The grit in the Oyster

London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon sets out how the Mayor of London’s approach to problems with the London Oyster travelcard is a demonstration of Boris Johnsons wider approach to addressing issues that face Londoners:

This week at City Hall I was accused by Boris Johnson of being a “negative Liberal Democrat” when I dared to question him over some of the problems that have happened as a result of the extension of Oyster Pay as You Go to national rail services across London.

Well I stand by my questioning of the Mayor as there is no doubt that a huge number of Londoners are not getting the best deal that Oyster could deliver.  There are serious anomalies in how the system operates, and the full benefits of the technology are simply not being delivered.  Most significantly many people using Oyster on the trains, whether they are Londoners or visitors, are being overcharged, sometimes by quite large amounts. This January alone it is estimated that 32,000 passengers were overcharged a total of half a million pounds.

For the Mayor this overcharging is a minor issue and hardly worth worrying about – and perhaps we should not be shocked.   After all this is a man who receives in addition to his Mayoral salary of £137,000, a sum of £250,000 a year for his weekly Daily Telegraph articles, a figure he has described as mere chicken feed.  For Boris Johnson a few pounds here and there might seem rather minor, but for many Londoners this is not the case, and especially those on low incomes who have already been hit by two inflation busting fare rises under his Mayoralty, including the recent 20 per cent rise in bus fares.

The Mayor’s whole approach to this is a perfect example of the detached approach he adopts to anything that is just remotely technical.   Boris Johnson likes to think he is a ‘big picture’ man.   He spends his time commenting on the state of the world and floating fanciful ideas, with his most ridiculous proposal being the Thames Estuary Airport.  For him it is a totally alien concept that he should actually be on top of important issues such as preventing Londoners from being ripped off when they travel about.

So what is it about Oyster in particular, and why all the fuss?

Let’s be absolutely clear.  I welcome the extension of Oyster to overground rail services; indeed it should have happened a long time ago.  What is regrettable is that the full benefits of having it operate on the national rail network simply aren’t being achieved.

One of the key reasons for a number of problems is that the Mayor and his officials at Transport for London haven’t  effectively negotiated with the train operating companies.   The best example of this is the creation of Oyster Extension Permits (OEPs).  OEPs are required on National Rail services in London, where a customer with aseason ticket on their Oystercard plans to travel outside the zones covered by the Oystercard.   The existence of OEPs directly challenges the very essence of Oyster, which is to make travel easier and quicker by cutting out queuing for tickets on every journey.  Credit should go to the  blog Boriswatch for helping to expose the idiocy of OEPs.  I can’t begin to match its excellent description of them, so it is best just to quote  directly from the blog, who describe them as “the Kafkaesque invention of the Train Operating Companies that requires you to have something you sometimes can’t get before you get on a train with an otherwise valid ticket on pain of possibly being fined, or possibly not”.   For more information see some of the excellent reporting on this issue.

Problems with OEPs would be bad enough, but there are a number of other problems, such as the fact that there are no rail stations at present where passengers can even buy an Oystercard at a ticket machine and it is only at one in five rail stations that passengers can top up their Oystercard.

However the complications continue.  Clearly some people are not using their Oystercard properly by not swiping the machines at the beginning and end of each journey meaning that they end up being charged a far higher fare.    However, this is not surprising considering the lack of information at many stations about how to use the system.   Most significantly there is clear evidence that some people are actually being overcharged even when they do properly use the system.

Boris Johnson simply doesn’t consider these issues to be important.   He is happy to allow people to be overcharged and for Transport to London to peddle the claim on television that Oyster is always the cheapest fare, when in some cases it clearly isn’t.

For those who live in London the record of Boris Johnson is now becoming clearer by the day, whether it is cutting police officers or hiking up fares, it is a record totally different to what was sold to Londoners.  And to those who do not live in London just remember that Boris Johnson is now being sold as what a future Conservative Government will look like!

Caroline Pidegon, Liberal Democrat London Assembly Transport Spokesperson and Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee. You can lend a helping hand to the work that Caroline is doing at City Hall by getting involved in the Better Stations campaign, which seeks to ensure train stations are safer, cleaner and more accessible. Details of the campaign can be seen at and campaign packs are available via the party’s extranet.

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This entry was posted in London and Op-eds.


  • Andrew Suffield 27th Feb '10 - 1:00pm

    I’m still annoyed at the way Oyster doubles as a giant surveillance system.

  • Andrew – you don’t have to register your oystercard if you don’t want to

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Mar '10 - 12:24pm

    Thanks Caroline, I had been meaning to write to you on this after my wife bought an oyster card when pay-as-you-go was extended to our tube-less part of London. The only reason I haven’t is that our experience showed just so many things wrong. that it would takes days to write them all down and would result in a report I estimate about 50 pages long. Seriously.

    Right from the start, having never used the things before, we looked at the information, written and website, and could not find basic answers to basic questions. It was all so appallingly badly written. When we asked questions to various transport staff members, we inevitably got back as many different answers as people we asked.

    The oyster website is so amateurish and badly designed. I examine projects in this sort of thing, and there are basic errors in design which I would seriously criticise one of my students if it was in a project they had produced. TfL employ huge numbers of people on salaries of over £100,000 a year, yet they can’t fund anyone to do simple fitness testing in this crucial website? I mean simple things like the fact that three different terms are used to mean registering the oyster card, you are urged to do it, yet it isn’t at all obvious how you do it when you go to the website, and when you find out and try, it throws technical jargon and Americanisms at you which maybe some web-designer is familiar with but would mystify many customers.

  • Simon Robinson 12th Mar '10 - 10:37am

    I’ve just sent a request to Oyster for more information about my own travel history (more precisely, the amounts charged to my Oyster PAYG card). Basically, the statement of my travel history (needed for an expenses claim) appears to show errors in the costs charged. For example,
    – balance £8.40
    – fare charged on entry to train station £6.00
    – new balance £0.60 (!)
    – fare credited on exit at destination £3.40
    – new balance £4.00

    So the fares charged appear correct as £6.00 – £3.40 = £2.60 which is the correct fare for that journey at that time. But my balance has reduced by £4.40.

    This isn’t the first time this has happened, I simply have never bothered to follow it up before as it is a relatively small sum and assumed I was reading the statement incorrectly. Unfortunately, Oyster only provides an 8 week travel history so I can’t revisit the older ones to confirm. Has anyone else noticed this? If I’m not the only one affected, how much is this overcharging bringing in in total?

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