I’ve been looking forward to using Oyster at my local station for, frankly, years, so tomorrow’s launch is, on several levels, a step forward.  So, in the light of what Helen’s already discovered about sneaky changes to child tickets, I’ve been investigating what to do for my first PAYG-on-NR trip tomorrow, considering that I’ll have a six year old boy in tow.

The current TfL rules for a six year old are:

On buses and trams:

  • Unaccompanied 5 to 10-year-olds can travel free at any time. They do not need a ticket or photocard to do so

On Tube, DLR and London Overground services:

  • A maximum of four 5 to 10-year-olds can travel free when accompanied by an adult who has a valid ticket, is using Oyster to pay as they go, has a Freedom Pass or has a Veterans Concessionary Oyster photocard
  • If they are travelling unaccompanied, 5 to 10-year-olds will need a 5-10 Oyster photocard to travel free at any time

Unfortunately, it’s immediately obvious that another hand grenade has been thrown into our path by the poor communication from TfL about the impending Oysterisation, which is long on Boris-loving ra-ra about “One Ticket For London” but maddeningly short on detail.  The internal briefing on Oyster PAYG (obtained via FoI) states:

5-10 year olds on National Rail
Children aged 5-10 pay child rate fares on most National Rail services in London.
•  5-10 Oyster photocard holders travel free on National Rail routes that accepted Oyster pay as you go before 2 January 2010 (except Balham-Victoria)
•  On all other National Rail routes in London, children aged 5-10 will be charged child-rate Oyster single fares
•  Journeys made on a combination of these routes by children aged 5-10 will be charged a child-rate Oyster single fare for the whole journey

Darryl’s point that this again discriminates against those waiting longest is therefore a valid one.  Now, I’m already aware that five is the age at which you have to start paying on South West Trains (unlike on tubes, overground and buses, which is another reason we rarely use SWT as a family) and if you’re buying a normal price ticket from the machine adding a child one is a single button press in a lengthy process you were doing anyway.  With Oyster in operation from tomorrow, the point of the whole operation is that I no longer have to factor in waiting-for-the-machine time, which considering one is usually broken can be 10 minutes for a 20 minute ride on a line with a 15-minute interval service.  This is therefore good news, until I take the lad along at which point I either board the train with him in tow and no ticket and risk a Penalty Fare or I go back to factoring in machine time and queue up for a child single ticket/Travelcard, thus losing the Oyster time advantage.  In the case where the Travelcard isn’t the cheapest option also lose the second Oyster key benefit; flexibility about changing plans en-route, although with the abolition of off-peak returns this doesn’t make a lot of difference – just get child singles each way.  More queuing.

Obviously, what’s needed is either for the Train Operating Companies to bring their age restrictions in line with TfL (which my other half assumed they would as part of Oysterisation, and was surprised and disappointed to find otherwise) or for the boy to acquire his own kids’ Oyster.  Since the TOCs are never going to change their restrictions until such time as squadrons of pigs are seen barrel-rolling down the Heathrow approach, it’s fortunate that there is already a kids’ Oyster in the form of the Zip, in particular the 5-10 Zip card.  So far, Boris’s public comments on Zip are limited to posturing about taking it off naughty children and making them earn it back, rather than how it works to allow people to move around.  This, for reasons I’m about to explain, is a pity, as the PAYG rollout changes the rules of the game quite substantially in terms of expanding the number of people who should be holding one.

Now, the Zip exists for a good reason – while kids go free on buses and trams and also on Tubes, DLR and Overground *with a valid ticket bearing adult* there are circumstances where an adult is not available.  Amazingly, not everyone in London drives their kids to school (although living next door to a school it’s hard to believe this sometimes) and kids as young as 7 are officially allowed (at least at our primary) to travel unaccompanied.  In some areas this will include tube, DLR, Overground or indeed National Rail travel.  For example, my other half travelled daily from Hampton Wick to school in Kensington by train and tube, at the age of about 10 or 11.  To cater for this traffic, TfL have the 5-10 Zip Oyster, which is required for Tube, DLR and Overground travel by unaccompanied children.

