Oyster PAYG arrives with London’s great train robbery

UPDATE – 2 JANUARY 2010: Have you come here from greenwich.co.uk or Andrew Gilligan’s Telegraph blog? If you do, you might want to take a look at this piece I’ve done on his criticisms, and the other things I’ve done on Oyster.

So, it’s finally happening. Six-and-a-half long years after it was first introduced on the Tube and buses, Oyster pay-as-you-go will be introduced on London’s National Rail routes from 2 January, it was confirmed on Monday. Two cheers – as mayor Boris Johnson quite rightly said, “After what feels like eons of negotiation and much gnashing of Londoners’ teeth we can finally announce the Oysterisation of all London’s rail services. We’ve finally ended the crackers situation of Londoners not being able to use Oyster on every mile of London’s track.”

Actually, he hasn’t – Heathrow rail services are exempted, and so are the fast trains from St Pancras to Stratford International, which begin next month. No East End plebs on those, ta. Our mayor has never been known for being a details man, you see.

I’ve done a summary for greenwich.co.uk which details the effects this will have on SE10’s three National Rail stations – on the whole, you can adapt most of that to any of the zones 2 and 3 stations in this part of south-east London. The full set of fares were covered on this blog earlier this month, and you can see what happened last week when I found one of the readers working at Blackheath.

And there’s even a colourful new map of all the new Oyster routes

However, the price London’s privately-run National Rail companies have extracted from London’s commuters shows just who’s really in charge. Not the Conservative mayor, not the Labour government, but these private interests and their shareholders. The new fares system is fiendlishly complicated – more complex than any expert or anorak ever anticipated.

Not only does it punish occasional customers – a trick we’ve seen on London’s transport in recent years, it also completely screws some of their best customers – a prime feature of unaccountable, private monopolies.

Firstly, though, the companies are using the Oyster change to quietly slip through a stealth fare rise. Off-peak returns using paper tickets are being scrapped, in favour of a standard rate closer to what rush-hour passengers pay. To be fair, we’ve been here before. Soon after Oyster was introduced on the Tube and buses, TfL – then with Ken Livingstone behind the counter – jacked up its cash fares to a stonking £4 on the Tube in Zone 1, and £2 on the buses. That was explicitly designed to persuade passengers to switch to Oyster. It took a while for many to accept the change – but the vast majority did, thanks to the huge publicity surrounding each fare change. (And Evening Standard-based outrage, of course; some years before it introduced its own Eros pre-pay system for buying papers at a cheaper rate.)

However, unlike the Tube, boring old mainline trains don’t really make headlines unless they crash, and it’s not in the train companies’ interests to tell people they could save money by switching to a system they didn’t want to have to introduce in the first place, and that isn’t run by them. So while there was a big TfL publicity campaign to get Tube users to use Oyster cards, don’t expect one for mainline trains. It’s not even as if their ticket machines are compatible with them.

And even if you do switch to Oyster, if you travel during the day, you face paying a peak fare if you travel during the morning or, for the first time in decades, the evening rush hour. Peeking at the new timetables, it’ll be 60p cheaper to go home to Charlton on the 1901 from London Bridge than it will be on the 1855. To a Zone 6 station like Crayford, the gap opens up to a yawning £1.70. Not what the suburbs voted Boris in for. That may be a crafty ruse to free up more space for homeward bound commuters, but it’s no good for families taking their kids for a simple trip into town during the school holidays.

A higher farescale for people using both the Tube and mainline rail services in zone 1 is also another sly money-raiser. Don’t fancy the awkward interchange at London Bridge to reach Charing Cross, so want to use the Tube from Cannon Street instead? Delays at Charing Cross, and it’s simpler to use an alternative station? Tough – it’ll cost you.

Secondly, comes the oddest part, the punishing of the railway’s best customers – Travelcard holders. The very best of them, annual ticket holders, hand over more than £1,000 a year to London’s transport organisations, but have as much influence over their train services as someone who prefers to get stuck in a traffic jam each morning. However, for over 20 years, annual Travelcard holders have benefited from a third off mainline travel in the south-east of England. I have a Gold Card (for a couple more weeks, at least) and it’s brilliant. It makes a massive difference if you’re heading out for the day – or even longer – to somewhere like Canterbury, Oxford or Reading, the kind of journey where you might want to plan ahead.

