Further Oyster Expansion Beyond London Under Discussion

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Tom Edwards over at BBC London is reporting that discussions are now actively underway between the DfT, TfL and FCC over the expansion of Oyster onto more services.

TfL first mooted the idea of further expanding Oyster’s sphere back in February, when it received a short mention in the one year review of the Oyster PAYG rollout:

TfL is making some progress on discussions about stations on First Capital Connect such as St. Albans, on First Great Western such as Slough, on Southeastern such as Dartford and on Southwest Trains such as the Shepperton branch.

Since then, however, there has been no mention of progress and the BBC piece, confirmed by other sources, represents the first real indication that progress is being made.

As an Operator, First were always likely to be at the forefront of any further Oyster expansion. Alongside Southern, they cover a higher-than-average number of gated railway stations and are also responsible for Thameslink. Sources suggest they were also one of the first TOCs to sign on for the expansion of Oyster PAYG onto national rail services as well.

If the infrastructure is there to support it, smart ticketing can have a positive impact both on casual travelling and simplification of administration. Several TOCs (such as SWT) have also started to realise that it potentially presents opportunities to reduce Ticket Office staffing as well, following TfL’s recent example. FCC are likely aware of all these opportunities, and with ITSO, the official national rail smart card standard, still immature, Oyster has rapidly become the defacto standard.

From TfL’s perspective, any expansion of the system is also a relative no-brainer – particularly if it takes Oyster onto services which they have half an eye to controlling themselves anyway. As our recent piece on the Future of Franchising highlighted, TfL’s own ambitions (for relatively good reasons) currently stretch well out from the London core – taking in both the lines currently mooted for this Oyster expansion. Anything in either perception or reality that begins to link those services in further with TfL is thus a positive. Similarly, it also gives TfL further leverage over the relationship between Oyster and ITSO.

Beyond this, the form that a further expansion of Oyster onto TOC services takes may also begin to give TfL some practical ideas as to how to address the big blue Oyster Elephant currently lurking in its room – Crossrail.

Oyster itself will no doubt have evolved further by the time Crossrail’s passenger services begin. Whatever visage it then wears, however, the simple fact is that TfL, which will operate Crossrail as a Concession in largely the same way as it operates the Overground, will need to roll Oyster out across its full length – if not for practical and passenger reasons, then most definitely for political ones. Any work that has been done to take its smart ticketing beyond London’s borders will thus no doubt prove valuable in the long run.

Returning to the specifics of the current plans between TfL and the DfT/First Group, although details are relatively scarce, sources suggest that the current discussions are focused on expanding Oyster acceptance out as far as St Albans on Thameslink, and out onto the Hertford Loop as far as Hertford North.

Halting Oyster acceptance here for now rather than continuing on to include Stevenage, an increasingly major commuter hub, may initially seem strange. It is worth remembering, however, that by limiting the reach to the railway stations suggested above the need to involve TOCs other than FCC is, for now at least, avoided.

Just what form this expansion might take, and how it might affect fares and ticketing, is currently unclear. As the BBC article hints at, one option might be to include the additional stations into the non-London Travelcard Zones (7-9). The outer of these, Zone 9, currently features only Amersham and Chesham, and thus would seem a reasonable fit for the additional stations. Ultimately, however, this should be seen as little more than speculation at this point.

Similarly, timescales are also currently unknown, although sources suggest that we are unlikely to see any practical implemenation until the end of Q1 2012.

Whatever the current situation, it is clear that Oyster’s scope is likely to be expanded once again in the not too distant future. For even if the current negotiations with First fall through, it seems unlikely that similar discussions are not taking place with other TOCs (most likely Southern at the very least).

Ultimately this is likely good news for passengers. It does, however, contain an element of risk. As we’ve discussed before, Oyster is becoming an increasingly complex beast, mostly because of the fundamentally flawed fares structure that currently exists within London and beyond. If Oyster is to be extended out even further, then that will put even more strain on the system’s ability to keep things simple for passengers and make a reform of fares and ticketing even more crucial.

As the recent Franchise piece highlighted, fare reform is something that TfL are very much committed to, and to which the TOCs and the DfT have been largely ambivalent so far. Whether a further expansion of Oyster turns out to be the Trojan Horse which allows TfL to finally breach that resistance will be interesting to see.

Written by John Bull