However, this is by definition a relatively small group – what I hadn’t realised until I started investigating is that the Zip card’s function is radically altered as of tomorrow, and anyone with young children wishing to use PAYG on NR had better know this – if you want to use Oyster on NR and have a 5-10 year old child in the party, they have to have their own 5-10 Zip Oyster or pay the usual cash fares from the machine, which will be more.  Since I only realised this at the 11th hour and I’ve been watching the whole process, I rather wonder what everyone else will make of this; waves of people eagerly using Oyster on NR assuming, from the way Boris announced it, that it now works like the Tube, then being stung with a penalty fare for having little Joshua along when they try and exit the barriers or the gripper comes round?  Or a sudden avalance of Zip applications overwhelming the system?

For the record, the 5-10 card is free, but you have to apply at a Post Office rather than a tube station and take a photograph plus a passport or birth certificate along and then wait two weeks.  This is OK for a small number of people using it for specialist school travel purposes but totally against the grain for irregular use by the mass public alongside adult Oysters, for whom it is an unwelcome extra palaver on what has hitherto been an invention that makes your life easier.  Going back to our example, after forking out the Penalty Fare for little Joshua, Mr. and Mrs. Average are now faced with a trip to the photo booth, the post office and a two-week wait for the card if they want the full Oyster turn-up-and-swipe experience for all three of them.  Convenient, no?

There’s also a gotcha for people whose children already use the existing card, who needed to apply by the 8th December for a new card in order to use it from tomorrow on their existing journeys.  The reason given is the PAYG on NR extension, although it’s not entirely clear why this requires a complete reissue:

When Oyster pay as you go is extended to the rest of the National Rail network in London, your child needs a new 5-10 Oyster photocard to ensure they are charged the appropriate fare when using National Rail services.

All current 5-10 Oyster photocards will stop working on 2 January 2010 and will not be valid for free travel on Tube, DLR, London Overground and National Rail services.

Now, I assume that since the cards are all centrally registered, there’s a database they can issue letters to current holders against in good time, and I hope this has been done, but I was rather staggered to see that it’s entirely possible for a child of 7 to be refused travel on the Tube, DLR or Overground when school goes back next week.  Even though it’s a small number of people, you have to hope everyone got the letter and acted on it, really, since I’ve not seen any publicity other than at TfL’s website.

There’s a common thread in all this, and it all comes down to the implementation of Oyster PAYG on NR being good enough for Boris’s PR but not quite good enough for the people who use it, and that’s a crying shame.  All it needed was for Zip cards to be made available immediately at Tube stations on presentation of the appropriate proof, plus advertising.  Ironically, one reason this can’t happen is that there have to be police checks to see if little Joshua is a knife-wielding hoodie, albeit only for the 11-15 card.  Very Blairite.

Worked Example

I live in Zone 3, so let’s cost up a Saturday educational trip to the National Gallery, via Charing Cross tube, for 2 adults and a six year old with and without his 5-10 Zip.  For off-peak the daily caps are £6.30 for adults and £1 for children.

First, tube all the way from Zone 3:

  • Adults : 2*2*£2.40 = £9.60
  • Child : £0 with or without Zip, although the single fare finder doesn’t make this clear
  • Total : £9.60 with or without Zip

Second, rail/tube from an existing pre-2010 PAYG Z3 station, in this case Acton Main Line:

  • Adults : 2*2*£2.40 = £9.60
  • Child : £0 with Zip, £2 without Zip, the price of a child off-peak Travelcard
  • Total : £9.60 with Zip, £11.60 without Zip

Finally, rail/tube from a new post-2010 PAYG Z3 station, in this case Chiswick:

  • Adults : 2*2*£3.10 = £12.40
  • Child : £2 for the off-peak Travelcard, but the off-peak cap of £1.00 kicks in here for Zip users.
  • Total : £13.40 with Zip, £14.40 without Zip

I don’t know about you, but that looks like a rip-off to me.  ‘One ticket for London’ my arse – not when essentially the same journey can cost four different sums depending on route, train operator and whether you’ve heard of the Zip card or not.  I’m certainly put off using PAYG-on-NR for the family after this analysis.  It also again highlights how confusing the fare structure is, and TfL are, according to reports, not issuing a paper fares brochure for 2010, just when the system got several times more complicated.  That’s scandalous.

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