The Oyster card is a form of electronic ticketing used on public transport in Greater London in the United Kingdom. It is promoted by Transport for London and is valid on travel modes across London including London Underground, London Buses, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), London Overground, trams, some river boat services, and most National Rail services within the London fare zones.
A standard Oyster card is a blue credit-card-sized stored-value contactless smartcard that can hold single tickets, period tickets and travel permits, which must be added to the card before travel. Passengers touch it on an electronic reader when entering and leaving the transport system in order to validate it or deduct funds. Cards may be “topped-up” by recurring payment authority, by online purchase, at credit card terminals or by cash, the last two methods at stations or ticket offices. The card is designed to reduce the number of transactions at ticket offices and the number of paper tickets. Usage is encouraged by offering substantially cheaper fares than with cash though the acceptance of cash is being phased out. On London buses, cash is no longer accepted.
The card was first issued to the public in July 2003 with a limited range of features and there continues to be a phased introduction of further functions. By June 2012, over 43 million Oyster cards had been issued and more than 80% of all journeys on public transport in London were made using the card.
As part of TfL’s “Future Ticketing Programme” the Oyster card platform is due to be replaced by a contactless payment card system, the first stage of which is due to be completed by June 2015.
The Oyster card was set up under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contract between TfL and TranSys, a consortium of suppliers that included EDS and Cubic Transportation Systems(responsible for day-to-day management) and Fujitsu and WS Atkins (shareholders with no active involvement). The £100 million contract was signed in 1998 for a term of 17 years until 2015 at a total cost of £1.1 billion.
In August 2008, TfL decided to exercise a break option in the contract to terminate it in 2010, five years early. This followed a number of technical failures. TfL stated that the contractual break was to reduce costs, not connected to the system failures. In November 2008 a new contract was announced between TfL and Cubic and EDS for two of the original consortium shareholders to run the system from 2010 until 2013.
The Oyster name was agreed on after a lengthy period of research managed by TranSys and agreed by TfL. Several names were considered, and Oyster was chosen as a fresh approach that was not directly linked to transport, ticketing or London. According to Andrew McCrum, now of Appella brand name consultants, who was brought in to find a name by Saatchi and Saatchi Design (contracted by TranSys), Oyster was conceived and promoted because of the metaphorical implications of security and value in the component meanings of the hard bivalve shell and the concealed pearl, the association of London and the River Thames with oysters, and the well-known travel-related idiom “the world is your oyster”.
The intellectual property rights to the Oyster brand originally belonged to Transys. Following the renegotiation of the operating contract in 2008, TfL sought to retain the right to use the Oyster brand after the termination of its partnership with Transys, eventually acquiring the rights to the brand in 2010 at a cost of £1 million.
The Oyster card has a claimed proximity range of about 80 mm (3 inches). The card operates as a RFID system and is compatible with ISO/IEC 14443 types A and B. Oyster readers can also read other types of cards including Cubic Go-Cards. From its inception until January 2010, Oyster cards were based onNXP/Philips’ MIFARE Classic 1k chips provided by Giesecke & Devrient, Gemalto and SchlumbergerSema. Since December 2009 all new Oyster cards use MIFARE DESFire EV1 chips. From February 2010 MIFARE Classic-based Oyster cards were no longer issued. MIFARE DESFire cards are now widely used as transport smartcards.
MIFARE Classic chips, on which the original Oyster card was based, are hard-wired logic smartcards, meaning that they have limited computing power designed for a specific task. The MIFARE DESFire chips used on the new Oyster card are CPUs with much more sophisticated security features and more complex computation power. They are activated only when they are in an electromagnetic field compatible with ISO/IEC 14443 type A, provided by Oyster readers. The readers read information from the cards, calculate whether to allow travel, assess any fare payable and write back information to the card. Some basic information about the MIFARE Classic or MIFARE DESFire chip can be read by any ISO/IEC 14443 type A compatible reader, but Oyster-specific information cannot be read without access to the encryption used for the Oyster system. While it has been suggested that a good reader could read personal details from a distance, there has been no evidence of anyone being able to decrypt Oyster information. By design the cards do not carry any personal information. Aluminium shielding has been suggested to prevent any personal data from being read.
Oyster uses a distributed settlement framework. All transactions are settled between the card and reader alone. Readers transmit the transactions to the back office in batches but there is no need for this to be done in real time. The back office acts mainly as a record of transactions that have been completed between cards and readers. This provides a high degree of resilience.
