UPDATE – 2 JANUARY 2010: Have you come here from greenwich.co.uk or Andrew Gilligan’s Telegraph blog? If you do, you might want to take a look at this piece I’ve done on his criticisms, and the other things I’ve done on Oyster.
So, it’s finally happening. Six-and-a-half long years after it was first introduced on the Tube and buses, Oyster pay-as-you-go will be introduced on London’s National Rail routes from 2 January, it was confirmed on Monday. Two cheers – as mayor Boris Johnson quite rightly said, “After what feels like eons of negotiation and much gnashing of Londoners’ teeth we can finally announce the Oysterisation of all London’s rail services. We’ve finally ended the crackers situation of Londoners not being able to use Oyster on every mile of London’s track.”
Actually, he hasn’t – Heathrow rail services are exempted, and so are the fast trains from St Pancras to Stratford International, which begin next month. No East End plebs on those, ta. Our mayor has never been known for being a details man, you see.
I’ve done a summary for greenwich.co.uk which details the effects this will have on SE10’s three National Rail stations – on the whole, you can adapt most of that to any of the zones 2 and 3 stations in this part of south-east London. The full set of fares were covered on this blog earlier this month, and you can see what happened last week when I found one of the readers working at Blackheath.
And there’s even a colourful new map of all the new Oyster routes…
However, the price London’s privately-run National Rail companies have extracted from London’s commuters shows just who’s really in charge. Not the Conservative mayor, not the Labour government, but these private interests and their shareholders. The new fares system is fiendlishly complicated – more complex than any expert or anorak ever anticipated.
Not only does it punish occasional customers – a trick we’ve seen on London’s transport in recent years, it also completely screws some of their best customers – a prime feature of unaccountable, private monopolies.
Firstly, though, the companies are using the Oyster change to quietly slip through a stealth fare rise. Off-peak returns using paper tickets are being scrapped, in favour of a standard rate closer to what rush-hour passengers pay. To be fair, we’ve been here before. Soon after Oyster was introduced on the Tube and buses, TfL – then with Ken Livingstone behind the counter – jacked up its cash fares to a stonking £4 on the Tube in Zone 1, and £2 on the buses. That was explicitly designed to persuade passengers to switch to Oyster. It took a while for many to accept the change – but the vast majority did, thanks to the huge publicity surrounding each fare change. (And Evening Standard-based outrage, of course; some years before it introduced its own Eros pre-pay system for buying papers at a cheaper rate.)
However, unlike the Tube, boring old mainline trains don’t really make headlines unless they crash, and it’s not in the train companies’ interests to tell people they could save money by switching to a system they didn’t want to have to introduce in the first place, and that isn’t run by them. So while there was a big TfL publicity campaign to get Tube users to use Oyster cards, don’t expect one for mainline trains. It’s not even as if their ticket machines are compatible with them.
And even if you do switch to Oyster, if you travel during the day, you face paying a peak fare if you travel during the morning or, for the first time in decades, the evening rush hour. Peeking at the new timetables, it’ll be 60p cheaper to go home to Charlton on the 1901 from London Bridge than it will be on the 1855. To a Zone 6 station like Crayford, the gap opens up to a yawning £1.70. Not what the suburbs voted Boris in for. That may be a crafty ruse to free up more space for homeward bound commuters, but it’s no good for families taking their kids for a simple trip into town during the school holidays.
A higher farescale for people using both the Tube and mainline rail services in zone 1 is also another sly money-raiser. Don’t fancy the awkward interchange at London Bridge to reach Charing Cross, so want to use the Tube from Cannon Street instead? Delays at Charing Cross, and it’s simpler to use an alternative station? Tough – it’ll cost you.
Secondly, comes the oddest part, the punishing of the railway’s best customers – Travelcard holders. The very best of them, annual ticket holders, hand over more than £1,000 a year to London’s transport organisations, but have as much influence over their train services as someone who prefers to get stuck in a traffic jam each morning. However, for over 20 years, annual Travelcard holders have benefited from a third off mainline travel in the south-east of England. I have a Gold Card (for a couple more weeks, at least) and it’s brilliant. It makes a massive difference if you’re heading out for the day – or even longer – to somewhere like Canterbury, Oxford or Reading, the kind of journey where you might want to plan ahead.
But if you’re heading just a little way out of your zones, even if you have an Oyster card, you still have to go through the same hoops as you would for a night by the sea in Brighton for a quick drink with a pal in the suburbs. Ticket machines won’t sell the extension tickets required, so you need to queue at a ticket office, and ask someone for “return from the boundary of zone 3 to Bromley North, please, with a Gold Card”. All this for a ticket costing about £1.50, which probably won’t get checked at the other end. It is, quite frankly, easier to skip the fare on many journeys in London. Oyster pay-as-you-go should resolve this nonsense – but it won’t. Even though the Oyster smartcard knows it has an annual ticket on it, the train companies refuse to allow Gold Card holders to take advantage of their discounts without forcing them to queue up at understaffed ticket desks. Is this the way to treat your best customers?
And, of course, for all Travelcard holders, there’s the nonsense of the Oyster Extension Permit, not mentioned at all in publicity issued by TfL and the train companies on Monday, but it is happening. If I want to use my Oyster card for that quick drink at Bromley North, I’ll need to find a ticket machine, ticket office or Oyster newsagent, or ask them to load on a pemit, or I risk getting fined by a ticket inspector. The theory is that the rail companies want to protect against fare-dodgers because their stations don’t have ticket gates, but the Docklands Light Railway works very well without ticket gates, and without putting a presumption of guilt on Travelcard holders travelling outside their zones. Diamond Geezer studies just what Transport for London needs to tell its Travelcard holders.
Despite what Boris says, the situation’s still crackers. The fare scale is fiddly for anyone who isn’t a geek like me, people get punished for daring to use two different modes of transport, and people who put thousands of pounds into the railways get treated like children. But who’s going to stick up for rail passengers? London’s media either glossed over or ignored the downsides of the Oyster changes, with the Standard declaring it a “revolution” in a headline probably dictated from City Hall.
In politics, Labour is fatally compromised by the fact that it has created this situation by privatising every single one of London’s rail franchises, bar one – the London Overground service taken back by Ken Livingstone. The Conservatives are similarly silenced by the fact that they invented this insane system in the first place – even though Boris Johnson has said a couple of times how frustrated he is by his lack of control over London’s rail firms. Interesting how both mayors see things differently from their parties.
The Lib Dems have an effective transport advocate in Caroline Pidgeon, but once again, her credibility is undermined by the fact that her party also backs rail privatisation. Which leaves the Greens, my own party, who back renationalising the railways, but are unfortunately very quiet on the issue at a London level, which is something I find perplexing because it’s such a clear point of difference, and a if better-known would be a hugely popular policy.
So London’s voiceless commuters get screwed again, but there’s nobody who’ll really stand up for them. The politician or party who’s brave enough to take these issues on, and keep on bashing away at them, is pushing at an open door. But has anyone got the guts to take up the challenge?