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Oysterology - John C. Kirk

Jan. 28th, 2010

10:31 pm - Oysterology

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As I mentioned a few weeks ago, you can now use Oyster cards on National Rail; this is a good idea, but they could have implemented it better. Since then, I've had several problems with it, where I've had to pay the £4.30 maximum fare (in addition to any price capping). They say: "Please remember to always touch in and out during every journey." However, the truth seems to be a bit more complicated, so take heed of my experiences...

Case 1: Clapham Junction to Selhurst (Tue 5th Jan)

Normally, the gates at ticket barriers will only open in one direction, so you have to find one that's green rather than red. However, the wide gates (for bikes/luggage) will alternate, so that people take it in turns to go through from each side. That means that the display will either say "Please insert card" or "Please wait". When I came along, the gate was wide open, but I touched in anyway. The gate didn't open (since it was already open), but the display changed to "Please wait", so I assumed that it had recognised my card.

At Selhurst, they don't have ticket barriers, but they do have an Oyster reader mounted on the wall. That means that you can touch in or out, or you can just walk straight past it. So, I got to Selhurst, touched my card to the reader, and then it said "Enter", i.e. it thought I was on my way in. I touched it again, to show that I was leaving, and it charged me the £4.30 maximum fare. This was annoying, but I decided to chalk it up to experience rather than applying for a refund.

Case 2: Charing Cross to East Croydon (Thu 14th Jan)

At Charing Cross, the gates were closed. I touched my card to the reader, and it opened the gate, but it didn't display my current balance. At East Croydon, I touched the reader at the bike gate, and it said "Enter". I didn't touch that reader again, but when I left the station and got on a bus, it retroactively charged me £4.30 for the train journey, along with a (capped) charge for the bus journey itself.

In this case, I'd done everything right, so I phoned the Oyster customer helpline for a refund. (0845 330 9876, open 08:00-20:00 seven days a week.) If you phone midweek, be prepared for a long wait: the first time I gave up after 10 minutes on hold, and the second time it took 20 minutes to get through (I was literally a couple of seconds away from hanging up again when someone answered).

They processed the refund, but I then had to arrange where to collect it. The Oyster card stores its own balance, so I had to touch in at a station to get the refund added on. They needed to know which station I'd enter, then they'd tell the machines at that station to add extra money to my card. I don't know why they can't just set it up for "wherever I next touch in"; I'm guessing that all the stations work pretty much independently, and just synchronise once a day, to save bandwidth. When you talk to them, the refund is processed overnight, then it will be valid for six further days (i.e. seven days after the original conversation). The other restriction is that you need to have a minimum balance on your card when you touch in (£1.40), because the ticket barrier checks whether you can afford the journey before it processes the refund.

Anyway, this worked out ok: I went to East Croydon the following morning, touched in, and got the money refunded to my card.

Case 3: Victoria to East Croydon (Fri 22nd Jan)

At Victoria, you need to go through a ticket barrier to get to most of the platforms. The exception is platform 14, since that's normally reserved for the Gatwick Express, and presumably they have their own ticket system. Unfortunately, on this particular day they decided to have other trains running from the same platform, so I got onto the train without going through a ticket barrier and I didn't have an opportunity to swipe in. When I swiped out at East Croydon, I got hit with another £4.30 charge (in addition to the daily price capping).

In a case like this, I think that there are two sensible options for National Rail:
a) Stick to their original policy, and only use platform 14 for the Gatwick Express.
b) Put an "optional" Oyster reader by the side of platform 14 (like the one at Selhurst), so that you can touch in if you need to or you can just ignore it.

However, for now you need to go to the barrier for a different platform, touch in, but don't go through the gate. Then backtrack, and walk to the real platform for your train. Duh! Clearly I was stupid for not thinking of that while I dashed for my train.

So, back to the Oyster helpline. Calling on a Sunday, there was hardly any queue, so I got through very quickly. The person I spoke to checked my Oyster record, which showed me touching out at Victoria (from the tube), then touching out at East Croydon about 25 minutes later, so it was pretty obvious that I must have joined the train at Victoria and stayed within my zones. So, she arranged for another refund, that I'd pick up at East Croydon the following day.

The next day, I had to top up before I got to the station, so that I could pay for bus journeys and still keep the minimum balance to get through the barrier at the station. Unfortunately, when I touched in at the station, it didn't refund the money, so I wound up with a negative balance at the other end, and I had to top up a second time so that I'd be able to get home later.

When I'd arranged the refund, I wrote down the reference number for the refund, but I didn't take it with me so there was nothing I could do about it at the time. Even if I had been able to phone them that evening, I'd still be stuck with the overnight processing delay.

Case 4: City Thameslink (Mon 25th Jan)

This follows on from the refund problems. I started the day with £1.60 on the Oyster card, and I knew that I'd be travelling around zones 1-5 so I'd spend £7.50 altogether (capped price, equivalent to an off-peak travelcard). I topped up with £3.00; combined with the £4.30 refund, my effective balance would be £8.90. That would cover all my journeys that day, and leave me £1.40: that's enough for a single bus journey when I pick up my bike from the repair shop tomorrow, and that's my last (paid) journey of the month. Then I'll get paid again, and I'll have a new travel budget for next month. I topped up with cash at the newsagent because they're happy to accept any amount of money, whereas the machines at the station only go in multiples of £5.

