in London

Oyster madness

Swishy, but ultimately crapI cannot believe just how badly the new Oystercard system on the London Underground has been put together. When I first started to see people hovering their wallets over the swishy yellow pads I thought it was great and couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. I’ve now been using my card since August last year and having been ripped off due to a combination of incompetence and crappy design I feel it’s time for a little rant…

First of all – ticket loading. When I first started reading the Oyster literature I laughed at the idea of having to ‘load’ your card with a ticket to start using it; surely, I thought, this was just a metaphor that the public could understand. Surely each card must have an individual ID that can be checked against a central database every time it gets swiped, and if the database says you’re good to go, you’re good to go. I mean, surely when you place an order for a ‘ticket’, London Underground would know the unique number of your Oystercard and would be able to quickly update the database to show that it was valid, allowing you to pass freely through the zones you have paid for?

Unfortunately not. When buying a ticket online you have to state what your ‘home’ station is – the place where you usually start your journey from. Incredibly, this is the only place that you can ‘load’ your Oystercard once you’ve renewed it. This sounds like a hideous case of overengineering to me – why can’t the system just recognise that it’s my card passing through the gates whereever I go? Surely each station must be checking card IDs every day to be able to ‘load’ them with the correct ticket in the first place, so why do we need to ‘load’ them at all?

I was lucky enough to have my new travelcard ready and waiting to be loaded on the Monday following the derailment at Camden Town in October 2003. As the Northern Line was completely messed up, I decided not to take the 10 minutes to walk to Woodside Park tube but instead tried getting the bus that passed just outside my door. Of course, my Oystercard didn’t work. I explained the situation to the driver who eventually let me on, and I continued to do this for about a week. I had paid for my new card and the money had left my account, so why should I pay for a bus fare? Eventually, I had an email stating that my card had ‘failed to be successfully loaded’ and the money found its way back into my account some time after that.

Secondly – record cards. You get one with your first Oystercard to prove that you have a valid ticket on it, but when you renew you never get a new record card. What’s the point?!

Thirdly – renewal emails. The Oystercard website usually sends you an email a few days before your ticket expires so you have ample time to purchase a new one. For some reason, I didn’t receive an email this month and thanks to Woodside Park never activating its ticket barriers I only found out when I got to Euston. Magic.

Finally – ‘prepay’ and ‘traditional’ travelcards. This has to be the single most confusing issue with Oystercards. Soon after introducing the cards that could be loaded with traditional travelcards – monthly, annual etc – London Transport decided to introduce convenient ‘prepay’ cards where you can put a certain amount of money on them that gets debited with every journey. Unfortunately, both of these cards are completely identical. Obviously with a prepay card it is important to swipe both at the start and end of your journey in order to get debited with the correct amount but there’s not really any need to do this with a traditional card…or is there?

Last weekend, on a trip to visit some friends in Amersham, we tried to get an extension on our Oystercards to zone D which is well outside our usual zones 1-4. For some reason, the guy behind the counter at Finchely Road station made a major point of telling us that we had a number of incomplete journeys on our cards which would have to be cleared. I tried explaining that the cards were traditional travelcards so the incomplete journeys made no difference to us but he was having absolutely none of it. In the confusion, he ended up selling us two singles – on paper tickets – from Finchley Road (Zone 2) to Amersham (Zone D) instead of extensions from Zone 5 to Zone D.

I have no idea how much the Oystercard system cost London Transport to put in, but it’s a shocker.

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