Tonight my wife and I are going to Shoreditch. The wrong side of the river and all that, but the lure of a ‘Nintendisco‘ has proved irresistible to my wife, so we need to get to Shoreditch High Street at about 19.00.
Once upon a time, a journey on Oyster PAYG-accepting rail (Tube/DLR/Overground) services was a straightforward affair. At worst there were a couple of different fares you might get charged, depending whether you set out before or after 19.00.
Since then, first, a small tweak was made in 2009 to introduce a new off-peak period during the daytime, saving travellers setting off between 9.30 and 16.00 the same as those after 19.00 had previously saved.
But then from 2010 the National Rail company refuseniks were finally persuaded to accept this efficient, convenient ticketing method, and as they’ve weighed in with their profiteering requirements and in some cases a healthy measure of contempt for their passengers (and TfL have pushed for more harmonisation across services), fares have been getting more confusing ever since.
Here’s a quick timeline of developments:
- Oyster PAYG is now accepted on all (non-premium) National Rail services in greater London. However, services which had not previously accepted it – most of those south of the river and a few north of it – have their own, entirely separate fare scale. Some bits of this scale are higher than TfL’s, some lower.
- In addition to this fare scale, there is then a third fare scale for journeys combining some National Rail travel with some TfL rail (DLR/tube/Overground) travel. This is the most expensive combination of the lot.
- National Railcards – except Network Railcards and Gold Cards – can be loaded onto Oyster to give one-third discounts on off-peak Oyster PAYG journeys involving National Rail. (But see May 2010 for why paper tickets could well still be cheaper between 16.00 and 19.00!)
- Cheap Day Return paper tickets were abolished at the same time, resulting in fare rises (of as much as 43%) even for those switching to Oyster in the case of Gold Card-holders, who could no longer benefit from discounted off-peak return tickets.
- Oyster Extension Permits (OEPs) introduced on all non-TfL-operated National Rail Services in greater London for Oyster-loaded travelcard-holders, confusing everyone (or every one of the small minority who have heard of them!) with a system of no benefit to the passenger but which enables rail companies to issue penalty fares to unsuspecting customers.
- After some lobbying, Gold Card discount entitlement is finally permitted to be loaded onto Oyster PAYG cards, giving a one-third discount on all off-peak fares on journeys involving National Rail services. No discount is offered on TfL services, as it never had been before.
- However, because the Oyster definition of off-peak (all times except 6.30-9.30 and 16.00-19.00) differs from the Gold Card paper ticket definition (which is, I believe, after 10.00), it’s still substantially cheaper to get a discounted paper ticket between 16.00 and 19.00, unless you intend to transfer onto TfL services as well as National Rail, or indeed intend to use enough services on Oyster that you will reach the one-third discounted off-peak cap. Confused yet? Sorry, it still gets more confusing.
- TfL have still been unable to persuade the National Rail companies to harmonise their fares with TfL’s, so the three-separate-fare-scales situation continues.
- TfL have made alternative harmonisation efforts, however, by (for the first time) offering the one-third discount Railcard holders have benefited from on National Rail services on all TfL rail services as well. This admirable move means thousands of annual season ticket-holders across (and beyond) the capital could benefit from discounts on all their Oyster PAYG trips, but as Tom Edwards reported on BBC London last night, hardly anyone knows this.
- TfL also introduced what feels like a decent first draft of an impressive contraflow discount system during the 16.00-19.00 evening peak period. If you set off from outside Zone 1, travelling into Zone 1, between those times during 2010, you could be sitting on an empty train, but being charged a peak fare. In 2011, any journey starting outside Zone 1 between 16.00 and 19.00 but finishing inside Zone 1 is charged at the off-peak rate.
- The last point has created some bizarre anomalies, meaning it can often be cheaper to travel into Zone 1 than Zone 2 from the suburbs during this time. But it’s a good start at more accurately reflecting the meaning of a rush-hour. (Or rush-three-hours.)
- Of course, the train companies, most of which didn’t have an evening peak period just over a year ago, were delighted to adopt TfL’s evening peak period to charge higher Oyster fares every evening from January 2010, but in January 2011 they declined to offer the same contraflow system of charging off-peak fares for people travelling into central London in the evenings. This has created even greater differences between National Rail and TfL services during the 16.00-19.00 period.
That brings us up to date. Phew.
