Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Oyster Card is a mess

For those cursed (or maybe blessed?) not to live in London, one of the phenomenons of recent times is the introduction of Transport for London's Oyster Card, a piece of plastic that travellers can touch in and out on when commencing public transport journeys and the computers will either allow the traveller through if they have a travelcard season ticket on the card or will deduct money from a "prepay" balance on the user's account. TfL describe Oyster as:

The smarter, faster, easier way to travel around London.
Except it's frequently not at all smart, faster or easy and for some the Oyster is a minefield to comprehend.

A lot of the problems stem from National Rail not supporting Oyster, but it doesn't help when National Rail and TfL seem to constantly blame each other for this state of affairs. Furthermore TfL has run a very confused advertising campaign and given appalling training to frontline staff that make it very hard for passengers to understand some of the nuances.

The "General Information" on the TfL website is full of confusions so let's look at some of the more bizarre ones:

How do I use Oyster?

Tube and National Rail stations
Always touch it on a card reader at the beginning and end of your journey, even if the gates are open.
I am still waiting for someone to show me where the card reader is at Forest Gate railway station! What am I supposed to touch the card on at the beginning and ending of my journeys there?!

You only need to touch in and touch out when using Oyster to pay as you go.
But if one is using the PrePay extension facility on the travelcard (more on this below) one isn't actually using pay as you go when touching in, just out.

Which tickets are available on Oyster?
You can put your Travelcard or Bus Pass season ticket on it, add travel value (cash) to pay as you go, or have a combination of both.
Except that you can't put a one day travelcard on the Oystercard. And the "combination of both" requires the user to do things contrary to the advertising.

What is daily price capping?
This is the most you'll pay a day when using Oyster to pay as you go on Tube, DLR, bus, tram and some National Rail services (PDF 856KB) in Zones 1-6. You are charged the appropriate Oyster fare for each single journey you make. If you make several journeys on the same day, once the total cost of these journeys reaches a cap, any further journeys you make that day will be free, unless you travel beyond the zone(s) covered by your original cap.

The capping rates are dependent on when you travel, the zones you travel in, the transport modes you use and any season ticket you have on your Oyster card. If you intend to use National Rail services, a Day Travelcard may suit you better.
We now reach the big problem. The price capping scheme is sold as a way to prevent the traveller buying more than they actually need, and to allow them to travel wherever they like without having to plan in advance. But without National Rail the scheme does require travellers to plan in advance and sometimes pay more than they actually need.

Lowest fare promise
During any 24-hour period from 0430 to 0430 the following day, you will never pay more than 50p less than the equivalent Day Travelcard price for all your Oyster single journeys in Zones 1-6 or we will refund the difference.
But there is no such "equivalent Day Travelcard price" - what you get if you pay 50p more is a Day Travelcard covering National Rail as well. 50p is a pathetic discount, especially as many of the individual tube fares have had the non Oyster fares increased by £2.00 to encourage people onto Oyster.

And there's very little about the extension service for travelcard users. The idea is that if someone has a travelcard loaded onto Oyster (a season ticket only; TfL doesn't seem able to grasp that a one day travelcard could just as easily work on this) and wishes to travel beyond the zones covered by this, then the barriers at the end/return start of their journey will deduct the fare from the zone boundary where their season ticket validity ends. It's a good idea in theory, but one of the annoying pieces of small print is that it requires the travelcard holder to touch in at the start/end of their journey as well - and many do not, especially those starting from National Rail stations where there are no barriers to touch in and out at. The posters at these stations making it clear that "PrePay is not available from this station" reinforce the concept in the traveller's mind that they are not PrePay users until they reach the relevant zone boundary, and so they do not touch in on the "PrePay Users only" readers on some tube platforms. There are also some National Rail services that accept Oyster for historic reasons, such as Liverpool Street to Stratford. Someone with a Zones 2-6 travelcard on Oyster could in theory travel from a railway station like Forest Gate to Liverpool Street and back and seek to get an extension for the Zone 1 part of the journey, only to get fined because they haven't touched in/out at Forest Gate, where there are no readers for them to do so!

There is so much that confuses and conficts on Oyster that it does not surprise me that so many cannot understand it. Newsgroups and discussion boards are full of people trying to comprehend the more subtle features and work out what to do to avoid getting unnecessary fines. Why didn't TfL use its muscle to either force National Rail to support the system in full (which would solve a good half of the problems), rather than create a mess and then so badly advertise it they got taken to the cleaners by the Advertising Standards Authority?

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