The Problem With Simples: Why Oyster is a Victim of its own Success


In 1998 London Transport signed a £1.1bn PFI deal that, by the time of its termination in 2010, would have had a massive impact on the journeys of millions of people across London.

It wasn’t Metronet. It was the contract to create the smart ticketing system we now know as Oyster.

Last year, Oyster accounted for a whopping 3 billion passenger journeys. In the short time since its extension (in PAYG terms) to portions of London’s National Rail network it has already accounted for over 80 million passenger journeys there. All in all it is virtually impossible to see Oyster as anything other than an outstanding success – it may not have been the first travel smart card system out there (it was, after all, modelled on the Octopus card found in Hong Kong), but it is arguably the most successful.

Today’s announcement that, by the time of the Olympics, London’s buses will accept PayWave technology for ticket purchases is a sure sign of how successful Oyster on London Transport has been. PayWave has been part of TfL’s Future Ticketing plans for some time, but it is only one part of their quest to take smart ticketing further. Indeed the Operator has been playing with direct pay systems for a long time (a limited scheme in partnership with Barclaycard even briefly appeared in 2006).

Whilst much talk today will no doubt focus on the promise of better digital future though, it is worth pausing to stop and take stock of precisely where Oyster itself is, and what problems it now faces. for whatever the future of e-ticketing on London’s travel network is, it is Oyster that is here now and Oyster upon which any future model will ultimately be based.

Two Simple Goals

A significant part of Oyster’s success has obviously been due to the massive take up of the scheme by the public at large. For the vast majority of Londoners, the Oyster card has become their key to London’s transport network – indeed it’s an apt metaphor as there are probably few commuters out there who haven’t, at some point, tiredly tried to Oyster into their house. Much of the speed and size of that takeup can be attributed to the fact that Oyster was trumpeted as a system that would meet two clear goals:

1) It would be simple to use
2) It would always find its users the cheapest fare.

That Oyster met these goals is to be lauded, but that these two basic objectives had become such revolutionary ideas is a damning indictment of the fares and ticketing to be found on Britain’s Railways.

Fares Unfair

Indeed it is a situation that if anything has only gotten worse since Oyster’s launch. While Britain’s Train Operating Companies (TOCs) and the DfT may talk about maximum fares, basic ticket options and cheap deals, the simple fact is that the system remains far too complex. Most travellers do not have the time or knowledge to be able to successfully trawl through fare tables and offers hunting out the cheapest option buried in the maths, nor – in the age of ticket machines and staffing reductions – are they generally able to do so easily at most major mainline stations.

The simple fact is that most travellers, faced with a myriad of ticketing options, subtly reminded throughout that picking the wrong one will result in a penalty fare and aware of the evergrowing queue behind them, will opt for safety and hit the “anytime day single” button on the ticket machine each time.

In such an environment it is perhaps no wonder that Oyster has proven phenomenally successful. TfL’s own goals for the scheme may not have been entirely altruistic (it has massively simplified a lot of their day-to-day ticketing operations, increased ridership and given them a wealth of user data), but the simple fact is that they are probably the only Railway Operator in recent history to voluntarily instigate a ticketing change that genuinely benefitted the passenger.

No better demonstration of the fact that Oyster was (and indeed still is) to the passenger’s benefit is needed than the apathy and occasional outright resistence the bulk of rest of the industry has, until relatively recently, demonstrated to smart cards. Talk of the Integrated Transport Smartcard Organisation (ITSO) and its specification for country-wide smart cards has appeared in press releases and franchise documents for both the DfT and the TOCs in recent months, but the organisation has existed for an incredibly long time and until last year at least achieved very little. Whether intentionally or not, the fact is that financially speaking fare and ticketing confusion results in a net positive to the TOCs and thus, as their responsibility is ultimately to their shareholders not to the general public, fixing that situation was never going to represent a high priority for their limited resources.

Indeed one of the major problems currently facing nationwide smart ticketing is the simple fact that whilst the DfT and TOCs dithered, Oyster went ahead. This has left Oyster playing VHS to ITSO’s Betamax – ITSO may theoretically be better, but it is incompatible with what has become the defacto practical standard – Oyster. This has contributed greatly to the problems of implementing things like the Waterloo gateline – because a system was required that supported both Oyster and ITSO.

A Victim of Simplicity

Sadly, it is in many ways Oyster’s success at meeting its goals that now presents it with its greatest challenges.

Firstly, its greatest strength – its simplicity – is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. As anyone involved in a technical field will explain (often with a slightly pained expression), there is normally an inverse relationship between how simple a technical solution appears on the surface and how complex it is behind the scenes.

