As I was passing through Stratford International at the weekend, waiting for a High Speed train to Kent, I couldn't help but notice how not-very-busy the station is. Completed 2006, fitted-out 2007, opened 2009, and still an echoing vault of nothing-much come 2011. It may be busier at rush hours, but I've never seen more than a handful of people waiting on the platform. Such a lonely place - standing in the concrete canyon watching Eurostar services whizzing by without stopping, or pacing through the ticket hall where almost nobody buys a ticket. How the bloke at the coffee cart ever makes a living is beyond me, and the underused staff must be either very fortunate or very bored.
Part of the problem is that Stratford International is still in the middle of nowhere. Escalators roll optimistically into the Westfield shopping centre, but that's not open yet. A DLRstation stands mothballed across the road, but as yet there's no planned opening date. The Olympic Village is very close by, but that's not important until the athletes have left and the first proper tenants have moved in. It's currently impossible to walk anywhere outside the station under your own steam, thanks to scary pre-2012 security. So the only option is to catch the meanderingshuttle bus to the end to one of Stratford Regional station's most far-flung platforms, then trek down a long passageway to rejoin the real world. It's not surprising, perhaps, that so few Kentish travellers bother.
When Westfield opens in September all this should change. Suddenly Stratford International will be on the edge of the biggest shopping centre in Western Europe, and a mass of bag-laden passengers may start flooding in. Or they may not. Because, alas, Stratford International suffers from one additional crippling problem other than isolation. Southeastern's High Speed surcharge makes it incredibly expensive to travel there.
Say you're coming in from Kent, from the closest station Ebbsfleet International. That'll be £13.90 single, please, for travelling one stop in under ten minutes. An off-peak return's slightly better value at £14.30, but if any part of your journey is in peak time then expect to pay over £20. That's not an appropriate fare for an everyday shopping excursion, not from Kent, not in times like these.
But the real traffic killer is illustrated here...
The railway from St Pancras International to Stratford International isn't part of the Oyster system. Every other rail line in London is (with the exception of express services to HeathrowAirport), but this line's exempt. Southeastern are so determined to get a return on their High Speed investment that they're allowed to charge a premium on all tickets via Stratford International. Got a normal ticket, or an Oyster card, sir? Best get off now and take the slow train via somewhere else.
A single ticket from St Pancras International to Stratford International will set you back an astonishing £5.40. That's for a five mile journey scheduled to take six minutes. And that's whether you travel at the height of the rush hour or in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. No other London rail journey from zone 1 to zone 3 costs more than £5 with Oyster. Off-peak that price ceiling comes down to £3.20, while by tube the fare's less than £3 all the time. Indeed St Pancras International to Stratford International works out as the most expensive one-stop rail journey in the whole of Greater London (the Heathrow Express excepted). And a return fare's just as scary, as you can see from the table below. Is this legalised extortion, or simply Southeastern's attempt to price random travellers off their precious new trains?
St Pancras → Stratford (High Speed, 6 mins)
St Pancras → Stratford (Underground, 25 mins)
Uxbridge → Epping(Underground, 100 mins)
For a Travelcard holder, it's even worse. If you've paid upfront for travel in zones 1-3, you can normally travel from Stratford into town 'for nothing'. Not so on the High Speed line. If you want to avail yourself of Southeastern's fast reliable services to St Pancras you have to fork out the full extra £5.40, and waste time buying a ticket - none of this convenient swipe-and-go. No thanks, I'll take the tube, even if it takes 400% longer.
So when Westfield flings open its doors, don't expect the High Speed rail rush to be great. Central Londoners won't be hopping on the fast train to the shops without a second thought, it'll be the ordinary Underground for them. What should be a fantastic infrastructure connection from St Pancras to Stratford is being wasted, underpromoted, ignored, because the company running rail services would prefer you not to use it. All that effort to build much-needed capacity, and then it's deliberately priced out of everyday reach. What sense does that make?
And I have to ask, does anyone know what the fare model for Crossrail will be? Will anyone with Oyster be allowed to use it, come 2018, or will it join the special list of premium prohibited rail services? We're promised it'll be London's transport saviour, but let's hope we don't all end up paying for it. Update: "Crossrail will be integrated into TfL's existing zonal system, all existing ticketing options such as Oyster will apply, and a premium fare above TfL zonal ones will only operate for the extension to Heathrow." - so said Ken in 2007. Fingers crossed this is still the case a decade later.