A little mini-anniversary crept past last week – six months since we were finally allowed to use Oyster pay-as-you-go on south London’s mainline trains. It feels as the beeps from the ticket readers have always been with us, together with the scowls from Southeastern staff as they probe our cards with their little blue readers.
The other night, I was behind a guy a Charlton whose card gave off the dreaded error beeps – feeling public-spirited, I caught up with him to say his card hadn’t touched out properly. He smiled: “It’s alright – mine’s a free ticket. I just like the beeps.”
I love the beeps. I’m fascinated by how it works. Well, when it works, anyway. Here’s a few things I’ve discovered over the past few months that are great about Oyster, and a few things that are not so great.
Yes, it can be cheap… London Overground‘s arrival around these parts has really seen Oyster take off for me – while Shoreditch High Street being in zone 1 remains a nasty little fiddle, the ability to avoid using the Underground or Docklands Light Railway altogether means it’s possible to cross London from Charlton from just £2, changing at Lewisham and waiting four minutes, and again at New Cross for another four. SE7 to E2 in half an hour for a couple of quid? Magic. (Don’t expect the journey home to be as easy though.) The same applies for Thameslink trains to St Pancras and beyond from London Bridge – when the damn thing is open and working properly, that is.
But it isn’t always cheap. Charlton to Shoreditch High Street costs £2 – so one stop closer to town, Westcombe Park, should be the same, right? Wrong. That £2 fare is dependent on using only National Rail services – which both Southeastern and London Overground are – and changing at New Cross. That option isn’t available at Westcombe Park or Maze Hill, so those stations’ users get hammered for a £3.10 fare because they have to use the Docklands Light Railway between Greenwich and Shadwell. But if you get off one stop earlier – at Whitechapel – and walk up Brick Lane instead, the fare is slashed to £1.50, because you’re not entering zone 1. That’s just madness.
And it can be bloody confusing. Did I tell you the fare from Greenwich to Shoreditch High Street? It’s £1.80 – because Greenwich is in zone 2 for this journey, and this ride also counts the Overground as part of TfL rather than National Rail. Confused? I am.
Even if it’s sometimes cheaper than getting the bus. New Cross-New Cross Gate counts as an interchange station with Oyster – so should I fancy a drink in Brockley or Forest Hill, rather than paying £3.90 for two buses there, and two buses back, I can take the train to New Cross, trot along the New Cross Road, and get an Overground or Southern train south for £1.50 each way. Changing trains at Nunhead or Peckham Rye can also pay off – in both time, hassle and money. When those trains are running, of course.
National Rail companies hate Oyster… or do they? Five weeks on, Southeastern still hasn’t responded to my complaint about the guy at Cannon Street who gave me misleading info about Oyster. But not all National Rail firms have this obstinate attitude to our little blue friends. Most of the London companies are taking part in a special discount offer for Oyster holders this month (Brighton for a fiver!) – guess which one isn’t taking part? (As an aside, Southeastern’s new network maps don’t even acknowledge the existence of London Overground at New Cross.)
The bloody Oyster helpline. The staff are friendly when you finally get through to them – but the cost of a refund is swallowed up by the cost of a call. E-mail is even worse. I dropped them a line on 20 March about some money they owed me. It took until yesterday – 7 July – for a reply to arrive. I suspect the huge expansion in Oyster availability has not been matched with an expansion in Oyster staff.
There’s up the ups, downs, and gripes of Oyster. But are there any easy solutions? Some of them are service-related – if trains ran from Victoria to Dartford all day and all evening, it’d open up more possibilities and allow cheaper journeys. Can’t see Southeastern doing that, though. And weekend closures of Thameslink and other lines shut down other cheap journey opportunities.
But most of them go down to the eccentric way fares are calculated. It’s surely time to bin the unfair “TfL/National Rail” fare scale, which charges an extra £1.10 for all journeys involving both operators’ services that touch zone 1.
London Overground’s ambiguous status is confusing – but beneficial for those of us who start our journeys on Southeastern. It’s cheaper to go from Lewisham to Shoreditch High Street than it is to go from Brockley, for example. It’s fair that National Rail users should pay cheaper fares. Most of London’s mainline services are much less frequent and convenient than the Tube is – have a look at the piss-poor service from Crofton Park.
But perhaps there should be a guarantee that nobody should have to pay more than the appropriate Tube fare for any journey. I suspect the mainline companies would wail about lost revenue, but why should travelling to St Pancras suddenly become £1.10 more expensive just because the Thameslink route is closed each weekend for rebuilding?
A quick fix would be to allow more “out of station interchanges” like the one between New Cross and New Cross Gate. How about adding Deptford to that pair? It’s easy to change between Deptford and New Cross – down the high street, right into Douglas Way, left into Amersham Vale and you’re there. It’s probably a quicker walk than that between the two New Cross stations, and it’d make using the London Overground cheaper from the Greenwich line. And the Cannon Street/Bank issue I mentioned before still needs fixing.
So Oyster… it’s a success and definitely A Good Thing. But it shows up a lot of the internal politics between London’s public transport services – divisions which passengers ultimately have to pay for in fares. But then again, some of the quirks are to our benefit – like being able to use London Overground cheaper than people who live near London Overground stations.
It’s swings and roundabouts, to an extent, but if someone could take the thing by the scruff of the neck, it could a lot better…
But how has it been for you?