In 2008 a fashion caught on for removing the RFID chip from Oyster cards and attaching it to wrist watches and bracelets. This allowed commuters to pass through the gates by “swiping” their hand without the need to take out a proper card. Although the RFID chips were charged in the normal way and no fare evasion was involved, TfL disapproved of the practice and threatened to fine anyone not carrying a full undamaged card, though it is not clear what the actual offence would be.
The Oyster system is based on a closed, proprietary architecture from Cubic Transportation Systems. The card readers were developed entirely by Cubic, whereas development of the back office systems was started by Fujitsu and completed by Cubic. The system has the capability to interface with equipment or services provided by other suppliers. The Oyster website is not part of the closed system but interfaces with it. Similarly, Oyster readers are now embedded into ticket machines produced by Shere and Scheidt and Bachmann on the national rail network.
In early 2007, TfL and Deloitte worked to migrate the on-line payment systems to a more open architecture, using a number of open source components such as Linux, to resolve issues of lock-in costs, updates, incorporation of new security standards of PCI DSS, non-scalability, low and inconsistent quality of service, and slower response time to business changes.
Registration and protection
Oyster cards can be registered or protected for loss or theft. Full registration can be done at a London Underground station, an Oyster Ticket Stop (shop) or a Travel Information Centre: an Oyster registration form must be filled in (either at time of purchase or subsequently). Registration enables the customer to buy any product for the card and to have an after-sales service, and it protects against theft or loss. The customer has to supply a Security Answer: either their mother’s maiden name, memorable date or memorable place. All adult Oyster cards purchased online or by phone are fully registered. (This does not include Visitor Oyster cards.)
Oyster cards obtained at stations or shops cannot be fully registered online. However, cards can be protected online by setting up an Oyster online account and linking the card to that account. This allows for a full protection against theft or loss, but the Oyster card will be able to hold only 7-day season tickets and/or pay-as-you-go.
Oyster cards can be purchased from a number of different outlets in the London area:
- London Underground (until end 2015) or London Overground ticket windows
- ticket machines at London Underground stations, which accept banknotes, coins, and credit and debit cards.
- about 4,000 Oyster Ticket Stop agents (usually newsagent’s shops)
- selected National Rail stations, some of which are also served by London Underground
- Travel Information Centres
- online via the TfL website
- by telephone sales from TfL.
Visitor Oyster cards can be obtained from Visit Britain outlets around the world, and from other transport operators, such as EasyJet and Gatwick Express, and online and from any ticket office. However, these limited-functionality cards cannot be registered. A £5 deposit is required which will be refunded in cash upon return of the card. Any remaining credit on the card is refundable as well.
The cards were originally free, but a refundable deposit of £3 was subsequently introduced, increased to £5 if you want a refundable oyster card in January 2011. The deposit and any unused credit is refundable by posting the card to TfL; however, refunds are paid only by pounds sterling cheque, bank transfer to a UK bank account, credit to another Oyster card, or a TfL web account voucher, and refunds of over £15 require the customer to provide proof of identity and address. Refunds of up to £10 in credit plus the deposit may be claimed at London Underground ticket machines, which will pay the refund in cash.
A registration form can be obtained at or after the time of purchase, which if not completed restricts the Oyster card to Pay-as-you-go and weekly tickets.
Ticket vending machines on most National Rail stations will top-up Oyster cards and sell tickets that can be loaded on to Oyster. New Oyster cards are not available at most National Rail stations and termini. At several main line termini, TfL runs Travel Information Centres, which do sell Oyster.
Touch-screen ticket machines report the last eight journeys and last top-up amount. The same information is available as a print-out from ticket offices, and also on board London Buses by request. The balance is displayed on some Underground barriers at the end of journeys that have caused a debit from the balance, and can also be requested at newsagents and National Rail stations that provide a top-up facility.
Oyster Online service can also deliver regular Travel Statements via email.
A complete 8-week ‘touch’ history can be requested from TfL: for registered and protected Oyster cards, TfL can provide the history for the previous 8 weeks, but no further back. Oyster online also displays up to 8 weeks of journey history but will not show any transactions that occurred before the Oyster card was linked to the account.
