Suddenly, they're all talking about bringing in smart cards for use on Bristol's public transport. The BBC story is here.
Wonderful! Is it for real.... or is it just more politicking?
Anyone who's recently used Oyster Cards in London, then found themselves on a First Bristol bus, will know it makes sense.
Take the 54A into Bristol from Stockwood (for instance), and you'll find a big part of the journey time is spent stationary, while the driver takes cash and prints tickets for every passenger. Even at stops where few passengers get on, the wait can be extended, as the driver keeps to a slow timetable based on the probability of long stops.
Compare it with the cheaper 57 route, run by Alan Peters' Abus. That one's ticketless, there's a flat fare of £1, so boarding is pretty quick.
Compare either with Oyster in London... well, there's no comparison. Oyster can be used on trams, buses, tubes, and increasingly on the suburban rail network. The day's fares are capped at the price of an all-day network ticket.
The story was first spotted on Kerry McCarthy MP's blog. She mentioned how Labour launched its campaign for something called 'Brunelcard' on Friday morning, during a visit by Transport Minister Paul Clark. Nothing to say what Brunelcard is all about, though. In fact the core of the item was to expose some rather silly LibDem opportunism at slagging off First, not to tell us about Brunelcard at all. There's nothing on the web, nothing in the papers, so we'll wait and see.
Of course, the hype about it being a Labour project was nonsense. In the Green Party we've been proposing it for years (eg in our 2005 recommendations for the Joint Local Transport Plan, and more recently in our current policy summary). The same morning as Labour was launching 'Brunelcard', I'd heard the current LibDem transport portfolio-holder commend much the same thing at a West of England meeting - and in the past I've heard even the Tory transport spokesman backing the same ideas.
I've since caught up with the news that a cross-party committee on the city council gave 'smart card' ticketting its endorsement at its wind-up meeting last Tuesday. The Sustainable Travel Select Committee, chaired by the Greens' Charlie Bolton, included it in its final recommendations to the council.
Even so, the signs are not good. We have an existing scheme that goes part way to doing the same thing... the free bus passes for pensioners. In Bristol, a ticket must still be issued by the driver for each journey, and there's no guarantee that the bill presented to the council by the bus company will be anywhere near accurate. But the cards could be automatically read on the bus, giving much better tracking of their real use, and speeding up the journey. Cambridgeshire, Chester, and the West Midlands are all well on the way to making this happen. Not Bristol, though.
Smart card ticketting (and the faster, more efficient bus service that goes with it) should not be reduced to a party issue. There's something approaching a consensus about it. The potential benefits are huge, and are for everyone (unlike, say, the Rapid Transit, which is essentially for a bunch of North Somerset motorists wanting to get into the city a minute or two quicker). The barriers to progress are not political, they're institutional. There's First's reluctance to take on anything that mean co-operating with other companies (or even its own companies!). There's the lack of any strong West of England commitment to make it work. There seems to be no informed debate about exactly what's technically feasible or desirable.
Can the key players get together to push it forward? We can only hope. And vote, of course.