diamond geezer

 Friday, August 28, 2015

Two changes are coming next month to the way you buy tickets for River services in London. They might even make you want to use the river more (or they might not).

Firstly, all Thames Clipper services will accept Oyster Pay As You go for the first time. Currently you have to show your Oyster card at the pier kiosk or on the boat to get a discount, but from mid-September you'll be able to touch in and touch out like you do on the tube. Not having to queue will speed up boarding, which is great, but means you'll no longer be able to buy a ticket on the boat. The 'pay before you travel' policy also means staff need to see you touching in as you board, so passengers will be warned not to touch the reader while they're waiting for the boat to arrive. But the lack of hassle might just encourage you to sail more often.

Secondly, the fare structure for river tickets is changing. Currently there's a flat fare according to which service you use, entirely irrespective of distance. A ride on the main route (RB1) all the way from Embankment to Greenwich costs £7.15, exactly the same as a short hop from Bankside to the London Eye. A ride on the West London commuter route (RB6) always costs £6.70, whether you go from Putney to Chelsea or all the way to Blackfriars. But in future there's going to be an attempt at linking fares to distance, as river routes are split into three different zones.

The Central zone runs from Vauxhall to the Tower, where the majority of journeys made by river begin and/or finish. The West zone runs from Putney to Chelsea, where the only passengers are rush hour travellers. And the East zone runs from Canary Wharf to Woolwich, frequented by both tourists and commuters alike. Travel in two zones, pay more, restrict your journey to just one, pay less. And maybe a lot less.

Let's compare Oyster single fares now and Oyster single fares-to-be by looking at RB1 - the main river service between Westminster and Woolwich, running every 20 minutes.

Embankment → Tower (Central only)£6.44£6.30
Embankment → North Greenwich (Central & East) £6.44£6.50
Canary Wharf → North Greenwich (East only)£6.44£3.90

If you only travel in the Central zone, your Oyster fare decreases, but only slightly. If you travel between the Central zone and the East zone - the most popular journey of all - your Oyster fare increases, but only slightly. The big winners are those who only travel in the East zone, whose fare decreases by a third.

Similar savings might be made on RB6, the peak-hours-only West London commuter route.

Putney → Chelsea (West only)£6.70£3.90
Putney → Westminster (Central & West)£6.70£7.00
Putney → Canary Wharf (All three zones) £6.70£7.20

Most commuters will ride through two zones, where the fare increases slightly. Docklands commuters (on occasional express services) will travel through all three zones, with their fare rising by 7%. Meanwhile there's a big decrease on a West-only journey, but no sane commuter would do that because it's barely any distance at all.

I'll mention one other route, and that's RB4, the cross-river Hilton Ferry.

Canary Wharf → The hotel on the other side of the river £3.78£3.90
Canary Wharf → The hotel and back (return ticket)£6.60£7.80

This brief journey lies entirely within the East zone, and a single fare rises only slightly. But currently you can buy a paper return ticket for your Oyster card and make a saving on the second trip. Once 'touch in and out' begins you'll pay the same on the return as on the way out, which is an overnight 18% price hike.

And what if you pay with something other than Oyster, say on the most popular tourist route?

Embankment - Greenwich (Cash)£8.00
Embankment - Greenwich (Oyster)£6.50
Embankment - Greenwich (Travelcard)£5.30
Embankment - Greenwich (Contactless) £8.00

The full headline fare is expensive, at £8.00. Oyster fares are 10-20% off what anyone who turns up with cash has to pay, which is a smaller discount than most other forms of TfL travel. If you have a Travelcard on your Oyster card, like I do, you get a much better 33% off the full fare, which might suddenly make taking the boat look worthwhile. But if you only have a contactless card, sorry, the system isn't going to be able to cope with these until next summer, so for now you're going to end up paying full whack.

Most Londoners won't pay these prices to travel by river when there are cheaper faster options by train. Westminster to North Greenwich, for example, is only 12 minutes by Jubilee line rather than 45 minutes by boat, and the journey costs £4 less. Only if you like the view from the river, or hate the squash on the tube, is a Thames Clipper ticket a good deal. Equally I'm now looking at an all-East river journey from Canary Wharf to Woolwich with my Travelcard and thinking £2.80 might be a damned good price for a 25 minute trip.

So anyway, in summary...
1) Some time next month you'll be able to use Oyster on river services to touch in and out
2) The changes to fares aren't really terribly dramatic
3) If you're going to pay over six quid for a boat ride, make it a long one.

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