diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 07, 2010

Oyster Pay As You Go is now, finally, available on National Rail lines in London. Fantastic if you want to whizz from Croydon to Victoria, or from Surbiton to Raynes Park, probably. But, as a Travelcard user, I'm very concerned by the ridiculously complicated rules introduced to cover passengers travelling outside of their paid-for zones. Whoever devised the Oyster Extension Permit deserves a big slap for coming up with a set of rules so contrived that few travellers will ever fully understand how they work.
Summary of OEP rules (not very detailed)
Full OEP rules (as used by TfL staff) (pdf)

So I've been out to put the OEP to the test. I've made a simple journey from a station just inside the zones on my Z1-3 Travelcard to a station just outside, to see what happens. And then I've tried it again, as a control to my experiment. And I wasn't impressed.

Journey 1: station just inside → station just outside (Z3 → Z4)
Experiment: DON'T set an OEP before travel

This is naughty. According to the new rules, I'm supposed to add an Oyster Extension Permit to my Travelcard before I venture outside my pre-paid zones. I'm supposed to take my card to an Oyster machine and touch in and then press "Set Oyster Extension Permit" on the screen. This costs nothing, although I need to have at least £1.50 credit on my card before it'll work. I can't see the OEP on my card, obviously, but it sits there electronically in case I bump into a ticket inspector on my travels. It's proof that I intend to travel out of my zones, and that I really will touch out at the other end rather than walk off having made the journey for free. Getting an OEP is what I should have done, according to the new regulations. But I didn't. I did what most people will do, which is to ignore OEPs altogether and simply touch in. Very naughty. What could go wrong?

I had no worries while the train chugged through zone 3. But as we pulled into zone 4, I became slightly nervous. If challenged, and if the inspector was feeling less than charitable during the scheme's opening week, I might be charged a whopping double-digit penalty fare. But no inspector appeared, because they hardly ever do, so I didn't have to use my pre-prepared sob story about not understanding this new system so please be lenient with me officer thankyou. Which left just the ticket barrier at my exit station to negotiate. What would happen as I swiped through? Would the gates beep and fail to open? Or would the technology automatically deduct an Oyster Penalty fare instead, however potentially huge that might be? Ulp. But no, the screen merely flashed up (-1.40), which is the normal peak fare for a single zone journey. I was charged precisely the same as if I'd set an OEP first, except I hadn't.
Outcome: Cost £1.40 (no penalty)
Conclusion: OEPs are pointless.
Health Warning: You might not be so lucky.

Journey 2: station just outside → station just inside (Z4 → Z3)
Experiment: Don't set an OEP before travel

But that's OK, because I don't have to set an OEP if I travel from outside my zones to inside. OEPs are one-way only, although you'd never realise this if you read the official National Rail Oyster leaflet because it's never mentioned. So in this case I was doing the right thing, no guilt required.

One additional problem, however. I'd arrived at the station two minutes before 7pm, which is part of the new afternoon peak period when travel costs more. I hoped I could save myself some money by hanging around in the ticket hall until the off-peak period kicked off at seven. I waited until 19:01 to be on the safe side, then touched in at the barrier and rushed down to the platform... just in time to miss my train, dammit. The new rule is that "touch-in time" is crucial, not the time your train departs, and by saving money I'd actually delayed my journey. All for tenpence.
Outcome: Cost £1.30
Conclusion: Travelling in the new afternoon peak period (1600-1900) costs extra, so watch out.
Health Warning: Saving a few pence might not be worth the wait.

Journey 3: station just inside → station just outside, and back (Z3 → Z4 return)
Experiment: Try to use my Gold Card instead of Oyster

One of the perks of buying an annual Travelcard is that you're sent a special Gold Card, allowing one third off off-peak travel within London and the Southeast. I love mine, it's saved me hundreds of pounds over the years. But it doesn't work with Oyster. Even though my Oystercard must know I have an annual Travelcard, it doesn't charge me Gold Card fares, it charges me what everybody else gets. If I want cheaper prices, I have to queue up just like before.

So I spoke to the bloke at the ticket office and waved my Gold Card. He checked it, then asked if I wanted to use my Oyster instead. "You can use it now," he said, "and it'll be cheaper." I looked sceptical and turned him down, asking again for a Gold Card extension return. So he had to look up the full fare in a big purple book full of fares, and then turn to another table at the back of the book which told him how much one-third off was (rounded down to the nearest 5p). I certainly hadn't chosen the quick option! But, as it turned out, I had chosen the cheaper option.
Outcome: Cost £2.45 (return)
Cost with Oyster would have been: £2.60 (off-peak), £2.80 (peak)
Conclusion: Gold Card users still have to queue, and buy a paper ticket, for the best return fare.
Health Warning: Oyster will never work with Gold Cards, because Oyster can't cope with return tickets.

Then there are two OEP experiments I haven't tried yet...

Experiment 4: Accidentally adding an OEP when it isn't needed
Easily done, if you don't fully understand the rules. But an unnecessary OEP will sit invisibly on my Oyster card until either
a) I travel out of my zones (which could take weeks), or
b) I forget to touch out (which'll probably happen in days, and cost me a penalty fare, and I'll get right pissed off)
Conclusion: Lurking unused OEPs are a recipe for unintentionally losing lots of money.

Experiment 5: Trying to add an OEP at a small National Rail station
Because if a NR station doesn't have an Oyster machine (and most don't), then a trip to the nearest newsagent is required.
Conclusion: Utter waste of time, and highly frustrating.

Overall conclusion: OEPs are stupid. They're a nightmarishly complicated idea, imposed by Train Operating Companies who fear losing revenue from people who've already bought expensive Travelcards. They're only required on certain journeys, on certain lines, in one direction, so they'll never be properly understood by the majority of people who need them. And the penalty for not understanding can be several pounds at a time, which is plain evil. There again, if my first experiment is anything to go by, you might as well just ignore them because the ticket gates charge the right fare even if your Oyster is OEP-less. Stupid, evil, and ineffective. Much like the idiot who invented them.

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