diamond geezer

 Wednesday, April 22, 2015

As a stalwart user of TfL services, you probably don't give a second thought to people using them for the first time. But visitors to our capital often find travel daunting, and TfL has a special wodge of tips, advice and special offers to help them get around.

If you're new here, TfL very much hope you'll find their Visiting London webpage before you arrive. As well as an embedded journey planner, the page leads with five prominent features that might be of interest to London Transport virgins. First off is a big splash announcing that buses in London are cash-free. This won't be news to you, but to those who've not been here in the last twelve months (or have never been) it may come as a surprise. Also, the emphasis on cashlessness allows TfL to push their important offer in panel number two - the Visitor Oyster card.

The Visitor Oyster card is just an ordinary Pay-as-you-go Oyster card, with the same daily caps and everything, but with a prettier pattern on the front. And it has two big advantages over a bog standard blue one, the first of which is that TfL will post it to you before you arrive. Decide how much cash you want on the thing (they recommend £15 for a weekend), stump up a £3 non-returnable 'activation fee' and it'll be on its way. This'll save you queuing up at the first station you reach when you arrive, which is important now that every ticket office is being terminated.

And secondly a Visitor Oyster card allows you to partake in special offers carefully curated by the folk at TfL Towers. These vary, but the current list (available here) includes 20% off your bill at Planet Hollywood, a free hot fudge sundae at the Hard Rock Cafe and 15% off at M&Ms World in Leicester Square. And OK, so these are tourist horrors to be avoided at all costs by discerning folk, but some of the other offers might have much more relevance to ordinary Londoners. 15% off purchases at the Foyles bookshop on the South Bank, for example, that could be damned useful. Or 25% off a Vinopolis tour, assuming you can get in before they close down. Or how about free entrance to a weekend night at the dogs at Wimbledon Greyhound Track (this also available to ordinary Oyster card holders, before you decide to trade yours in).

Panel 3 on the Visiting London webpage leads to a page for "Visitors and Tourists", with a choice of useful two pdfs. One of these is a special tube map I've never seen before. It's called the 'Small theatres tube and rail map', and shows all the railway lines in London along with all the theatres with under 400 seats. There are no West End classics here, but instead dozens of smaller independent venues which deserve our wider attention. There's the Cockpit near Marylebone and the Tricycle near Brondesbury, as well as the Compass near Ickenham and the Chickenshed near Cockfosters. The use of dotted lines to link each theatre to its nearest stations makes for a total mess in places, and is frequently entirely illegible. But I'd say this map (if done properly) is the sort of thing TfL ought to be promoting more strongly to a more local audience, because surely it's Londoners who'd be frequenting these small suburban theatres rather than fly-in fly-out tourists.

The second pdf is an 18 page visitor guide, called Hello London, and brings together all the tourist travel essentials in one place. It explains zones (the Harry Potter Studios are in Zone 9, apparently), gives start/finish times for various services, and urges you to use the Journey Planner to plan your journey. And there's a tube map, a riverboat map and a simplified bus map too, indeed if you downloaded this onto your tablet before you arrived in London you'd be in good shape. But although the brochure's dated 2015 it still manages to mention "Barclays Cycle Hire" on page 2, oops, so presumably it's not updated all that often.

Dig down and the 18 pages are littered with self-promotion. TfL are advising visitors to travel with them, sure, but also to consider travelling more widely on TfL's premium services. Boris's introduction on page 2 doesn't mention tubes and buses, for example, but does mention riverboats, the sponsored cablecar and sponsored hire bikes. The London Transport Museum gets a plug on page 3, as it should, and the capital's new bus gets a glamorous spin ("The New Routemaster bus featured in the James Bond flm ‘Skyfall’ and runs on routes 9, 11, 24, 38 and 390"). Meanwhile the cablecar and river boats get umpteen mentions throughout the document, including a starring role in a sample tourist itinerary on page 15, because the cablecar and riverboats are essentially tourist services so this brochure is their natural home.

Tucked further down the Visiting London webpage, beneath further panels promoting the cablecar and riverboats, are details of London's Visitor & Travel Information Centres. There are currently five of these, and by the end of the year they'll be the only places to go to find a TfL member of staff offering services behind a desk. Their focus isn't really travel, it's more being helpful and flogging stuff, like tickets to Madame Tussauds, coach tours, the London Eye and the top of the Shard. You'll find them at Piccadilly Circus, various central London termini and Heathrow, with VICs at Paddington, Euston and Gatwick Airport opening in the summer. The newly refreshed VIC at King's Cross is open now, in the entrance to St Pancras, replacing the ticket offices that closed down there at Easter. This gleaming facility has the look of an Argos collection point about it, all plastic panels and bright colours, with smiling staff poised at computer terminals, and the opportunity to browse a selection of gifts while you queue.

So as the summer season prepares to kick off, remember the humble London tourist. They get better Oyster cards than us, they get better-presented information than us, and they get secret maps the rest of us never see. They get ticket offices and we don't, because they spend more money than we do on expensive visitor attractions. And they get cablecars and riverboats rammed in their face, because we tend not to use them so there are plenty of seats. You may curse when one stands on the wrong side of the escalator in front of you, but their money probably helps keep your fares down, so be nice.

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