Touching in and out
Travellers touch the card on a distinctive yellow circular reader (a Cubic Tri-Reader) on the automated barriers at London Undergroundstations to ‘touch in’ and ‘touch out’ at the start and end of a journey (contact is not necessary, but the range of the reader is only a few mm). Tram stops and buses also have readers on the driver/conductor’s ticket machine, and on these modes passengers must touch their card to the reader at the start of their journey only. Most DLR stations and occasionally London Underground stations such as at Waterloo (for the Waterloo & City line) do not have automatic barriers so passengers must touch their card on a reader at both the beginning and end of their journey if they wish to avoid being charged the maximum fare for an unresolved journey. Such a step is not needed if transferring between trains within a station unless they are run by different operators.
Oyster cards can be used to store season tickets of both travelcards and bus passes (of one week or more), and a Pay-as-you-go balance.
An Oyster card can hold up to three season tickets at the same time. Season tickets are Bus & Tram Passes or Travelcards lasting 7 days, 1-month, or any duration up to one year (annual).
There is no essential difference in validity or cost between a 7-day, monthly or longer period Travelcard on Oyster and one on a traditional paper ticket; they are valid on all Underground, Overground, DLR, bus, tram and national rail services within the zones purchased. See the main article for a fuller explanation of Travelcards. Tube, DLR and London Overground Travelcards may be used on buses in all zones. Trams may also be used if the travelcard includes Zones 3, 4, 5 or 6.
Although TfL asks all Oyster users to swipe their card at entry/exit points of their journey, in practice Travelcard holders only need to “touch in” and “touch out” to operate ticket barriers or because they intend to travel outside the zones for which their Travelcard is valid. As long as the Travelcard holder stays within their permitted zones no fare will be deducted from the pay as you go funds on the card. The Oyster system checks that the Travelcard is valid in the zones it is being used in.
Travel outside zones
If users travel outside the valid zones of their Travelcard (but within Oyster payment zones), any remaining fare due may be deducted from their pay-as-you-go funds (see below for how this is calculated). From 22 May 2011 Oyster Extension Permits (OEPs) were no longer required. Before that date, users who travelled outside the zones of their Travelcard, and whose journey involved the use of a National Rail service, were required to set an OEP on their Oyster card before travelling, to ensure that they paid for the extra-zonal journey.
Oyster card Travelcards can be renewed at the normal sales points and ticket machines at London Underground or London Overground stations, Oyster Ticket Stop agents, or some National Rail stations. Travelcards can also be renewed online via the Oyster Card website, or by telephone sales from TfL; users must then nominate a Tube or overground station where they will swipe their card in order to charge up the card with the funds or season ticket purchased. Alternatively a user can choose to automatically add either £20 or £40 every time the balance on the card falls below £10. There are further restrictions on when an online purchase can be “collected” by swiping in at a station, after the date of online purchase (Travelcard: up to five days before start date until two days after the start date; pay as you go: from the day after order is placed for a total of 8 days). If the fare is purchased online before 23:00, it will be available the following day. For more Travelcard renewal information, see the section on Recharging in this article. Travelcard renewals cannot be added from a reader on a bus.
In addition to holding Travelcards and bus passes, Oyster cards can also be used as stored-value cards, holding electronic funds of money. Amounts are deducted from the card each time it is used, and the funds can be “recharged” when required. The maximum value that an Oyster card may hold is £90. This system is known as “pay as you go” (abbreviated PAYG), because instead of holding a season ticket, the user only pays at the point of use.
When Oyster cards were introduced, the PAYG system was initially named “pre pay”, and this name is still sometimes used by National Rail. TfL officially refers to the system as “pay as you go” in all publicity.
The validity of PAYG has a more complex history as it has only been gradually accepted by transport operators independent of TfL. Additionally, the use of PAYG differs across the various modes of transport in London, and passengers are sometimes required to follow different procedures to pay for their journey correctly.
It is possible to have a negative pay-as-you-go balance after completing a journey, but this will prevent the card from being used (even if it is loaded with a valid Travelcard) until the card is topped up.
Oyster route validators
In 2009, TfL introduced a new type of Oyster card validator, distinguished from the standard yellow validators by having a pink-coloured reader. They do not deduct funds, but are used at peripheral interchange points to confirm journey details. Oyster Pay-As-You-Go users travelling between two points without passing through Zone 1 are eligible for a lower fare, and from 6 September 2009 can confirm their route by touching their Oyster cards on the pink validators when they change trains, allowing them to be charged the appropriate fare without paying for Zone 1 travel. The pink validators are located at 15 interchange stations.