But if you’re heading just a little way out of your zones, even if you have an Oyster card, you still have to go through the same hoops as you would for a night by the sea in Brighton for a quick drink with a pal in the suburbs. Ticket machines won’t sell the extension tickets required, so you need to queue at a ticket office, and ask someone for “return from the boundary of zone 3 to Bromley North, please, with a Gold Card”. All this for a ticket costing about £1.50, which probably won’t get checked at the other end. It is, quite frankly, easier to skip the fare on many journeys in London. Oyster pay-as-you-go should resolve this nonsense – but it won’t. Even though the Oyster smartcard knows it has an annual ticket on it, the train companies refuse to allow Gold Card holders to take advantage of their discounts without forcing them to queue up at understaffed ticket desks. Is this the way to treat your best customers?

And, of course, for all Travelcard holders, there’s the nonsense of the Oyster Extension Permit, not mentioned at all in publicity issued by TfL and the train companies on Monday, but it is happening. If I want to use my Oyster card for that quick drink at Bromley North, I’ll need to find a ticket machine, ticket office or Oyster newsagent, or ask them to load on a pemit, or I risk getting fined by a ticket inspector. The theory is that the rail companies want to protect against fare-dodgers because their stations don’t have ticket gates, but the Docklands Light Railway works very well without ticket gates, and without putting a presumption of guilt on Travelcard holders travelling outside their zones. Diamond Geezer studies just what Transport for London needs to tell its Travelcard holders.

Despite what Boris says, the situation’s still crackers. The fare scale is fiddly for anyone who isn’t a geek like me, people get punished for daring to use two different modes of transport, and people who put thousands of pounds into the railways get treated like children. But who’s going to stick up for rail passengers? London’s media either glossed over or ignored the downsides of the Oyster changes, with the Standard declaring it a “revolution” in a headline probably dictated from City Hall.

In politics, Labour is fatally compromised by the fact that it has created this situation by privatising every single one of London’s rail franchises, bar one – the London Overground service taken back by Ken Livingstone. The Conservatives are similarly silenced by the fact that they invented this insane system in the first place – even though Boris Johnson has said a couple of times how frustrated he is by his lack of control over London’s rail firms. Interesting how both mayors see things differently from their parties.

The Lib Dems have an effective transport advocate in Caroline Pidgeon, but once again, her credibility is undermined by the fact that her party also backs rail privatisation. Which leaves the Greens, my own party, who back renationalising the railways, but are unfortunately very quiet on the issue at a London level, which is something I find perplexing because it’s such a clear point of difference, and a if better-known would be a hugely popular policy.

So London’s voiceless commuters get screwed again, but there’s nobody who’ll really stand up for them. The politician or party who’s brave enough to take these issues on, and keep on bashing away at them, is pushing at an open door. But has anyone got the guts to take up the challenge?

See also: Two posts from Bexcentric, and London Reconnections. And more from Diamond Geezer.


  1. Couple things I wanted to ask you in relation to this because this seems like an interesting article 🙂
    1) What powers does the Mayor (and Im not trying to just back up Boris here because I recognise the effort that Ken put into this) have to negotiate with the train companies in London in relation to fares or is it central government.

    2) In relation to your renationalisation idea, I’m guessing that is also a central government thing as they sold the lines off in the first place… Would that be right?

    I’m not 100% sure on what the Mayor could do on this, be it Boris, Len Duvall, Jenny Jones, Mike Tuffrey or heaven forbid, Richard Barnbrook. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think they should have the power to….

  2. However, the price London’s privately-run National Rail companies have extracted from London’s commuters shows just who’s really in charge. Not the Conservative mayor, not the Labour government, but these private interests and their shareholders.

    This is bullshit. The train companies are on short term contracts in which the government dictates very precisely what it wants, and which can be (and frequently are) adjusted when the government wants to change something. The zonal fares themselves are defined by the Department for Transport.

    It’s not a question of control, or of nationalisation. If the DfT wanted to put money in to offset the cost of NR fares to match tube fares, they could, but politically they don’t have to, so they don’t. It’s that simple.

  3. But, Mr Charm Merchant, we may disagree on that point, but, why, politically, does the government not feel it has to put money in to offset the fares? Because it doesn’t have the will, and because there isn’t the pressure on it to do so. Partly because the system is so poorly-understood.

    Perhaps now, there might be. But the solution, in my view, is all about control – it’s about ripping the franchises up, giving London’s railways to TfL, and putting London fares and services under the control of the mayor.

  4. Gah, I’m thoroughly depressed at the prospect of having to wade through the complexities of the new system. Occasionally I find myself helping ticket buyers at Deptford station choose the right or cheapest ticked, the ticket office being almost permanently closed; after Oyster is introduced I doubt I’ll have the inclination….

  5. Spot on as always. I’m so cross about the evening peak when there isn’t one on LU. SE London getting penalised yet again. And I still have no clear idea what I’ll be charged for each of my 3 different routes into work. I can see I’ll have to try out each combination of route into and home from work to see which is cheapest. And work out an entirely NR-free route home if I’ve travelled in after 9:30.

