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Transport and technology: How TfL has evolved over the years

From today, Transport for London (TfL) has announced that a new contactless payment system will be in operation across all London transport services, allowing customers to pay their fare with bank cards, smartphones, or even wearable technology.

While some commuters may be concerned that the news marks the beginning of the end for the Oyster card, transport in the capital has never stood still when it comes to technological improvements.

The world's first underground railway

London Underground, the mode of transport perhaps most associated with these enhancements, celebrated its 150th birthday last year, and lays claim to being the world's first underground railway.

Related: Smart public transport (opens in new tab)

Starting off as a single route between Paddington and Farringdon Street, the "Tube" now covers 270 stations and 11 lines. In 1900, the Central Line was opened and charged a flat rate of two pence between any two stations, giving present-day fare payers another thing to get angry about.

In 1908, the Underground's first electric ticket machine was introduced, suggesting that the recent outcry over the closure of manned ticket offices has been a long time coming.

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Technical innovations were frequent during the tube's early years, with Earl's Court station introducing the first escalator in 1911. Presumably, the station also witnessed the first commuter to lash out in anger at those not standing on the right-hand side.

Other notable enhancements that make the daily commute a bit more bearable include the introduction of automatic doors in 1929 and dot matrix destination indicators in 1983. Perhaps the most overdue addition to the Tube system came in the form of the first air-conditioned, walk through train, which was only launched on the Metropolitan line in 2010.

London's iconic red buses go green

The city's transport innovations, however, have not been restricted to the Underground.

Green technology has been embraced by London's bus network, following the introduction of hybrid buses in 2006. The buses, which reduce carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 40 per cent, are also set to increase in number from the 800 or so currently in service.

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has also introduced wireless charging on the hybrid buses (opens in new tab), alongside the proposal for all single decker vehicles to produce zero carbon emissions.

Articulated or "bendy" buses, which saw use between 2001 and 2011, were perhaps less successful. Aside from widespread rumours that they could burst into flames at any minutes, which lead to them being nicknamed "chariots of fire," they did pose a genuine risk to London's commuters. During the period when they made up five per cent of the capital's fleet, they accounted for an estimated 20 per cent of all bus-related deaths, leading to their eventual replacement.

Related: London buses embrace "Cash on Tap" smartphone payments (opens in new tab)

There has also been a push to get more of the capital's commuters connected, with recent Wi-Fi trials across two London bus routes (opens in new tab) adding to the 144 Underground stations already enjoying online connectivity.

Even crossing the Thames has seen its share of innovation over recent years. The Emirates Air Line (or Thames cable car) opened in 2012 and offers spectacular views of the city, for those willing to brave the 90 metre ascent.

End of the line for Oyster?

However, the biggest technological change, in recent memory at least, to the capital's transport system may now be on the way out.

The introduction of the Oyster card in 2003, across the London transport system, has had a major impact on the way people travel in the capital. Approximately 80 per cent of all journeys are now carried out via Oyster and despite some controversies over unwarranted penalties and minor security issues, the smartcard payment system has largely been a success.

If, as expected, the introduction of a new contactless payment system means the death of the Oyster card, it will simply be the next stage of development for London's transport system.

Getting around in the capital has come a long way since Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his father built the Thames Tunnel back in 1843, and with technology developing at rapid rate, who knows what route London transport is likely to take next?

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with IT Pro Portal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.