- Gospel Oak
- Highbury & Islington
- Kensington Olympia
- Rayners Lane
- West Brompton
- Willesden Junction
- Blackhorse Road
- Canada Water
- Surrey Quays (introduced September 2013)
- Clapham Junction (introduced September 2013)
An example journey would be Watford Junction to Richmond, which as of May 2010 costs £7.30 peak and £4.80 off-peak when travelling via Zone 1. If travelling on a route outside Zone 1 via Willesden Junction, the fares are £3.50 and £1.30 respectively, which can be charged correctly if the Oyster card is validated at the pink validator when changing trains at Willesden Junction.
Underground and DLR
Oyster card pay-as-you-go users must “touch in” at the start of a journey by London Underground or DLR, and “touch out” again at the end. The Oyster card readers automatically calculate the correct fare based on the start and end points of the journey and deduct that fare from the Oyster card. Pay-as-you-go funds are also used to cover any additional fares due from season ticket holders who have travelled outside the valid zones of their season ticket (see Travelcards above).
Passengers enter or exit most London Underground stations through ticket barriers which are operated by swiping an Oyster card or other valid ticket. Some tube stations (such as those at National Rail interchanges) and DLR stations have standalone validators with no barriers. In both instances, pay-as-you-go users are required to touch in and out.
London Overground services are operated by TfL and Oyster pay-as-you-go users use their cards in the same way as on Underground journeys, touching their card on a card reader at the entry and exit points of their journey to calculate the fare due.
Users must touch the Oyster card only once at the point of boarding: as London buses have a single flat fare of £1.50, there is no need to calculate an end point of the journey.
As London buses do not accept cash payments, TfL introduced a “one more journey” policy on Oyster cards. This meant that customers are able to take a bus if their cards have £0 or more. This may take the balance into negative, but it can be topped up at a later date.
Some London bus routes cross outside the Greater London boundary before reaching their terminus. Pay as you go users are permitted to travel the full length of these route on buses operated as part of the London Bus network, even to destinations some distance outside Greater London.
‘London Service Permit’ Routes 402 and 477 have a reduced cash fare of £1 within Greater London which applies when an Oyster card with PAYG is shown. However, Oyster cards with Bus Passes and Travelcards loaded on them and Child Zip cards can be used free inside Greater London on Route 477 and to Knockholt Pound on Route 402.
Hertfordshire bus route 84 from New Barnet to St. Albans via Potters Bar, as of 2 January 2012, no longer has any Oyster Card or contactless payment card validity on any part of the route, cash fares only. The buses are still red-liveried, but the destination displays are dot-matrix rather than TfL blinds, and there are no TfL roundels on the bus.
As London’s trams operate on the same fare structure as buses, the rules are similar and users with pre-pay must touch the Oyster card only once at the point of boarding (users with Travelcards valid for the Tramlink zones need not touch in unless travelling to Wimbledon with a Travelcard not valid in zone 3).
A more complex arrangement exists at Wimbledon; tram passengers starting their journey at Wimbledon must pass through ticket gates in order to reach the tram platform, and therefore need to touch their Oyster card to open the barriers. They must then touch their Oyster card once again on the card reader on the Tramlink platform to confirm their journey as a tram passenger. Tram passengers arriving in Wimbledon must not touch out on the card reader on the Tramlink platform but must touch-out to exit via the station gates. If the card is touched on the platform, the touch-out at the gate would be seen as a touch-in and cause the maximum cash fare to be charged to the card.
Passengers boarding a riverbus service must present their Oyster card to the ticket office before boarding they use who a hand-held card reader, and the appropriate fare is deducted from their pay-as-you-go balance. Thames Clippers operate a pay before boarding policy.
Oyster pay-as-you-go is valid only to purchase tickets for London River Services boats operated by Thames Clippers. Pay-as-you-go is not accepted for payment by other riverboat operators.
Emirates Air Line
Oyster cards are accepted on the Emirates Air Line cable route between Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Docks. The Emirates Air Line is outside of the London Travelcard validity. However, a 25% discount applies to Travelcard and Freedom pass holders for both single and return journeys. The discount is automatically applied to Oyster card users, but only if their Travelcard is loaded onto their Oyster card. Freedom pass holders and visitors in possession of ordinary magnetic stripe Travelcards have to buy a cash ticket if they wish to take advantage of the discount.