    – Spectacularly unimpressed of Hither Green/Catford borders

  6. Because it doesn’t have the will, and because there isn’t the pressure on it to do so

    But not because it doesn’t have control, as your blog post above says. I don’t see how you can be prescribing a solution when you have little grasp of how the current system works.

    If you object to private companies running trains, what’s your opinion on London Overground? Or the DLR? Or ScotRail?

  7. I am an anorak & a half and I’m afraid I am now totally and utterly bewildered. The whole OEP thing has got me beat – if an OEP is only going to be needed for 0.04% of journeys and the argument is that this is an insignificant number of journeys, then why bother with them at all? It’s almost an incitement to Travelcard holders to not bother using prepay & just override to an ungated station. London TravelWatch seem utterly oblivious to it as usual & it’s a PR disaster waiting to happen in January.

  8. Mr Thant – you seem to be trying to start a row here. Calm the **** down.

    I’ve no objection to private companies running trains under tight contracts – it works on London Overground and the DLR. I’d like to see that happen around London. It might not be full nationalisation, but realistically, that’s probably the way forward.

    I’m not quite sure why you feel the need to pick a fight…

  9. Clare Griffiths: I’m pretty sure there *is* an evening peak period on the Tube. I think that’s where the rail companies got the idea from. IIRC (and if I don’t, I’m sure someone else will), the story of the peak goes like this:

    Up to about 2008 or 9: Oyster tube fares cheaper (in at least Zone 1) after 7pm than all day before 7pm.

    Then: introduction of a new, extra, off-peak period on the tube during the day, something like 10-4.

    Next: the train companies notice that this has created an evening peak period from 4-7pm and add this to the list of things they will adopt when taking Oyster PAYG – a list which basically consists of all the bad stuff from Oyster PAYG and very little of the good stuff (like trusting travelcard users on the ungated DLR by not needing OEPs) 😉

  10. I’ve just checked because I was wondering that myself… yes, there is an evening peak on the Tube as well. I think the peaks were brought in to encourage people to travel earlier and later, not always an option on National Rail services.

  11. What an excellent blog! I work as a journalist covering the rail industry and the finer points of Oyster make my head hurt. Yes the OEPs will cause huge problems when people get large penalty fares just for falling asleep and missing their stop, or for staying on for that quick pint in Bromley North…

    My concern though is over the future of the humble one day Travelcard: I suspect it may be pahsed out, and with it the ability to get a Network Card discount, at the weekends anyway. Currently the NC gets you a third off weekend rail travel across the southeast at weekends, and a smaller discount after 10am weekdays…but as someone living in south London Zone 5, the one-day discount is excellent, and cheaper than the present Oyster day cap limit (and this is going up drastically in January anyway…).

    How on earth is the unsuspecting occasional off-peak traveller meant to understand all this? Hats off to you for trying!

  12. The evening peak is new on LU but it is actually a step forward for the LU and one of the few good things that BorisJ has done for the LU (although, as ever, I doubt he knows it and there is a bit of bad).
    The off-peak on LU has always started at 930 as elsewhere but this was only used for travelcards, I believe the singles did not change.
    Under the Ken oyster, peak oyster fares were between 7am and 7pm. If you got on the tube at 659 to go to work in the morning – cheapness prevailed. For suburbs, this was great as early starts at 8 in the office are reasonable. The system now has two peaks at rush periods and off-peak at all other times.
    630-930 and 1630-1900 are peak (note the 30min earlier start making it a lot less useful imho) so cheap travel is available in the day.

    In terms of the Mayor’s powers, I don’t think he has a lot of statutory power but Ken seemed to be able to negotiate and Boris said what he wanted and then the TOCs knew they had him over a barrel. Same as the unions when he publicly stated he would fight for a no-strike contract….

  13. I don’t see why they need OEPs? I have a Z1-3 Season but occasionally go and see a friend in Richmond (Z4) via London Overground or the Tube. I have always make sure I have a small amount of PAYG credit, and when I touch out at Richmond, it charges me from the boundary of Z3.
    So why can’t the National Rail Oyster readers do the same?

  14. Because, 24hoursbytrain, the TOCs fear that people just won’t bother to swipe out, and they can’t be penalised on the train by an inspector, because they’ve not yet committed the sin of not swiping out.
    I see their reasoning, but can’t help but feel there must be a better solution.

  15. Surely that is easily solved (as TfL do) in an automated fashion: fail to swipe out and it immediately costs you the maximum (penalty?) fare (£20)for the route you were on at the end of the daypart you are in, or upon a new entry swipe (eg return journey, or new journey later in the day)…

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