As of yesterday, if you travel on the tube using a pay-as-you-go Oyster card and fail to touch in or touch out, you'll now be charged a "maximum cash fare". To assist you in understanding the new penalty system, Transport for London have helpfully provided a detailed online FAQ explaining all the changes. It's only 2600 words long, and is therefore easily assimilated by any Londoner. Come on, this is important, because if you don't know these rules inside out you might end up paying extra for your ignorance. Just in case you can't spare the time to read the full rules in depth, allow me to present my own simplified Oyster FAQ below:
Q: How much is the new "maximum cash fare"? A: It's £4 per journey. Which is a bit sneaky, because the maximum Oyster fare for the longest possible Zone 1-6 journey is only £3.50.
Q: Is it always £4? A: No, it's £5 if you're using National Rail from certain mainline stations (Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Elephant & Castle, Euston, Fenchurch Street, Liverpool Street, London Bridge and Marylebone). Apparently £5 is the "average fare" from these stations, so you deserve to be charged more. Here's a map showing the (not many) National Rail routes where use of Oyster is permitted.
Q: Surely this "maximum penalty fare" only affects miscreants and barrier jumpers? A: Not at all. Life would be simple if all Oyster journeys started and finished at a ticket barrier, but they don't. Exit the tube at Finsbury Park without swiping and you'll be fined. Start your journey on the DLR without swiping and you'll be fined. Change onto National Rail at Farringdon without swiping and you'll be fined. It's all too easy to forget, and to end up paying for your mistake.
Q: How does this new system penalise you for not touching in? A: If you didn't touch in, then when you eventually touch out at the other end the system assumes you've made the longest possible journey (eg from Heathrow Airport) and slaps down a maximum fare Exit Charge of £4.
Q: How does the system penalise you for not touching out? A: Every time you touch in at the start of a journey, an Entry Charge of £4 is automatically applied to your Oyster. If you don't touch out at the end of your journey, then this £4 is automatically deducted. If you do later touch out, like you're meant to, then the correct fare is charged instead.
Q: So, pay-as-you-go travellers are assumed to be "guilty until proven innocent"? A: Yes, although the £4 Entry Charge is never actually deducted while you're travelling, so you can have less than £4 pay-as-you-go and still be able to travel.
Q: How does the system know that I haven't touched out? A: You're allowed up to two hours to complete your journey, but take any longer and a penalty fare applies. Even a tube journey from Epping to Chesham on a Sunday evening allegedly only takes 1 hour 58 minutes, so anybody taking longer than two hours is clearly a criminal.
Q: What if my journey is delayed? A: If your journey exceeds two hours because of service disruption, you should seek assistance from a helpful member of staff or call the Oyster helpline. Calls cost only 3½p per minute, unless you're calling from your mobile (which, given the circumstances, you probably will be).
Q: And what if I don't touch in and I don't touch out? Do I get to travel for free? A: Yes, you do. Unless an inspector catches you along the way, in which case you'll be charged £4. Or maybe prosecuted.
Q: Is it ever cheaper not to touch out? A: Yes, but only for Metropolitan line passengers travelling beyond Rickmansworth. For example, if you travel from Baker Street to Chorleywood and exit through the car park on the westbound platform, then you'll pay a fare of £4.50 if you touch out but a penalty of only £4 if you don't.
Q: Are there any special rules about Wimbledon station? A: Funny you should ask. Yes, Wimbledon is an Oyster-user's tram/train/tube charging nightmare. Please read this scarily complicated list of extra instructions.
Q: I have a season ticket on my Oyster card, not pay-as-you-go, so I'm OK aren't I? A: Not if you venture outside your paid-for zones. If you touch in at a station outside your chosen zones but fail to touch in later, then you'll be charged an extension fare of either £1 or £1.50. But if you touch in at a station inside your chosen zones and later fail to touch out at a station outside your chosen zones, then the system won't notice and you won't be charged extra.
Q: What if there's major disruption and I get turfed off my usual tube route onto a bus? A: In these circumstances you shouldn't touch out when leaving the station, but you must touch in on the bus, but only if you've been told that buses are accepting tube tickets, otherwise you might be overcharged. Simple.
Q: What if there's an accident or something and I get carted off the tube network on a stretcher without touching out? A: No problem, they'll refund your £4 Entry charge later, so long as you don't go catching a bus before you get back on the tube again in which case the £4 won't have been refunded yet and you might be refused entry until you top your card up again. Honest.
Q: The Oyster system is full of over-complex badly thought-out inconsistencies, isn't it? A: Yes, but please try not to mention them because it frightens people.
Q: So, to summarise, please? A: Expect to be charged £4 at the start of your journey for not touching out, or £4 at the end of your journey for not touching in.
Q: I am new to London and my English it is poor. Can you please be explaining these rule again? A: No, sorry. Just pay up.
Q: I don't understand what an Oyster card is. A: My apologies for wasting your time.