diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 14, 2014

From Tuesday 16th September, contactless payment goes live across London's transport network. Warnings about card clash started more than six months ago, so keen were TfL to adapt customer behaviours and make the system work. But what happens if you DON'T touch in properly with your contactless card at the start of your journey? This could be because of card clash, it could be passenger oversight, or it could be deliberate fare evasion. What happens if the card reader didn't beep on the way in and an inspector calls?

We know what happens with Oyster. Inspectors have a hand-held device which checks your card and lights up green if all's well and red if not. A red light prompts them to enquire further what might have gone wrong, which might lead to a telling off or might lead to a penalty fare. Whatever the outcome, there is a fairly foolproof way for TfL staff to to tell if your card has been properly touched in or not, and they'll tell you so.

But contactless cards are different. They're not issued by TfL, they're issued by banks, so TfL don't know who's using a card unless the owner chooses to register. Also contactless cards don't deduct money for travel straight away, the fare is only totted up at the end of the day (specifically the early hours of the following morning). The card's chip provides no direct link to journey history, at least not one that can be easily checked on a bus or train, so there's no easy way for an official to know whether you touched in your contactless card or not.

What happens on buses, where contactless has been active for some time, is well established. If an inspector boards your bus they'll ask the driver for a printout of every card number that's been used to touch in since the journey began. Then when you present your contactless card to the inspector they'll be able to check their list to see whether or not you're on it. If you are, all well and good. And if not, then you either sneaked on or mis-swiped, and you're bang to rights.

But this only works because buses are sealed environments with card readers at the entrance. You have to touch in as you board, and if you don't the system knows. But trains are different because the gateline is elsewhere, so precisely where and when you boarded is unknown. There is no way to print out a list of every card holder on a train, neither can a hand-held device flash up the validity of your travel.

So how will TfL detect contactless fare evaders on trains? On the tube this isn't much of a problem because virtually every entrance and exit is gated - the system essentially polices itself. But on the Docklands Light Railway, for example, almost all stations are ungated and the scope for deliberate evasion is much greater. The current system relies on regular spot checks by staff on board as a deterrent to Oyster card misuse. And from Tuesday that regime will continue, but with a brand new gadget in the train guard's hand.

All DLR staff are being issued with a special Revenue Inspection Device as part of the move to contactless. What makes this one different is that it'll only read your card, it won't feed back information to the user. Instead the status of your contactless card, used or unused, will be known only by the computer back at TfL HQ. If you touched in, great, but you won't be told. And if you didn't touch in then there'll also be silence, but a marker will be set on TfL's database and they'll punish you later.

Somewhat awkwardly, fines for fare evasion with contactless cards will be applied overnight while you're not looking. What'll happen is that at approximately 4.30am, which is when the daily contactless fare total is totted up, TfL will attempt to take a Maximum Fare from your card. That's £8.60 these days, which is quite a hit, though obviously deserved if you're cheating the system. If there isn't £8.60 on your card then they'll attempt to take the payment later, probably the next time you go into the black. But again, I bet you won't notice at the time.

This invisibility is something you're going to have to get used to with contactless cards. Currently when you swan round town with pay-as-you-go Oyster, the gates flash up the cost of your journey and your remaining balance. Neither will be the case with contactless. No amounts of money will appear on the barrier as you pass, you'll be completely in the dark, at least until you check your bank balance or payment history later.

Now there are several reasons why a ticket inspection might reveal that your contactless card hasn't been touched in. One is that you're an evil fare evader, in which case your delayed punishment is well deserved. Another is that you thought you'd touched in but hadn't, which does happen, especially on the DLR where there are no gates to act as clues. Your innocent error will be fined the full amount, just as it would be now, except the ticket inspector won't be able to tell you at the time. And then there's card clash...

Card clash, as you'll be sick of hearing by now, is when you have two cards on your person and the wrong one gets read by the reader. You're then riding the system with the card you swiped plus a card you didn't, but you don't know which is which. Present the right one to the ticket inspector and all's well. But present the wrong one and you'll be slapped with an £8.60 fine, a fine you'll only find out about the following day, and then only if you look specially.

From Tuesday onwards, a lot of Londoners who haven't got to grips with card clash are going to be charged a Maximum Fare for not using the system properly. In some cases they'll be charged two, that's £8.60 for touching in with a card they didn't touch out with, and £8.60 for touching out with a card they didn't touch in with. This'll happen on normal journeys - it doesn't take a ticket inspector for the system to know you've mucked up. But a ticket inspection will trigger the fine for sure, and I don't think people are going to enjoy finding these whopping extras already taken from their account.

Furthermore, contactless users beware, because if your card is read a second time without having been touched in, it will be blocked from use. You'll then have to get in contact with your bank, not with TfL, and they'll have to resolve the block on contactless travel before you can ride again. Conquer the card clash issue and it shouldn't happen to you. But those attempting to travel for free, and caught twice, won't be allowed to get away with it again.

A twelve page Contactless travel leaflet is arriving in stations this weekend - it's blue, look out for it. If you own a contactless card you should read a copy, even if you have no intention of using the card for travel. Pay attention to the bit where they suggest you register your card in order to view your journey history and apply for refunds. And watch your TfL online account like a hawk in case a ticket inspection, or an everyday mis-swipe, lands you an £8.60 fine you weren't expecting.

Contactless payment cards - conditions of use (pdf)

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