This contactless fares thing is really happening, then?
Yes, it may be a year later than planned, but yesterday TfL announced their firm intention to roll out contactless payments across London this autumn.
When precisely do contactless payments launch on TfL services? On 16th September 2014, which is a Tuesday. Remember the day of the week, it'll be important later.
Which TfL services will that include?
The Underground, the Overground, the DLR and Trams. That's in addition to all of London's buses, which have been available to contactless users since December 2012.
Which TfL services won't that include?
It doesn't look like you'll be able to use your contactless card on River Buses or on the cablecar, which will upset a small number of people. More importantly, it's possible you won't be able to use your contactless card on all of the rail services in London where Oyster is currently available, not unless TfL negotiations with rail companies are sorted out before September. This has the potential to be a right pain, because you'd have to stop and think which kind of journey you're going on before you set out. West Croydon? Contactless. East Croydon? Oyster. TfL think they can sort this one out in time, fingers crossed they do.
Is this the end of Oyster?
Not at all. TfL have pledged to keep Oyster available for all those who need it, or want it. That includes everyone without a bank account, and everyone without a contactless card, which is still most people (approximately 70% of UK cardsaren't contactless). It may be that in the future the chip in your Oyster card is replaced by a chip that works much like a contactless card, operating a new kind of TfL travel account. But there'll always be a non-bank version of London's travel ticket, because society would be scuppered if there wasn't.
Have they solved 'card clash', then?
No, that's still just as much of an issue as it was before, indeed probably more so. Unless you've been involved in the contactless trial, your card won't have been activated so can't currently be used to pay for journeys. From 16th September you may need to be more careful. Touch your Oyster card on the way in but accidentally your contactless card on the way out and you could be stung for two incomplete journeys. Keep more than one contactless card in your handbag or wallet and you may be stung quite regularly. That's why announcements about card clash have been broadcast ad nauseam for several months, because TfL need this new behaviour hardwired before the new system launches.
What are the main benefits of going contactless?
The biggest benefit is that you'll no longer need to top up your Oyster credit because the money comes straight off your credit or debit card. No longer will you need to stand at a machine and add cash or push your plastic into the slot. Now your card will work directly on the barriers, so the queues at ticket machines should get shorter (and will eventually, presumably, need fewer members of staff to supervise them).
How is this better than the existing ability to top-up your Oyster account automatically when it goes below a set total?
Perhaps one of my readers can tell me.
So now it's just turn up and go?
From September 16th, yes. If you're new to London you won't need to send off for an Oyster card in advance or queue up for one when you arrive, your existing bank card is now your permit to travel. But watch out because not all foreign-based contactless cards will work TfL's system, a particular exception at start-up being Mastercards issued in the USA or Canada.
Won't going contactless clog up my bank statement with itty bitty journeys?
No. Only one charge per day will be sent to your bank for payment, and only one daily charge will appear on your statement. The payment reference will mention TfL but won't list everywhere you've been.
So hang on, how do I find out if I've been overcharged?
TfL aren't expecting you to be overcharged. But you'll be able to register for an online account which will allow you to view your journey and updated payment history at the end of each day. There's already a similar service for Oyster users. For example I can see eight weeks worth of my travel history online, and TfL email me every Monday with a pdf listing every journey I've made in the last week and how much it cost. All the information you need is already available.
How is the payment system fundamentally different to Oyster?
Oyster works by charging you as you tap in and out. On a bus or tram the money is deducted at the start of the ride, while on trains a calculation is made at the end of the journey to work out how much you should then be charged. Contactless will work differently. Contactless merely records that you've touched in or out when you swipe, no money changes hands at the time. Then overnight a computer at TfL HQ tots up where you've been and calculates what your fare should be, resulting in one single payment for each day you travel. This is cutting edge technology, using cards to make payments later rather than at the point of contact, and TfL are rightly proud of what they've achieved.
Will I see any difference at ticket barriers?
