Public transport in The Netherlands is set to change forever. In 2006, the current bus and tram card (the “strippenkaart”), will be replaced by a public transport smart card. This smart card will enable the public transport companies to monitor and track the movements of public transport passengers. The new system, which is estimated will cost around one billion Euros, is intended to improve the safety and efficiency of public transport. According to the transport companies, users need have no concerns regarding the protection of their personal data. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the Dutch Data Protection Authority will observe these developments closely.

At the end of March 2003, the five largest public transport companies in The Netherlands (including the Dutch Railways and all the major bus and underground companies) announced that they had commissioned EastWest, a consortium of Accenture, MTRC Corp., Thales and Viales, to develop the new smart card. Together, these five public transport companies carry around 90 percent of public transport passengers.

Two types of smart card are to be provided under the proposed smart card system. The first will be an anonymous electronic ticket that may be purchased for a specific journey. The second will be a personalised card, which allows the public transport companies to have a direct payment relationship with the customer and to make offers to the customer that is matched to the customer’s personal travel profile.

Using their smart cards, customers will be able to pay for public transport electronically. The core of the system will be a central database in which the journeys of the public transport customers holding personalised smart cards are stored. When the customer begins their journey, they must pass their smart card past a so-called “contactless” card reader or “checkpoint” at a station or bus stop. The central database will then record that the owner of the smart card has begun his or her journey. On arriving at their destination, the customer must once again pass their smart card past a contactless card reader as they leave the bus or tram or the train platform.

The smart card system will use global positioning system methodology (“GPS”) to determine the location of each train, bus or tram. When a customer leaves a bus and uses their smart card, the location in question will be stored on the computer onboard the bus. At night the records in the onboard computer will be downloaded to the central database.

The new system provides obvious benefits to the public transport companies. The new smart card system will provide detailed information about transport patterns, enabling the public transport companies to deploy their personnel and vehicles in a more efficient way. Research carried out during the selection procedure for the new system indicates that improved deployment of staff and vehicles can lead to savings of up to 20 percent.

It is also expected that the new system will facilitate the allocation and settlement of costs and revenue between the different public transport companies, as it will provide information regarding which company sold the card and on which specific routes the card was used. This information is not available with regard to the current bus and tram cards. Consequently, the allocation of costs and revenue has to be carried out in a rather imprecise way, namely on the basis of an annual passenger survey.

Enhanced passenger safety is an important argument for the introduction of the smart card, particularly the smart card combined with turnstiles. Without a valid smart card it will become be impossible to get onto the train or bus platform. Troublemakers may thus be kept outside unless they buy a ticket. Moreover, the system should eliminate fare dodging.

However, there is more to the card scheme than described so far. The public transport companies have stated that they want the central database to allow “blacklisting”. The smart cards of known troublemakers would be placed on a blacklist, the owners of the cards denied access to the public transport system. In this respect the system is not completely watertight, as the card will be placed on the blacklist and not the owner. An owner can always buy another non-personal card for a particular journey. Nevertheless, the view of the transport companies is that the system will undoubtedly improve the safety of public transport users.

The public transport companies have not acknowledged any real concerns about privacy. According to their spokesperson, notification of all databases containing personal data will be made to the Dutch Data Protection Authority (“College Bescherming Persoonsgegevens”). The companies do recognise though that there is a risk that the movements of individual public transport customers may be monitored. However, as the companies point out, movements of public transport customers may also be monitored via credit or debit card data. Nonetheless, given the potential threat to individual privacy, the Data Protection Authority has indicated that it will watch the development of the smart card system closely. This is particularly because experience has shown that it is very difficult to repair any “privacy deficiencies” in a system once it is established. The Data Protection Authority has recommended that Privacy Enhancing Technologies (“PETs”) be used, i.e. technological facilities that aim to minimise the amount of identifiable data collected and stored in the system.

The companies intend to introduce the smart card at the beginning of 2004, when the Dutch railway company Nederlandse Spoorwegen will test it between Rotterdam Central and Hoek van Holland. The Rotterdam and Amsterdam underground systems are also likely to have turnstiles and scanners in 2004. By 2006 it is envisaged that the system will be working nationwide.

More information about the new public transport smart card can be found at

This article has been published in World Data Protection Report, (ISSN 1740-5394) Vol. 5 Issue 5 May 2003