Southeastern still doesn’t get Oyster. Or customer service


Going home by train from the south of France. Seriously, it’s delightful. Leaving Montpellier at breakfast time, tearing through France on a TGV; followed by a hassle-free change at Lille (up an escalator, passport check, back down to the same platform). The beauty of the new St Pancras station. 600 glorious miles.

Followed by a return to London’s mainline rail system which managed to knock 11 days of relaxation right out of me. The idea is simple – touch that Oyster card back in for the first time in ages, down to St Pancras Thameslink platforms, haul bags up and down stairs at London Bridge, alight at Charlton, touch out, and drag bags home. The reality went all wrong, thanks to First Capital Connect and Southeastern.

All seemed to be going well until we arrived at City Thameslink, where the platform PA suddenly burbled something about “this train not calling at London Bridge, please wait on the platform for the next train”. Maybe it was some arcane timetable change? Off a load of us trooped. No word at all about what may have happened, until that “next train” popped up on the screen… and it wasn’t calling at London Bridge either. I hauled my bags up to the platform attendant. You could actually have told us there were no London Bridge trains, I said. “Oh, there’s a signal failure, it’s only just happened…” To be fair to the guy, he did suggest I use Cannon Street, which I’d forgotten was walkable, but rather unhelpfully added my ticket would be valid on the Tube “from Mansion House to Cannon Street”.

Anyhow, I walked to Cannon Street. I couldn’t touch out at City Thameslink (my card and the gates had a hissy fit) so had the added complication of still holding a live, un-touched-out Oyster ticket. Simple idea – ask Cannon Street station staff if they’ll let me through the gate, I could then touch out at Charlton as if my journey had been normal and it would solve a load of problems later.

No, stupid idea.

I explained what had happened at City Thameslink. The guy at Cannon Street let me through the gate, then stopped me. I explained again, a bit out of breath after hauling bags through the City, that I’d been turfed off a London Bridge-bound train at City Thameslink and was trying to continue a trip to Charlton on an uncompleted Oyster journey. A bearded colleague, who had an Oyster card reader around his neck, physically blocked my path. “You’ll need to buy a paper ticket, sir.” Even though I have a valid Oyster card, with a journey still in use? “Yes, they’re two different systems.”

He then went on to “explain” how Oyster was not valid for the journey I wanted to make (St Pancras-Charlton) and I would have had to have touched out and then back in again at London Bridge – which anyone who knows anything about how the system works will confirm is completely wrong. I said he was wrong, and sudddenly his manner became threatening, his RMT badge gleaming under the station lights, along with his name badge (he shares a name with a well-known radio broadcaster of the 1980s.) “I work on the railways, you don’t, don’t you tell me I’m wrong.” After threatening to have me thrown off the station – “you don’t have a valid ticket” – he then called his supervisor. He told my story to a colleague who “confirmed” I couldn’t use Oyster on my journey. They both treated me as if I was lying to them. “Take it up with TfL,” they parroted.

Ten minutes later, no sign of this supervisor. I was stuck platform-side at Cannon Street, with barriers on one side and my new “friend” Brian on the other. I asked him to call his supervisor again. Apparently there’d been no problems reported on First Capital Connect. Brian looked at me like he’d just caught a shoplifter in the act. “Okay,” I told Brian, Oyster reader swinging from his neck, “I’ll prove my story to you,” and touched my Oyster card on the pad by the gate I’d been allowed through. “EXIT (£1.50)” it duly flashed up. “There, ‘exit’,” I said.

Brian then let me on the next train – even though I now didn’t have a valid ticket… of course, there were no ticket inspectors on the train or at Charlton, so in fact I got away with a cheaper journey because of his stubborness. When I got home, I checked First Capital Connect’s website and it was still reporting problems at London Bridge.

But it does make me wonder if a) Southeastern is actually training its staff in how to use Oyster, and b) are Southeastern staff – officially or unofficially – trying to discourage people from Oyster use?

PS. It’s not just Southeastern – thanks to @pekingspring for alerting me to this story from Liverpool Street.

I called Southeastern’s press office on Wednesday afternoon to ask for their observations on this story, after having e-mailed their customer service team and out of a genuine curiosity to see what training their staff did get in Oyster. A spokeswoman told me its staff were trained in Oyster products, and said Southeastern staff were likely to have received better training than others since the company sells Oyster top-ups via its ticket machines, unlike other train operating companies. I sent her this entry to see if I could get a statement from Southeastern responding to the points I made.

She’s just responded to me – “Southeastern doesn’t respond to blogs, etc. So I won’t provide a comment from the company for your site.” She also asked that I removed the “Jump on Metro and go!” advertising image, which I used to illustrate Southeastern’s promotion of Oyster.

So there you have it.

Incidentally, Southeastern now receives £80m a year in taxpayer subsidy to keep it in existence.


  1. Have you contacted Southeastern to clarify their view of how it’s supposed to work? It would be interesting to see their response, given that the guy was clearly wrong.

    I have a season ticket, which I forgot one morning last week. The guy at the barriers was very helpful and polite when I explained that I had a season ticket, and gave me the various options for claiming back the money, etc. His colleagues, however, were giving a pay as you go user who didn’t have enough credit real hassle, threatening to fine him, etc. Only one example, of course, but it does fit with your suggestion that the staff are pretty anti-PAYG.

  2. I’ve asked Southeastern for their observations. Hopefully they’ll get back soon.

  3. There are certainly some South Eastern staff in central London that have a very bad attitude. I remember also at London Bride arriving on the platform with two minutes before my train was due to leave to find the doors just closing and the staff giving the train “right away”. I asked why as it was not due to go for 2 minutes, pointing to the information display showing so to which the comment was “the screens wrong” and then just walked away before I could reply, even though the screen clearly wasn’t wrong (it was showing the correct train at the correct time, matching the destination shown on the train displays).

  4. Bad service – but could you not have reached over and touched in before boarding at Cannon Street?

  5. Hello Dave.

    In short – no, because I wouldn’t have been able to touch back in for 15 minutes or so. It would probably have meant I’d be charged twice too (£1.50 St Pancras-Cannon Street + £2 Cannon Street-Charlton).

    I could have touched out at Cannon Street Tube station, then in again upstairs, but this would have cost me extra – St Pancras-Charlton without using the Tube is £2.00 offpeak, but a journey involving the Underground would cost £3.10.

  6. “Take it up with TfL” – this is exactly my experience of using National Rail with Oyster when things go wrong. They just don’t care.

  7. I’ve used Oyster from St Pancras to Charlton – the same journey you had intended – without any problem, so the Cannon Street jobsworths didn’t what they were talking about.

  8. Oh well, at least the Press Office is entirely in line with their customer relations policy. It’s probably all down to the wrong kind of customers on the platform…

  9. Sorry to hear about your experiences, although I have to say it doesn’t surprise me. There still seems to be some confusion about the operation of Oyster cards. For instance, have you ever been able to buy or find someone who knows about Oyster Extension Passes? I know I haven’t.

    I’ve just come back from 2 months “on the contintent”, including a month in Berlin. The transport system in Berlin is a joy to use and fully integrated. Deutsche Bahn and the other train systems I used in Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden were all punctual, clean and fast with very helpful staff. Years of underinvestment aside, I don’t know why we struggle so much with providing a decent train service.

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