Yes. At present, your Oyster balance flashes up on the display when you touch in and again when you touch out, allowing you to keep an eye on that balance in case it nears zero. If you use contactless then no amount of money will be shown, not even the fare for the journey you've just made, because officially that's calculated later. You are about to lose visibility of how much your travel costs as you speed around town, which'll make checking your statement later all the more important.
Won't contactless cards be slower to operate ticket barriers?
A bit slower, yes. Oyster cards are quicker at checking you're entitled to travel and opening the gates, helping to prevent congestion on the way through the barriers. But contactless cards can now deliver transaction times in under the crucial 500ms at which longer queues begin to form, so TfL hope you won't spot the difference.
Will prices be the same as Oyster?
They should be. There'll be no special discounts applied for users of one system or the other.
Even daily capping?
Yes. For contactless in the future, just as for Oyster now, if you travel a lot on a particular day there's a prescribed maximum you can be charged depending on time of travel, zones covered and modes of transport used. That cap will simply be applied at the end of the day, rather than cutting in at the point where your fares exceed the limit.
How about weekly price capping?
That'll work too. TfL are introducing 'Monday to Sunday' fare capping which will automatically calculate the best value for contactless travel over one week, that is so long as you use the same contactless card throughout. But note TfL's sudden insistence that a week must now start on Monday, whereas currently with travelcards a seven-day cap can kick off on any day of the week. For example if you visit London for seven days starting on a Thursday and pay by contactless card, your visit will no longer count as one consecutive period. Instead you'll have a Thursday to Sunday period followed by a Monday to Wednesday, neither of which is likely to hit a weekly cap, and you may end up worse off than now. Think of it as a limitation of the new system, which requires a uniform week for all, rather than a genuine conspiracy.
So why are TfL introducing this new system on a Tuesday?
Beats me. They've already started trumpeting the excellence of their 'Monday to Sunday' fare capping system, but then the first contactless week will only have six days in it. Sounds like a sure-fire recipe for complaints to me, that is unless they come up with a first-week exception or a promotional gimmick.
What happens if you don't have any money in your contactless account?
Good question. Presumably if it's a credit card that's not a problem, because credit cards are all about managing debt. But if your debit card goes into the red thanks to a TfL journey... good question.
How are ticket inspectors going to be able to check that you've paid when people start using contactless cards?
Good question. Passengers involved in the contactless trial have been given membership cards to act as proof that they're not freeloading. But that's not going to be possible once Joe Public starts using the system, so when the DLR attendant approaches you with their Oyster reader... good question.
Does 'contactless' only work via cards?
Not at all. EE have a Cash on Tap app which you'll be able to use on the tube by swiping your phone past the ticket barriers... if you're up for that. Contactless-enabled key fobs and wristbands will also work, for those at the cutting edge of technology. Expect other networks and interactive media to follow.
Are TfL hoping that everybody switches to contactless?
Eventually, yes. They expect the move will save them up to £80m in the next five years by reducing payments to the firm providing Oyster, and this saving can only increase as the technology becomes more tempting. "From our perspective and from a consumer perspective the contactless system is better," according to TfL's Director of Customer Experience. "We'll be encouraging them to start using it – Oyster is not broken, the point is we have a better system."
Are TfL recommending that everybody switches to contactless?
No. At present contactless is essentially a replacement for Pay As You Go, and while that's most users of TfL services, it's by no means everyone. In particular the contactless system can't currently cope with periods longer than one week, so anyone with a monthly or annual Travelcard should continue to use that for the foreseeable future. In addition, Freedom Pass users should continue to use their Freedom Passes, and anyone with concessionary travel should continue to use their special Oyster card. Remember this as TfL's publicity machine rolls out in the lead-up to the launch date in September - a lot of people would be worse off switching to contactless, and they'll need to remember NEVER to swipe their contactless card.
And why should I believe you on any of this?
Oh you shouldn't. I haven't been part of the contactless trial, and I wasn't invited one of the TfL press conferences which explained the system in detail. But feel free to chip in and correct anything you think I've got wrong, or add any additional information you think is relevant, because that'd be very helpful.
Do you have a contactless card?
No, I don't have a contactless card. But the rest of you, you have fun out there.