As with Underground and DLR journeys, Oyster PAYG users on National Rail must swipe their card at the start and end of the journey to pay the correct fare. PAYG funds may also be used to cover any additional fares due from season ticket holders who have travelled outside the valid zones of their season ticket (see Travelcards above).
Many large National Rail stations in London have Oystercard-compatible barriers. At other smaller stations, users must touch the card on a standalone validator.
Out of Station Interchange (OSI)
At a number of Tube, DLR, London Overground and National Rail stations which lie in close proximity, or where interchange requires passengers to pass through ticket barriers, an Out of Station Interchange (OSI) is permitted. In such cases, the card holder touches out at one station and then touches in again before starting the next leg of the journey. The PAYG fares are then combined and charged as a single journey. Examples include transferring between the Jubilee line at Canary Wharf and the DLR where Oyster card holders must swipe their card at the ticket barriers in the Tube station, and then touch in on the validator at the DLR station. Balham (National Rail) to/from Balham (Tube) is another OSI, as is Camden Town (Tube) to/from Camden Road (London Overground). Failure to touch in or out on the validators in these circumstances will incur a maximum fare which is deducted from PAYG funds. In some cases (e.g. at West Hampstead NR stations) the OSI replicates interchanges which have existed for several decades before the invention of the Oyster system but were generally used with season tickets rather than day tickets.
Out of Station Interchanges can be temporary or permanent. A temporary arrangement may exist between two stations at short notice (routinely during weekend work but also when an emergency closure occurs). The two journeys that result are only charged as a single journey.
When the PAYG balance runs low, the balance can be topped up at the normal sales points or ticket machines at London Underground or London Overground stations, Oyster Ticket Stops or some National Rail stations. All ticket offices at stations run by London Underground will sell or recharge Oyster cards, or handle Oyster card refunds. However, some Tube stations are actually operated by National Rail train operating companies, and their ticket offices will not deal with Oyster refunds. DLR does not have any ticket offices which sell any Oyster card top-ups or handle refunds (as its stations are usually unmanned), except for the information office at London City Airport.
PAYG funds and Travelcard season tickets (but not Bus & Tram Passes) can also be purchased online via the Oyster online website or by calling the Oyster helpline; users must then select one station or tram stop where they will validate their card in order to load the funds or Travelcard purchased. This should be done as part of a normal journey to avoid the risk of paying an Oyster maximum fare.
If the customer is purchasing PAYG, the top up will be at the gates of their nominated station, or Tramlink stop the next day (ready for first train, provided they made the purchase before 11 PM the previous night). It will remain at the gates for 7 further days before dropping off the system.
If the customer purchases a Travelcard season ticket, it will ‘arrive’ at the gates, up to 5 days before the start date of the ticket and will remain there until 2 days after the ticket has started. If the customer does not make their pick up in time, it will take a further 14 days to refund automatically to the bank card they made the purchase with. Top-ups of this type cannot be added from a reader on a bus.
Customers can set up and manage Auto top-up online for their existing Oyster card. They register a debit or credit card, make a PAYG top-up purchase (minimum £10) and select either £20 or £40 as the Auto top-up amount. Alternatively, a new Oyster card with Auto top-up and a minimum of £10 pay as you go can be ordered via Oyster online.
There is a constraint in the design, that requires a journey to be made via a nominated station, before auto top-up can be enabled. There are a number of services such as Thames Clippers, for which this initiation transaction is not offered.
Whenever the pay as you go balance falls below £10, £20 or £40 is added to the balance automatically when the Oyster card is touched on an entry validator. A light on the Oyster reader flashes to indicate the Auto top-up has taken place and an email is sent to confirm the transaction. Payment is then taken from the registered debit or credit card.
To ensure successful transactions, customers must record any changes to their billing address and update their debit or credit card details as necessary.
Oyster photocards, with an image of the authorised user on the card front, are issued to members of groups eligible for free or discounted travel. The cards are encoded to offer discounted fares and are available for students in full-time education (30% off season tickets), 16+ cards (half the adult-rate for single journeys on the Underground, London Overground, DLR and a limited number of National Rail services, discounted period Travelcards, free travel on buses and trams for students that live and attend full-time education in London) and for children under 16 years old (free travel on buses and trams and discounted single fares on the Underground, London Overground, DLR and most National Rail services). A ‘Bus & Tram’ Discount Card is specifically given to disadvantaged and ‘unwaged’ groups, primarily those on ‘Job Seekers Allowance’, ‘Employment Support Allowance’ and receivers of a variety of disabilities allowances, at half-fare rates for bus and tram services only; these cards simply charge the full rate on journeys not included in the discount scheme.