In the long run, I'm sure that I will get all the money back from these mistakes, so the simplest solution is just to throw money at the problem, i.e. top up the prepay with enough of a float that I can absorb these penalty fares without getting stranded. However, that's not really ideal for someone on a limited budget, so buying a daily (paper) travelcard is certainly the safer option here, if you know that you'll be spending that much money on your journeys.

Anyway, when I reached City Thameslink I added an extra £5 to the card, which would act as a substitute for the £4.30 I was expecting to get. Later that evening, I got back to the station, and all the ticket barriers were open, but I dutifully touched in anyway. I was standing on the escalator that led down to the barrier when it suddenly stopped without warning: the member of staff on duty had turned it off because the last train had left. (As a side note, I also think that's quite dangerous: I kept my balance, but other people might have been pitched head first down the stairs, particularly if they were walking rather than standing.)

Anyway, he advised me to catch the bus to London Bridge, so I touched out as I went back through the ticket barriers. Hey presto, another £4.30 penalty fare! This is the same thing that happened at Selhurst: apparently they assume that if you've touched in and out at the same station then you must have been on a big jaunt around London in between. I think that it would be good to put a sanity check into the system, which says that if the two actions are close together (e.g. less than two minutes apart) then you clearly haven't gone anywhere, so you shouldn't be charged any money at all. Failing that, I could live with a system that just treats it as two separate stations, and charges you for a single journey in the same zone (subject to price capping). But no, they've decided to go for the really stupid option that treats paying customers as fare dodgers. I also think that it would be a good idea to put the ticket barriers into "exit only" mode after the last train has gone (whether the gates are open or closed), so that it's physically impossible to touch in.

So, my activity for the day looked like this:

ActivityCreditDebitBalance
Initial balance£1.60
Bus journey£1.20£0.40
Top up£3.00£3.40
Bus journey£1.20£2.20
Train journey£3.90-£1.70
Top up£5.00£3.30
Non-journey£4.30-£1.00


This meant that I was back in negative credit again. I tried to catch the bus anyway, in the vain hope that the system would auto-correct, but the card reader on the bus just said "Not enough money". In theory I could have paid for a ticket in cash, although that's double the Oyster fare and I wouldn't have an electronic record (making it harder to get a refund later). However, the bigger problem was that I didn't have enough cash for that; my wallet was pretty much down to pennies at this point. I felt like John Cleese's character in Clockwise: "I don't have any more money! I've already given you all my money!"

I went back to Thameslink so that I could top up (again!), but they'd now locked up the station. So, I then had a 30 minute walk to London Bridge. When I got there, I put another £5 onto my Oyster card. I touched in on my way to the platform, and it refunded me £4.30. Apparently this was from the Thameslink charge; I don't quite understand the rules, but it looks as though a second journey in the same zone on the same day straightens it out. I'm not sure whether this would have happened if I hadn't topped up; I'm guessing not, based on the previous comments about keeping a £1.40 minimum balance.

The following day, I phoned Oyster up to report both problems. The person I spoke to didn't see why the temporary charge at Thameslink was an issue, since I'd got the money back; my walk was "invisible" as far as their system is concerned.

As for the refund that I was supposed to get at East Croydon, he initially said that I'd received it. I knocked that right on the head, and immediately quoted him the reference number for the refund that I'd actually received. So, a key tip: keep records, even after you think you've finished with them. Don't rely on the TfL staff being competent. He then did a bit more digging, and said that it was "Payment pending", because it needed to be authorised by a supervisor. He suggested that this was because I had two refunds in the system at once, but again I pointed out that this wasn't the case: I'd collected the first refund on Fri 22nd, and applied for the second refund on Sun 24th, so there's no way that they were both in the system at once. As a side note, this also means that the person I spoke to on Sunday was lying when they told me that I could collect the refund the following day.

Anyway, he put me on hold while he checked with someone else, then said that the second refund was fully authorised. This then raised a new issue: where to collect it? I'm off work this week, so I won't be taking the train until next Monday. I mainly use Oyster prepay for bus journeys, but I can't claim the refund that way. Also, as I mentioned before, you can't put season tickets on Oyster; if I use my paper season ticket to enter the station then my Oyster card won't get the refund, but if I use the Oyster card then I'm paying twice for the same journey. In this case, I haven't bought my new season ticket yet, so it's best to delay that for a day and use my Oyster card to pay for journeys on Monday. This will wind up being slightly more expensive: it's only 50p, but it does mean I'm losing a chunk of my refund. (Again, I can't just leave the refund in the system to claim it when convenient, because it expires after a week.)

I'll use this LJ post as the basis for a letter to TfL, but I doubt that they'll pay any attention to it. In the meantime, it's giving me an incentive to avoid trains altogether, and do more cycling.

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