Earlier in the week I got charged extra for spending too long on the tube. I was travelling from a station in zone 5 to a station in zone 3, and took a bit too long about it, and got slapped with an automatic penalty as a result. So I wondered, do you know what the time limit is for a single tube journey?
And that's a sizeable penalty. They charge you once for touching in without touching out, and then again for touching out without touching in, and all because you left too big a gap between the two. A maximum fare is £8, assuming you stay within zones 1-9 on the tube map, and they charge you that twice. £16 is a bloody big slap on the wrist just for staying on the tube too long. Have I worried you yet that you don't actually know how long you're allowed?
Ninety minutes might sound right. Most journeys are done in ninety minutes, even Chesham isn't that far out, so might an hour and a half be fair? Well no, because not all journeys start or finish in central London. If you want to start on one side of London and end up on the other you're going to need rather longer. So it isn't that.
Two hours might be a sensible amount of time. Two hours is ages. You can get all the way from Amersham to Upminster in that time. But no, the time limit's not two hours, because if your Amersham to Upminster journey was delayed for some reason you could easily slip over a two hour limit, and that wouldn't be fair. So it isn't that.
How about three hours? Three hours would be long enough to make even the most awkward journey doable, even Chessington to Chingford with a delayed train along the way. But three hours would be far too long for the vast majority of journeys, and that would allow too many people to take advantage of the system, for example not touching out at the end of a journey and then pretending a second journey was a continuation of the first. So it isn't that.
In fact the maximum time you're allowed depends on the journey you're making, so a zone 1 flit has a shorter time limit than a cross-capital safari.
If your journey's only in Zone 1 you're allowed 90 minutes.
If your journey's only in Zone 2 you're allowed 90 minutes.
If your journey's in Zones 1 and 2 you're allowed 100 minutes.
If your journey's in Zones 2 and 3 you're allowed 90 minutes.
If your journey's in Zones 1, 2 and 3 you're allowed 110 minutes.
That seems OK. Even riding a full circuit of the Circle line, just for the hell of it, comes in well under the 90 minute limit. And 110 minutes is almost two hours, which ought to be plenty for a journey solely within zones 1, 2 and 3. The danger comes if you stop off somewhere on a platform without leaving the network, or if you're the sort of person who likes dicking about on trains and riding them for the sake of it. Hello target audience. The moral here is don't dick about too long.
If your journey's only in Zone 3 you're allowed 70 minutes.
Interesting. That's shorter than the time available for a single zone journey in Zones 1 or 2, whereas you might expect journeys further out to take longer. The reason the time limit's shorter is that it's quite difficult to make a long journey in zone 3 without nudging into another zone at some point, so even Hanger Lane to Kew Gardens via Ealing Broadway only deserves 70 minutes.
It gets more complicated once zone 4 comes on board.
If your journey's in zones 1-4 you're allowed 110 minutes... unless your journey involves going through central London from zone 4 on one side to zone 3 on the other, or from zone 3 on one side to zone 4 on the other, in which case you're allowed 120 minutes... or unless your journey involves going through central London from zone 4 on one side to zone 4 on the other, in which case you're allowed 130 minutes.
(at any point during this post you can just scream and click through to TfL's full list)
From this point on, the Maximum Journey Time depends on how many zones you cross. Importantly that's not the number of zones you travel in, but the number you consecutively pass through. So, for example, Heathrow to Walthamstow Central would be 6-5-4-3-2-1-2-3, which is EIGHT zones, Uxbridge to Upminster would be 6-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5-6 which is ELEVEN zones, and Chesham to Cheshunt would be 9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 which is SIXTEEN zones. TfL's table actually goes up to 20 zones, and each row has a different Maximum Journey Time associated with it.
This formula covers it (where z is the number of zones).
MJT = 60 + 10z
A 1 zone journey is allowed 70 minutes, 2 zones is allowed 80 minutes, 10 zones is allowed 160 minutes, and a full-blown 20 zone journey is allowed 260 minutes (or an amazing 4 hours 20 minutes). A reminder that this formula is only true for journeys which involve zone 4 or beyond - inner London journeys have their own bespoke times.
Also, this isn't about the journey you actually take, it's about the journey TfL's fares computer assumes you've taken. Every single possible London train journey has an assumed route, which computes to an assumed number of zones crossed, which equates to a specific Maximum Journey Time.
And in case you thought that was it, no, sorry, I've missed out the important fact that when you make your journey is also important.
All the Maximum Journey Times I've listed so far are for Mondays to Fridays before 7pm. In the evenings a completely new scale kicks in, because trains might not be quite so frequent, so TfL are a bit more generous. If you're allowed 90 minutes before 7pm, then you're allowed 100 minutes after 7pm. Meanwhile what was a maximum of 200 minutes before 7pm goes up to 220 minutes after, because TfL are nice like that.
If you're still with us, the underlying rule is that you're allowed 10% longer after 7pm than you are before 7pm. To keep things manageable, all times are rounded up to the next multiple of 5 (so for example 120 minutes increases to 135 minutes, not to 132). The same scale applies on Saturdays, i.e. 10% longer than weekday daytimes. But on Sundays the percentage increase is 20%, because trains are fewer and farther between, so you're allowed even longer to make your journey.
MJTSat = MJTM-F +10%
MJTSun = MJTM-F +20%
Let me show you some proper examples in a table (and I'm only going to do zones 1-3, rather than over-complicate you with the lot). This table shows the Maximum Journey Time at various times of the week.
Maximum Journey Time(minutes)
As a rough rule of thumb, so long as you keep your inner London journey below an hour and a half, you'll be fine, and keeping under two hours is generally OK for a journey in zones 1, 2 and 3. But it's not simple, is it?
Checking the full tables, you have two hours on weekdays to complete a journey between zones 1 and 6, rising to almost two and a half on Sundays. An epic expedition from Orpington to Edgware, that's eleven zones, permits an approximately three hour trip. And as for the longest possible journey of 20 zones, e.g. Amersham to Shenfield, the numbers on that row of the table are 260 290 and 315, giving you around five hours to complete your journey at the weekend.
These Maximum Journey Times all sound so generous that they shouldn't ever be a problem. But as I discovered it is possible to dawdle or deviate too long, and then get stung by a pretty massive penalty. I took 92 minutes when I was only allowed 90, and those extra two minutes really hurt. What I should have done was touch in at some point along the way, to remind the system that I still exist, and to prevent my elapsed time from ticking up so high. I might then have been charged for two separate journeys rather than one, but it'd have been a heck of a lot cheaper than being charged two maximum fares.
TfL's advice is clear... "Keep within the maximum journey time when you're travelling and you'll be charged the right fare." I'm just gobsmacked how intractably complex their tables are - nothing a mere human could be expected to keep on top of. A table with 24 rows might be eminently computable, and demonstrably fair, but wouldn't it be nice to have a simpler time limit that most of us could actually understand?