Convenient though an Oyster card may be, there's one large swathe of London transport on which it's not valid. Fine on the tube, perfect on the buses, OK on the Overground, even usable on trams and along the river. But try using your Oyster on National Rail services and you're likely to be guilty of fare evasion. Certain rail routes are permitted, if you know which they are, but most South London trains remain an Oyster-free no-go zone.
Hurrah, not for much longer! Pay-as-you-go is coming to National Rail as of 2nd January next year, which means it'll be possible to travel by train from Zone 1 to Zone 6 merely by swiping your plastic. It's been a long time coming, but negotiations by both Ken and Boris have finally softened up the Train Operating Companies to the point where they're willing to accept non-paper tickets aboard their services. Boris should be be down at Balham station this morning to celebrate, presumably so that he can point out how the Southern station is attaining the same ticketing status as its Northern line cousin nextdoor. Major cheers all round, and rightly so.
However, just to keep travellers on their toes, the fares for National Rail Oyster are going to be different to those for TfL Oyster. There's a different set of fares for peak and off-peak travel, and yet another set of fares if your journey starts on NR and ends on TfL (or vice versa). A PAYG tube journey from Balham to Waterloo, for example, will cost £2.70 at peak times and £2.40 off-peak. A National Rail version of the same journey (via Clapham Junction) will cost £2.60 at peak times and £2.00 off-peak. Meanwhile off-peak return fares are to be scrapped, forcing Londoners to pay the equivalent of two single Oyster PAYG fares instead. Most travellers won't notice these differences, however, because the system will simply deduct the appropriate amount from their PAYG balance as they pass. [Darryl has the full list of new fares, in all their opacity]
But there's one group of people who are going to find the new system especially complicated, and I count myself amongst them. Folk with season tickets and Travelcards that don't cover the whole of Zones 1 to 6, they're going to have to learn a new way to travel. And if they get it wrong, it's going to cost. Welcome, London travellers, to the OEP.
OEP stands for Oyster Extension Permit, and come January it'll be required by any Travelcard owner using National Rail to travel out of their usual zones. At the moment, should my tube journey take me across the zone 3/4 boundary, I merely touch in at the start and finish and the correct fare is deducted. On National Rail, it won't be that simple. I'll need to add an electronic OEP to my Oyster card before I travel, before I pass through the first ticket barrier, else when I reach the end of my journey I'll be a guilty man.
OEPs are being required because most far-flung NR stations are ungated, and the Train Operating Companies don't trust Travelcard holders to touch out. Say, for example, I take a train from from Lewisham (zone 3) to Hayes (zone 5). When I touch in at the start, my Oyster has no idea where I'm heading. It could be to another station within zone 3, in which case there'd be no extra cost, or it could be to a station further out, in which case I need to be charged. The size of this charge can only be calculated when I touch out. But what if I decide to save money by not touching out at the far end? The system only knows that I touched in at Lewisham, and there are plenty of legal zone 1-3 journeys starting there which would cost me nothing. An OEP loaded on my card ensures that I pay, either the correct amount if I touch out or the maximum cash fare if I don't.
Here's the message that TfL has to get across to its PAYG users. a) From 2nd January, you can use your Oyster on National Rail services in London. b) Other than that, same as normal.
But here's the message that TfL has to get across to its Travelcard users. a) From 2nd January, you can use your Oyster on National Rail services in London. b) If your journey includes National Rail, you might need to add an electronic 'OEP' to your Oyster before you travel. c) You can obtain an OEP from anywhere that sells Oyster top ups (i.e tube stations and certain shops) but not from National Rail stations. d) You'll only be able to use an OEP if there's a certain minimum PAYG balance on your card. e) You'll need an OEP if your journey ends outside the zones covered by your Travelcard. f) You won't need an OEP if your journey ends inside the zones covered by your Travelcard. g) If you don't add an OEP before you travel, and a ticket inspector catches you outside your zones, you'll be charged a penalty fare. h) If you have an OEP on your card and choose to touch in and touch out inside your zones, then the OEP will be stored away until the next time it's needed (even if that's six months away). i) If you make a journey within your zones, normally you don't have to touch in and touch out. But if there's a surplus OEP on your card and you touch in, then it's essential that you touch out. If you don't touch out, we'll assume you've skedaddled to zone 6 and will charge you the maximum cash fare.
Confused? I believe the public will be. They're not all train nerds who know the difference between a tube station, an Overground station and a National Rail station (OEPs will only be required for travel to the latter). They may not be able to work out what happens in special cases (for example if they take a train, a tube and then another train out the other side of London, or if they travel on a National Rail train to a TfL-owned station). They won't appreciate having to queue for an OEP before they travel, maybe even at the newsagent round the corner, which is no improvement on queueing for a paper extension ticket today. They may feel forced to stick an OEP on their Oyster just in case, to avoid being stung by an unexpected penalty fare later on. And they may discover too late that their OEP has cost them money because they failed to touch out properly at stations where they currently don't have to. Thank goodness this confusion 'only' affects Travelcard users. [London Reconnections has more - lots more]
An excessively complex Oyster rollout solution is being imposed in order to try to shore up fare revenue. I wish Boris, TfL and the various Train Operating Companies well in attempting to explain this one. I think they may find it difficult. And I think we will too.