diamond geezer

 Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dear TfL,


I know this may come as a surprise, given that you think they're the bee's knees, but not all of us have one yet.

When my bank sent me a new debit card last year I was expecting something contactless. They're a big bank and contactless is the future, as I remember hearing a lot during the Olympics. But instead they just sent me a traditional Chip and Pin, nothing Wave and Pay, which it seems I'm doomed to keep until it expires. This means I'm expecting to have no contactless card for the rest of this year, and no contactless card for the whole of next year, then perhaps a contactless replacement in 2016. But until then, no matter what you might think, I DO NOT HAVE A CONTACTLESS CARD.

I've seen your adverts encouraging us to use our contactless cards on the bus. You've enabled payment by microchip because buses are simple touch-in, not touch-out, means of transport. All we do is board and swipe with our bank cards, not our Oysters, and this makes you very happy. That's because you intend to kill off paying with cash on the buses, indeed kill it off this summer, and you see contactless cards as the ideal alternative. Got no metal money to board a bus? No problem, use plastic money instead. It's a beguiling argument, with one big fatal flaw. LOTS OF US DO NOT HAVE A CONTACTLESS CARD.

For those who do, there are unintentional technical problems. They now have two practical means of paying for a bus journey - an Oyster card and a contactless card - and it's proving too easy to swipe both. TfL assure us that in this situation it's not possible to end up paying twice. At best the reader will get confused and you'll have to wave again. But more likely one of the two cards will be selected for payment, which might not be the card you were expecting to use. And although that's not the end of the world on a bus, it could cause considerably more hassle on the tube.

TfL have named this problem 'card clash', and they're really worried by it. You can tell they're worried because they've just put up prominent posters warning about card clash at tube stations across the entire network. And you can tell they're really worried because they've started this campaign several months before contactless cards go live.

Card clash will be much more of a problem on the tube than on the buses because you need to touch in and touch out. All's fine so long as you use the same card each time, you'll pay for one journey as normal. But if you accidentally touch out with a different card to the card you touched in, you could end up paying not just one penalty fare but two, and that could be expensive.

Suppose you keep both your Oyster and your contactless card in your wallet or handbag, which you then wave across the card reader. Lots of people do this because it's easy, and because it doesn't involve having to hunt around in the depths of some pocket or bag to dig out the appropriate card. But with simplicity comes great danger. You don't know which card triggered the barrier when you touched in, so you can't guarantee the same card will trigger the barrier when you touch out. And that could mean a maxiumum fare of £8.50 on the card that failed to touch in, plus a maximum fare of £8.50 on the card that failed to touch out. People aren't going to be happy to discover it's happened to them.

Obviously what you need to do is keep your Oyster card and contactless card separate. Stick your Oyster in a plastic wallet, like the wallet they gave you when you bought the thing, and only wave the plastic wallet across the card reader. But for many Londoners that's going to mean unlearning some fairly hardwired habits. Over the last ten years they've learned that Oyster works perfectly well from inside a purse or bag, so they're going to carry on doing that unless TfL jump up and down and shout very loudly that bag-waving is bad idea. Hence the card clash campaign, which can only ramp up as the 'go live' date in 'early summer' approaches.

Further problems will emerge when passengers get forgetful. Will they always remember at the end of a journey which of their two cards they used to touch in, or will they sometimes instinctively swipe the wrong one? And expect further problems when passengers are inattentive. What if they wave their wallet at a reader on the DLR and card clash means that neither card is triggered? Will card clash victims notice the wrong beep, or will they stride in and then get blasted for £8.50 at the other end of their journey? Imagine trying to explain that to the ticket inspector, if there is one. Anyone caught travelling without touching in, including as a result of card clash, is liable for a penalty fare of up to £80.

There is a simple solution, of course, which is to stop using your Oyster card altogether. TfL would be very happy if this was your chosen outcome because they have a vested interest in getting as many people off Oyster as possible. They save 2p in every pound on fare collection when passengers use contactless rather than Oyster, because all the hassle of maintaining the card is borne by the bank. TfL have pledged that Oyster won't be withdrawn as a consequence of the rollout of contactless technology, but ultimately you'd suspect that's where this is heading.

But I DO NOT HAVE A CONTACTLESS CARD. So I'm not worried about card clash because it simply can't happen. My bank's failure to upgrade my debit card means I'm perfectly safe from simultaneous microchip activation for one or two years hence. But TfL are worried, really worried, hence this tube campaign they're ramping up several months early. A a contactless pilot involving five thousand volunteers is currently underway, so maybe that's one reason for TfL's current caution. Or more likely they're attempting to change your behaviour so that keeping your two cards separate is second nature by the time the true launch begins. I suspect they're are on a loser with that plan, there are far too many instinctive wallet-wavers out there, but that won't stop management from rolling out a new system with several inbuilt impracticalities in the summer.

So beware the perils of card clash, coming later this year to a handbag near you. Or just sit smugly on the sidelines and watch everyone else buggering up. Because WE DO NOT ALL HAVE A CONTACTLESS CARD. And some of us are currently rather happy about that.

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