Case study: Lewisham to Shoreditch High Street
But what does all this really mean in practice? Surely if I just touch in at my starting point and out at my finishing point, the system will charge me the cheapest fare available and everyone’s a winner? Well, let’s have a look at my journey from Lewisham to Shoreditch High Street, shall we?
First, let’s look at it specifically as it will be, for my wife and me, tonight. Ideally we’d get there at 19.00 but that means starting out in the evening peak, so let’s include a variable start time – we’re flexible people.
I have a Gold Card discount loaded onto my card, but other than that it’s the same for me and my wife – my travelcard is for Zones 3-5 so no part of this journey is covered by it. However, Lewisham is a Zone 2-3 boundary station so if I touch in there for National Rail I will need to load an OEP as otherwise the system will assume I am using Zone 3. Fun!
With all that in mind, and bearing in mind the route is also served by the no. 47 bus, here are the possible fares we could realistically consider paying for tonight’s journey:
|Time||Route||Approx travel time||Person||Ticket||OEP needed?||Single fare||…for two|
|After 7pm||LEW-NWX-SDC||25min||Me||Oyster PAYG (w/GC)||Y||£1.10|
|4-7pm||LEW-Zone 1 tube-SDC||40min||Me||Oyster PAYG||Y||£3.50|
|After 7pm||LEW-Zone 1 tube-SDC||40min||Me||Oyster PAYG (w/GC)||Y||£1.90|
|Any (after 9.30am)||LEW-SDE by DLR-SDC||35min||Me||Oyster PAYG (w/GC)||N||£1.25|
|Any (after 10am)||LEW-NWX-SDC||25min||Me||Paper (w/GC discount)||N||£1.70|
|Wife||Paper (w/GC discount)||N||£1.70|
|Any (after 10am)||LEW-SDE by DLR-SDC||35min||Me||Paper (w/GC discount)||N||£2.65|
|Wife||Paper (w/GC discount)||N||£2.65|
|Any||47 bus||50min||Me||Oyster w/Z3-5 travelcard||N||£0.00|
That’s eight different fares! Eight! OK, one of them is on a bus, but still: to travel between the exact same stations, all the above costs are equally possible to incur. Even setting aside the bus, it is possible for us to spend 122% more on this one journey just by choosing the wrong route: at (say) 18.30, it’ll cost the pair of us £3.15 by DLR and Overground, or £7.00 by National Rail on Oyster PAYG.
And this is not some technical point about Gold Card-holders. Here’s the same table for people who aren’t us and don’t have Railcards – one or two common or garden Oyster PAYG users:
|Time||Route||Approx travel time||Ticket||Single fare||…for two|
|After 7pm||LEW-NWX-SDC||25min||Oyster PAYG||£1.70||£3.40|
|4-7pm||LEW-Zone 1 tube-SDC||40min||Oyster PAYG||£3.50||£7.00|
|After 7pm||LEW-Zone 1 tube-SDC||40min||Oyster PAYG||£2.90||£5.80|
|Any (after 9.30am)||LEW-SDE by DLR-SDC||35min||Oyster PAYG||£1.90||£3.80|
|Any (after 10am)||LEW-NWX-SDC||25min||Paper||£2.60||£5.20|
|Any (after 10am)||LEW-SDE by DLR-SDC||35min||Paper||£4.00||£8.00|
|Any||47 bus||50min||Oyster PAYG||£1.30||£2.60|
So, still eight different fares, just higher ones! In this case, ignoring the paper ticket option that no-one in their right mind who had an Oyster card would go for, you’re best off travelling by National Rail only, after 7pm: set off before 7pm and include a bit of Tube and you’ll find you’ve spent 106% more.
And of course all of the above is just in one direction. For getting home again, you’d have to mix up pairs of these methods and mess about with possible Zone 1-2 price-capping and paper return tickets. I’m not going to do that because MY BRAIN HURTS.
BRAIN HURTS TOO MUCH TO THINK OF A SUBHEADING
At heart, Oyster is a great, convenient system offering a fast way to get on board transport without worrying about where you’re going or what the cheapest ticket is. But since National Rail companies like Southeastern, Southern and South West Trains got involved, the heart of Oyster has been yanked out for a pummelling.
Fares, discounts and contraflow systems need harmonising across all rail services in London, and OEPs – never wanted by TfL nor required on its services – need abolishing. Until all of that happens, good luck working out which route to take for an evening out. I know we’re going to need it tonight.