Student Oyster photocards offering a 30% discount on period tickets, are available to full-time students over 18 at registered institutions within the area of the M25 motorway, an area slightly larger than Greater London, at a cost of £20. Until the 2009–10 academic year, they cost £5 but required replacing each year of multiple-year courses. There is no discount for Pay-as-you-go, although many students hold the National Rail 16-25 Railcard, which can be added to an Oyster card at an Underground station ticket office to obtain a 1/3 reduction on off-peak caps and a 1/3 discount on off-peak Oyster single fares on all rail services. (NB peak National Rail fares may be cheaper with discounted paper tickets). A small selection of universities outside London have also registered on the scheme.
A replacement for lost/stolen cards costs £15 and involves applying for a replacement card online or by calling the Oyster helpline. A new photograph is not required. The funds/remaining travel is non-transferable to a new student Oyster photocard and is refundable instead. The refund of a lost/stolen Oyster card is based on the original pro-rata daily rate. Thus if you lose an annual student Oyster, the refund will not cover the remainder of the year due to the higher monthly/weekly pro-rata charges for the remainder of the year. This can leave students at a considerable disadvantage (adults can receive a replacement card with the remainder of their Travelcard loaded).
Since 8 September 2006, students at some London universities have been able to apply for their 18+ Oyster photocard online by uploading a digital photograph and paying with a credit or debit card.
On 7 January 2008, Transport for London unveiled the Zip card, a free Oyster photocard to be used by young people aged 18 years or under who qualify for free bus and tram travel within the capital, with effect from 1 June 2008. To qualify, one must live in a London borough (and still be in full-time education if between 16 and 18). Children outside London (and indeed the UK) may also apply for a Visitor version of the Zip card (which offers free bus and tram travel for under 16s, and half-rate fares for 16–18-year-olds) online, which they must collect from one of TfL’s Travel Information Centres. From 1 September 2010 a fee of £10 has been charged for the card.
Freedom Passes and 60+ Oyster Cards
Freedom Passes are generally issued on what is in technical terms an Oyster card, though it does not bear that name. Freedom passes are free travel passes available to Greater London residents who are over a specified age (60 until March 2010, increasing in phases to 66 from March 2020) or with a disability specified in the Transport Act 2000; individual London boroughs have exceptional discretion to issue Freedom Passes to disabled people who do not meet the national statutory requirements (though they have to fund them). Travel is free at all times on the Tube, DLR, buses and Tramlink, and after 09:30 on most National Rail journeys entirely within the Greater London boundary. Holders cannot put any money or ticket products on a Freedom Pass; to travel outside these times, a separate Oyster card or other valid ticket is required.
Residents who are over 60 but who do not qualify for a Freedom Pass can obtain a similar 60+ Oyster Card for a single fee. The outer boundary of the area in which Freedom Passes and 60+ Oyster Cards can be used is mostly the same as the area within which ordinary Oyster Cards can be used. However, there are notable exceptions: Oyster 60+ and Freedom passes are valid to both Dartford and Swanley stations, to which non-concessionary Oyster cards are invalid on train services but can be used on TfL bus services. This comes about because although both stations are outside Greater London, both Dartford and Swanley have expanded sufficiently that parts now technically lie inside the Greater London boundary, though their postal addresses are still ‘Dartford, Kent’ and ‘Swanley, Kent’ respectively. Residents of these areas are entitled to an Oyster 60+ or Freedom pass as appropriate and require access to a local station to use them. Also Oyster PAYG cards can be used to Broxbourne station but Freedom Passes and 60+ Oyster cannot be used north of Turkey Street or Enfield Lock stations. This is solely because National Express East Anglia Railways has taken a decision to accept Oyster PAYG as far as Broxbourne. Both types of concessionary card have to be visually inspected at stations not equipped to read Oyster Cards. Cards also have to be visually inspected on any non-TfL buses whose routes accept the concessionary cards on journeys partly entering Greater London including routes equipped with readers that accept the national standard ITSO bus pass cards with which Oyster is not compatible.
