Fare game

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:

Jan 2010

  • 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.

May 2010

  • 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.

January 2011

  • 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
4-7pm LEW-NWX-SDC 25min Me Oyster PAYG Y £2.20
Wife Oyster PAYG N £2.20
Total £4.40
After 7pm LEW-NWX-SDC 25min Me Oyster PAYG (w/GC) Y £1.10
Wife Oyster PAYG N £1.70
Total £2.80
4-7pm LEW-Zone 1 tube-SDC 40min Me Oyster PAYG Y £3.50
Wife Oyster PAYG N £3.50
Total £7.00
After 7pm LEW-Zone 1 tube-SDC 40min Me Oyster PAYG (w/GC) Y £1.90
Wife Oyster PAYG N £2.90
Total £4.80
Any (after 9.30am) LEW-SDE by DLR-SDC 35min Me Oyster PAYG (w/GC) N £1.25
Wife Oyster PAYG N £1.90
Total £3.15
Any (after 10am) LEW-NWX-SDC 25min Me Paper (w/GC discount) N £1.70
Wife Paper (w/GC discount) N £1.70
Total £3.40
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
Total £5.30
Any 47 bus 50min Me Oyster w/Z3-5 travelcard N £0.00
Wife Oyster PAYG N £1.30
Total £1.30

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
4-7pm LEW-NWX-SDC 25min Oyster PAYG £2.20 £4.40
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.


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.

10 Responses

  1. I buy a TfL Oyster travel card (Zones 1-6) for my commute on Southeastern trains. I found this easier and more convenient than buying a paper ticket from Southeastern. However, following the snow induced service disruption I discovered that there appears to be a refund gap.

    Southeastern services were virtually suspended for three days during the snow. Therefore, I was unable to travel into London. At that time I had a monthly travel card on my Oyster. Southeastern believes it doesn’t have to compensate because the ticket wasn’t bought from it. TfL doesn’t have to compensate because it is not responsible for national rail.

    So, you see there appears to be another disadvantage to using otherwise very convenient Oyster on national rail when it comes to claiming for service disruption or poor service performance. Assuming what I’ve been told is correct, it’s best to stick with Southeastern paper tickets to at least hope for compensation where it’s due.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul, Forster AGEncy and BBC London Newsroom, Tom Edwards. Tom Edwards said: Great blog from @bitoclass on the complications of London's crazy fares system:. One route = 8 different fares! http://ow.ly/3LOa4 […]

  3. Another point to note is that TfL seems to automatically charge you for boundary tickets if you have the relevant zones on your oyster travelcard.

    For example I have a Z1-3 annual travelcard, and should I travel off peak from Z4-Z3 I will be charged Z4-BZ3 (£1.30 non Gold Card or 85p GC) rather than Z4-Z3 (£1.50 non GC or 95p GC). (This is also the same price as a Z4 single according to TfL so not sure if it just ignores Z3 or whether it does actually charge up to the boundary).

    Adding paper tickets into the mix, I’ve been unable to find boundary ticket prices online so would argue that it’s impossible to find out the cheapest ticket for your journey should you be fortunate enough to have an oyster travelcard. I do reckon though, that it would still be cheaper to travel via discounted PAYG at all times except the evening peak, with discounted boundary tickets to cover you then.

    Anyway, I’m no expert at this stuff and there are a lot of unanswered questions (What happens when no boundary ticket is available? What about tube journeys?) but it does a good job of making a complex situation even more confusing.

    • Rob: This is really interesting and quite relevant to my post as it may well mean even more than eight fares are possible for some single journeys! (Although I suppose it’s arguably not a fair comparison as it’s a slightly different journey you’re paying for if you have pre-paid unlimited travel along one part of it.)

      I hadn’t realised there was a difference between Z4-BZ3 and Z4-Z3 fares at all. In fact I had always assumed that the ‘fact’ that there wasn’t was part of the reason why single-zone travelcards weren’t available to buy, because they would give no benefit at all on any journey beyond that zone and so were barely worth bothering with. So it’s really interesting to learn that I’m wrong about that!

      Almost all my non-travelcard-covered journeys start from a station in both Zones 2 and 3 (either Lewisham or Elverson Road), so this serves me quite well: rather than paying the boundary zone 3 price as I would if starting at other stations in my travelcard zone, I just pay as if I’d touched in in Zone 2 (except I need an OEP on national rail, of course!).

      Although, actually, are the Boundary fares you mention not in fact just the fares for starting in the first Zone not covered by your travelcard? Mottingham (Z4) to New Eltham (Z4) costs £1.30 non-Gold Card, which is the same as the “Z4-BZ3” fare you mention. Perhaps that’s it!

      • Hi Paul

        >Although, actually, are the Boundary fares you mention not in fact just the fares for starting in the first Zone not covered by your travelcard?

        You could be right as the fares do indeed appear to be the same.

        That is still an interesting situation, as when buying a single extension ticket (to destinations outside of London) I’m used to paying either for a ticket to the first station in Z3, or from the last station in Z3, or the boundary. Whereas in this case you’re actually paying for a ticket to the last station in Z4, immediately before entering Z3 again.

        Looking a bit deeper, it does seem that a different rule for boundary tickets applies depending whether your journey is solely inside the travelcard area or not. For example using 2010 fares (standard day single with goldcard):

        Leaving travelcard zones:

        alexandra palace (Z3) -> potters bar (outside travelcard zones): £3.25
        BZ3 -> potters bar: £3.25
        new southgate (Z4) -> potters bar: £2.45

        Travelling inside zones:

        alexandra palace (z3) -> new barnet (z5): £1.70
        bz3 -> new barnet: £1.40
        new southgate (z4) -> new barnet: £1.40

        So if you travel outside zones you need to pay for a journey starting in Z3, whereas if you travel inside zones you pay as though you start in Z4.

        To be honest, I don’t travel enough to zones outside Z3 to get a better picture of what happens so I could be completely wrong, but based on a few journeys and a casual interest in ensuring I don’t pay more than I should these are my observations!

  4. Hi guys,

    When mixing PAYG and stored travelcard seasons the system does effectively create imaginary boundary stations between all zones (like the real Lewisham). Thus you only pay for the zone(s) not covered by your travelcard. You can actually create a travelcard sandwich if you want. If you have a zone 2-4 travelcard and journey from zone 5 to 1 you will be charged the cheaper of the two single fares at each end or the overall fare for the whole journey as if you didn’t have a travelcard.

    All this and more is on the OEP page on my site, including a brand new flowchart for deciding whether you need to set an OEP.

  5. Yeah- try getting a return from New Cross to Dalston Junction. £8! On a Sunday. But a ticket to Dalston Kingsland is far cheaper and will get you out of the barriers at Dalston Junction. It seems to be a reimbursement for crossing the Kingsland Road.

    The lesson, of course, is never forget an Oyster Card, because nothing makes sense without it. Like Lewis Carroll’s Fares to Pay at London Bridge- which should say- Illogical Fining Booth.

    NB- met you in the New X library library yesterday. Top twittering/blogging about the occupation

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