To a user, an Oyster journey across bus and Tube is now just a series of beeps, but behind the scenes it is a computational nightmare of timed journeys, interchanges and possible routes. This is further complicated by the presence of Out of Station Interchanges (valid changes that can be made between technically unconnected stations) and Autocorrects (auto-crediting back for incomplete journeys made to destinations where the gates were open such as stations for the Notting Hill Carnival).

Oysters success, however, has led to its inevitable expansion (despite furious opposition from a number of TOCs) to portions of the National Rail network. This has increased the range of potential journeys and travel combinations exponentially. The more complex it becomes, the more things like pink readers and minimum balances appear, and the more opportunity for error arises.

Indeed it is this complexity that also contributes greatly to Oyster’s second problem – meeting the promise to always deliver the cheapest fare. With Oyster now in full on contact with the labyrinthine workings of the National Rail Fares system, it is increasingly difficult to ensure that the system is delivering the cheapest fare.

This is further hampered by the need for TfL to accomodate the paranoia exhibited by many TOCs on the subject of smart-card enabled fare evasion. Baring the occasional politically motived intervention from outside, TfL themselves have generally seemed to take a relatively pragmatic stance on this issue. Particular problems are identified and targetted, but it is accepted that a certain amount of evasion is to be expected if the system is to be useful at all – the trick is finding the balance between openness (such as ungated DLR stations) that benefits travellers as a whole and enforcement.

The TOCs, however, have traditionally viewed smart-cards as the stirrup to a fare evader horde that lurks just over the horizon. It was their belief that Oyster’s expansion would result in a stream of zone 2 travelcard holders thrusting outward, unticketed, to zone 3 at weekends that forced TfL to agree to implement the virtually unworkable OEP System. Early usage figures showed that this simply didn’t happen and that, as with TfL’s own experiences, the Oyster rollout actually increased paying traffic.

In fact, the issue that now seems to be occupying TOC consciousness is dumbelling. Dumbelling exploits the fact that you can now “tap out” at most mainline termini. As a result, as long as the traveller can board the train to begin with then they can tap out at the end. A traveller from Brighton for example, could thus buy a cheap ticket to Preston Park (allowing them to pass through the barriers at Brighton station) and then tap out at Victoria on Oyster. In doing so they would incur the maximum Oyster fare, but as long as the maximum fare and the one stop ticket costs less than the journey’s full fare, this is financially worthwhile even if highly illegal (and likely to result in a four-figure fine if caught).

The solution many TOCs believe should be implemented to this problem is to increase the maxiumum Oyster fare, and this is one of the reasons it has begun to creep upwards. Of course dumbelling could also be tackled by a better, fairer, fares system but as it stands any further expansions of Oyster are likely to result in demands for concessions on maximum fares from the TOCs.

Raising the maximum fare, however, is a dangerous game for TfL to play – not least because accidents do happen and the higher the fare, the more people (rightly) become annoyed – more importantly, the more they regard it as a “fine” not a fare.

Recent media and political coverage of “DLR fines” has demonstrated this very clearly. The simple fact is that, proportionately speaking, there has been no real increase in instances of overcharging on the DLR – traffic has increased enormously and so has overcharging in proportion.

The difference, however, is that the amount of money involved now looks more shocking. TfL may rightly feel that there is no story there, but the greater the cost of the maximum fare, the smaller the margin of tolerance for error becomes in people’s minds. Similarly the easier it is for the media and others to make hay out of the issue.

Ultimately, Oyster has been phenomenally successful and TfL must be applauded for it, but the system now faces some very real challenges which need to be addressed.

TfL need to impress on both the general public and London’s political leaders (notably the Mayor) that Oyster is a far more complex solution than it seems. It is also a system that now requires outside changes to maintain and improve. The simplicity of Oyster and smart fares moving forward is now intrinsically linked to fixing the criminally complex fare and ticketing structure that exists in this country. TfL need to make sure there is no doubt in the public’s mind of this fact or they risk carrying the blame for flaws in the system that should rightly be laid at the feet of the TOCs and the DfT.

Secondly, TfL need to remember that Oyster currently garners them a significant amount of goodwill and trust – moreso arguably than any other rail operator receives.

Perception is important. The cold hard facts may be that few people use tickets that exclude Zone 1, or that instances of maximum fares on the DLR are the same as they have always been, but when played out in a sixty second news broadcast or a short piece in the Standard these facts are easily lost. Similarly it is all very well talking small percentage fare rises and downplaying bus price hikes, but to many people it can too easily come across as spin.

Put simply, TfL must remember that if you start acting like a TOC then people will begin treat you like one.

As it stands, whether it’s Crossrail or Cable Cars, the question that jumps straight to the average Londoners lips when a new transport initiative is announced is not “how much will it cost me?” but “Will it take Oyster?” That’s an incredible achievement but if the system (and its heirs) are to continue to prosper, then TfL need to be careful to ensure that this remains the case.

Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.