning in the spring. The trial was originally set to begin in August.

"From next year, the travelling public can look forward to less queuing to buy tickets and faster movement through ticket gates and onto buses," he said in a statement. "This new technology will play an important part in modernising London's transport."

Smart cards have been introduced in areas as diverse as e-wallets, set-top boxes and public telephones, but have only caught on in a few niche areas. Philips said it sees London as a European testing ground for its MiFare chips, which are already being used in the public transportation systems of Moscow, Beijing, Seoul and Ankara, among others.

Similar projects have begun rolling out in several continental European cities, with Parisian holders of annual season tickets getting the "Navigo" smart card beginning last October.

Philips said it has shipped 250 million MiFare units worldwide, and about two million to Giesecke & Devrient and SchlumbergerSema.

The MiFare chip includes 1KB of EEPROM memory storing travel details, and communicates with a device in the ticket gate via radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, meaning that passengers need only to pass the card near the access point instead of inserting it into a machine before going through the entry or exit gates. Philips said that a security algorithm built into the chip makes it more difficult to replicate than magnetic-stripe cards.

Like the smart-card systems in Paris and Brussels, Philips' chip is compliant with the international ISO 14443 standard for contactless smart cards.

Commuters using Oyster cards will be able to store their season ticket information on the card, or be able to buy individual trips under a programme called PrePay. Monthly and annual season tickets will be introduced to the public first. The cards will ultimately work across London's transportation network, including trams, Docklands Light Railway, buses and the Tube.

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