Southeastern's 'The Key' fails to deliver flexible smart ticketing

In December Southeastern launched a new smartcard called The Key, with Managing Director David Statham promising “speedy, tap-and-go travel”. Sadly, hopes of Oyster-like flexibility, convenience and value were soon dashed. The Key turns out to be merely a plastic version of your paper season ticket. Moreover, Southeastern has confirmed that it has no plans to introduce day tickets on The Key within its current franchise.

The Key is likely to be most useful to people buying occasional weekly season tickets. Unlike Oyster or Contactless, you cannot simply tap in to travel. Instead, you must first buy a ticket online and then touch in on the ticket barrier reader to “collect” the ticket on the first day of travel. This, of course, assumes that you are travelling from a station with ticket barriers. If you travel from a station without them, such as Paddock Wood or Hildenborough, then you’ll need to queue up with everyone else buying a ticket from the ticket vending machine on the day and “collect” your ticket by placing The Key on a reader attached to the machine. Alternatively, you can buy a weekly or monthly season ticket on The Key directly from the machine, though that again seems to largely defeat the point.

To obtain The Key is necessary to apply for it online. Southeastern has decided that its ticket offices will not deal with The Key. At a recent stakeholder event a Department for Transport spokesman showed a slide featuring a picture of The Key and a comment that smart ticketing was about a “shift away from ticket offices”. One does not need to be overly cynical to suspect that that the scheme is part of a drive to encourage less use of ticket offices and to reduce their opening hours, as is already happening on Southern.

It is possible to transfer a paper season ticket to The Key, again online, provided it is a full price adult ticket with at least one month of validity remaining. The only real benefit of doing so is that tapping in is slightly easier than taking a paper ticket out the ticket wallet and putting it through the barrier. For annual tickets transferred, you should get a paper Gold Record Card to show you are entitled to the normal Gold Card benefits such as a third off off-peak rail tickets across the South East. Unfortunately, one of our members had to call Customer Services three times to get Southeastern to issue a Gold Record Card.

If you want to travel to Redhill station, which is valid on a London season ticket from Tonbridge, you will find that The Key will not open the ticket barriers there, though gateline staff should allegedly have handheld readers which can read The Key. It is however possible to load a Travelcard season on The Key and tap in to use Tube, bus and National Rail services within the zones 1 to 6. There are reports that you may not be able to touch in on a London bus within 3 minutes of touching out at a mainline station, though the reasons for this are unclear.

With so many teething problems and such marginal benefits, there would seem to be no compelling reason to move to The Key. We would, however, be interested to hear from passengers to have done so. In the longer term, the hope must be that some of infrastructure set up will be used to offer wider benefits, such as extending The Key to cover day tickets. As it stands, the scheme seems to be an exceptionally poor use of the £5.5 million of taxpayers’ money apparently paid to Southeastern to implement it. We will be pressing the next franchisee to develop genuinely innovative ticketing solutions, without reducing the availability of the ticket office staff who offer such essential advice and expertise to passengers.