Unicard News
A collaborative approach for the future of cEMV
May 7th 2024 by Alex Sbardella

When asked, most passengers would say their preferred choice when paying for public transport is contactless EMV - they can simply tap their bank card and ride, without any need to prepay or set up an app. For example, in 2023 65% of TfL’s journeys were made using cEMV, with around a third of these using Apple Pay or Google Pay. cEMV payments represent an incredible opportunity for streamlining ticketing, whilst safeguarding against fraud and presenting an opportunity to use real insights from the data collected. The convenience of tap and go payments is clearly the path to getting more people embracing public transport – ultimately leading to increased revenue for operators, and fewer cars on the road.

As urban transport becomes increasingly integrated and multi-modal, transport operators and regional authorities should be encouraged to use cEMV to overcome fragmented legacy ticketing infrastructures and meet changing passenger demands. In doing so, travel becomes more convenient, personalised, and efficient whilst offering transit operators the opportunity to increase revenue.

But whilst we are on the cusp of a once-in-a-decade opportunity to introduce the systems that deliver better passenger and operator outcomes, the UK currently lacks the standards and best practices needed for interoperable cEMV. This has already resulted in self-serving practices by suppliers attempting to capitalise on current opportunities without consideration for passengers or industry cooperation across providers.

Through collaboration in procurement and standards, as RDG have done through their consultation for the Tap Converter Service to support regional and national implementations of Pay As You Go for rail, cEMV becomes both more cost-effective and more user-friendly and inclusive, catering to a diverse range of passenger needs. Both vendors and procuring bodies should be seeking a situation where suppliers are free to develop their own solutions and standards, but do so in co-operation with the wider industry, where ideally an independent body oversees the very best interests of everyone involved.

Of course, Project Coral is currently aiming to deliver a single cEMV back office for multi-operator travel for the whole UK. However, trials to date have been very limited in scope, lack broad vendor engagement, and it will doubtless take a very long time to deliver. Passengers deserve cEMV now, and should be able to travel without the complexity of current ticketing systems and fare structures. Plus, Coral is not necessarily designed with local needs in mind, and a large number of schemes want to deliver something more quickly and more in tune with their local requirements than the expected Coral solution will allow them to do. We run the risk of ending up with a de-facto monopoly on cEMV transactions - benefiting that provider financially, but not necessarily delivering a better transport network nationally.

This runs contrary to Unicard’s long experience working with ITSO, where a shared open standard and cooperation between suppliers led to increased interoperability, the delivery of new services such as MaaS, and a vibrant market amongst competitors working together.

Franchising also has the potential to have a major impact on the public transport industry, and may even remove the need for some multi-operator solutions, but this will take time to implement, and will not be evenly or quickly distributed throughout the UK.

"Passengers deserve cEMV now, and should be able to travel without the complexity of current ticketing systems and fare structures."

Alex Sbardella


The proposed introduction of a large centralised multi-operator solution relying overwhelmingly on a transaction-based model risks eliminating the business case for cEMV; with every part of the solution maximising their slice of a restricted fare take, and single operator travel paying a “tax” for multi-operator infrastructure it gets no value from.

Collaboratively scaling cEMV operations allows us to better serve the changing customer expectations of convenience, ease of use and flexibility, plus more focus on supporting services like multi-modal trip planning, live timetabling, location information, and disruption reporting and alerting.

With Unicard’s Ticketing Hub product – currently live with Transport for Wales – we believe in delivering a modular solution where operators can choose from different suppliers for:

  • Payment processing
  • Tokenisation
  • Acquiring
  • Hardware vendors
  • Fares engines

Scheme operators should be enabled to choose the best solution for their requirements, rather than being locked in to vendors only able to provide a “one-size-fits-all” solution.

We also believe that it should not matter what the customer uses to tap in or out, so we support a token-agnostic view of Account Based Ticketing, where the system is able to calculate a fare and charge it to the customer irrespective of whether they are travelling with cEMV, ITSO or barcode.

Data within the system must be owned by the scheme’s operator, the transport authority, and they should be free to access and use that data insight. The operator should oversee imports and exports and control who has access to that data and functionality; that should not be something that the technology provider holds on to and mandates the use of. However, many businesses make their money from being in charge of data, and once again it comes back to their ability to lock systems down and keep them proprietary.

Another type of monopoly exists when it comes to hardware estates in transport, where operators find themselves with hundreds of gates or readers from a single supplier which they are then unable to easily change, restricting the operator’s choices when it comes to pricing and bringing in new technology.

However, with Ticketing Hub we have been able to introduce mixed hardware estates. We provide the ability to keep your existing gates from provider A but also add new gates from provider B which can work alongside. Mixed hardware estates mean better pricing and promotes more collaboration and innovation, plus the option to take an incremental approach to delivery rather than trying to replace hundreds of gates in one go.

With Ticketing Hub, we are committed to:

  • Interoperability
  • Decentralisation
  • Open standards
  • Data sharing
  • Better ownership models

Our commitment to these principles is evident in what we’ve delivered for TfW:

  • By acting as a neutral third-party in deployments Unicard do not favour one supplier over another – our APIs can be published and open, allowing for wider industry support, and better integration in multi-supplier environments
  • Aggregating payment transactions wherever possible, so we minimise acquirer fees for operators
  • Open, published APIs allow us to integrate quickly and easily with validators, fares engines and customer support systems
  • A multi-acquirer solution, directing payment requests as appropriate
  • Multiple validator suppliers, operators and modes in a single transit deployment

Without choice, we cannot encourage competition between suppliers, and monopolies ultimately harm customers. Transport authorities, technology vendors and the wider ecosystems have an incredible opportunity to drive much more integrated customer experiences. They should at all costs avoid being locked in to specific providers as it reduces their ability to innovate, and also the incentive to do so. The advent of open-loop systems has redefined how passengers want to travel, and we should be committed to delivering against these expectations in order to keep the UK at the forefront of delivering multimodal public transport.

For these reasons, we believe Unicard Ticketing Hub is currently the best solution for delivering cEMV ticketing right now, and we challenge the industry, and important stakeholders such as the DfT, to commit to these same principles for the future of ticketing.

  • Alex Sbardella is Commercial and Product Director at leading public transport management solutions provider Unicard, where he leads their ticketing products for over 80 organisations throughout the UK, including Transport for West Midlands, Transport Scotland, Transport for Wales, Transport for London, and Rail Delivery Group. Prior to joining the transport industry, he spent 14 years consulting on innovation, digital transformation, customer experience and futurology for major corporations worldwide.
  • A version of this article appeared as part of Intelligent Transport's Transport’s Bright Horizons Report Series: Ticketing & Payments. The Intelligent Transport report can be downloaded from here.