A futuristic all-in-one travel pass that you could use on trains, buses, the tube and even to catch flights, all at the lowest possible price, is the stuff of sci-fi, but will move a step closer to reality when MultiPass is trialled in London and Glasgow next year.

The Technology Strategy Board, the UK government’s innovation arm, has awarded a £1.1m grant to an industry consortium to pilot the new technology, which takes its name from a fictional bit of kit featured in the 1997 science fiction movie The Fifth Element starring Bruce Willis.

But could developments in contactless payment technology risk leaving it looking redundant?

In The Fifth Element, directed by Luc Besson and mainly set in the 23rd century, the MultiPass appears to be a hi-tech ID card that is used, among other things, for space travel – in one of the most quoted scenes, a young woman known as Leeloo, played by Milla Jovovich, flashes her pass as she attempts to board a spaceship. The real-life version would be a single nationwide combined ticket and travelcard with an “e-ink” screen similar to those on many e-readers.

Those behind it claim it is designed to solve two problems: the need to carry, or buy, lots of different cards and tickets for different journeys, and the challenge of negotiating Britain’s byzantine ticketing systems in order to obtain the cheapest fare.

MultiPass could replace a rail season ticket or Oyster card, and you could also use it to pay for car parking and refreshments during the journey. And – because it can display a barcode on its screen – it could even be used for air travel. With government-backed funding, and a consortium which includes players such as train operating company Greater Anglia and the Centre for Transport Studies at Imperial College London, it suggests that unlike some flights of fancy this one just might get off the ground.

The consortium plans to run two pilot schemes during the middle of next year – one involving journeys into London, the other in and around Glasgow – ahead of what they hope will be a full rollout in 2015.

However, millions of Londoners and visitors to the capital are about to get an all-in-one card that will allow them to do many of the same things. Since December 2012, passengers on London’s 8,500 buses have been able to pay using debit and credit cards displaying the contactless symbol, and from “early 2014” they can be used across the capital’s network, including the tube, overground, Docklands Light Railway and trams.

Oyster cards will continue to be accepted, but Transport for London claims that using a contactless card instead will mean no more queuing for tickets, no need to keep topping up your Oyster, and no need for visitors to get a ticket on arrival. Ahead of the launch, TfL will carry out a controlled pilot to test the system and rectify any “operational issues” that rear their head.

However, Jeremy Acklam at London-based company MultiPass, which is leading the consortium, suggests its invention goes several steps further than that. He says it would offer a simple proposition: seamless “best price” travel across Britain.

Some will wonder what the point is of a single travel pass, and may take the view that having to carry and buy different tickets for different types of travel is hardly a major hardship. However, Acklam says people won’t need to think about what ticket to buy – the aim would be that the MultiPass would charge the lowest possible fare for any journey the passenger makes, on any form of transport, with any operator.

“Because we are managing all these different tickets ‘up in the cloud’, we can pretty much guarantee to get you the best price. That’s the big attraction,” he says, adding that one of the reasons for the pilots was to determine customer reaction – “how they like to use it, which bits they find useful”. Several hundred people will be recruited for the pilots, some of them existing season ticket holders.

Tags: buses, trains, uk
Photo Credit: A quiet corridor on the London tube. Jim Bahn / Flickr