Freedom Passes issued to qualifying persons are also an English National Concessionary Bus Pass. They look identical to concessionary bus passes but are additionally marked “Freedom Pass” with the word “Pass” in red. Unlike the Freedom pass, the 60+ Oyster card is not valid for concessionary travel outside of the area approved by the Greater London Authority. This is because the concessionary bus travel scheme is centrally funded by government, but the Oyster 60+ and the Freedom Pass’s validity on Tube, tram and rail networks is funded locally by the Greater London Authority.
Oyster and credit card
A credit card variant of the Oyster card was launched by Barclaycard in September 2007 and is called OnePulse. The card combines standard Oyster card functionality with Visa credit card facilities. The Barclaycard OnePulse incorporates contactless payment technology, allowing most transactions up to £20 to be carried out without the need to enter a PIN (unlike the Chip and PIN system).
In 2005, Transport for London shortlisted two financial services suppliers, Barclaycard and American Express, to add e-money payment capability to the Oyster card. Barclaycard was selected in December 2006 to supply the card, but the project was then temporarily shelved. The OnePulse card was later launched using a combination of Oyster and Visa, but with no e-money functionality.
In February 2014 Barclaycard announced that the OnePulse card would be withdrawn from use and all functionality would cease after 30 June 2014. This came about because the Oyster readers will now also recognise contactless cards and the presence of both on one card will cause ‘card clash’. Customers had their OnePulse card replaced with the Freedom Rewards credit card.
A number of different ticket types can be held on an Oyster card, and validity varies across the different transport modes within London.
|Mode||Travelcard||PAYG||Bus & Tram Pass|
|Southeastern high speed||‡|
|London River Services|
|Emirates Air Line|
= Valid within the advertised TfL fare zones.
= Not valid.
= Heathrow Connect: Not valid between Hayes and Harlington and Heathrow Airport.
= River: PAYG only available on Thames Clipper; Travelcards only provide discount, not valid for travel.
= Emirates Air Line: Travelcards only provide discount, not valid for travel.
! = must include Zone 3,4,5 or 6
‡ = PAYG is valid between either St Pancras and Stratford or Victoria and Gatwick Airport, but special fares apply
Oyster is operated by Transport for London and has been valid on all London Underground, London buses, DLR and London Tramlink services since its launch in 2003.
The introduction of Oyster pay as you go on the National Rail commuter rail network in London was phased in gradually over a period of about six years (see Roll-out history). Since January 2010, PAYG has been valid on all London suburban rail services which accept Travelcards. Additionally, PAYG may be used at a selected number of stations which lie just outside the zones. New maps were issued in January 2010 which illustrates where PAYG is now valid.
Certain limitations remain on National Rail, however; Oyster PAYG is not valid anywhere on Heathrow Express, Heathrow Connect between Hayes and Harlington and Heathrow Airport.Other airport express services Stansted Express and First Capital Connect Luton Airport services) all run outside the Travelcard zones, so PAYG is not valid on those services either.
In November 2007, the metro routes operated by Silverlink were brought under the control of TfL and operated under the brand name London Overground. From the first day of operation, Oyster PAYG became valid on all Overground routes.
London Oyster Cards and contactless cards will be accepted on many Southern, Gatwick Express and Thameslink services in early 2016. These include to Gatwick Airport station and five other Surrey railway stations, as well as to Luton Airport.
London River Services
Since 23 November 2009, Oyster PAYG has been valid on London River Services boats operated by Thames Clippers only. Oyster cards are accepted for all Thames Clippers scheduled services, the DoubleTree Docklands ferry, the “Tate to Tate” service and the O2 Express. Discounts on standard fares are offered to Oyster cardholders, except on the O2 Express. The daily price capping guarantee does not apply to journeys made on Thames Clippers.
Emirates Air Line
Oyster card holders (PAYG, Travelcard or Freedom Pass) receive discounts on the Emirates Air Line cable car service across the River Thames between Greenwich and the Royal Docks, which opened in June 2012. Like London River Services, the cable car is a privately funded concern and is not fully integrated into TfL’s ticketing system. To encourage use of the Air Line as a commuter service, substantial discounts are offered with a “frequent flyer” ticket which allows 10 journeys within 12 months.
The pricing system is fairly complex, and changes from time to time. The most up to date fares can be found on Transport for London’s FareFinder website.
To encourage passengers to switch to Oyster, cash fares are generally much more expensive than PAYG fares (including Bus and Tram fares):
(Pricing correct as of May 2015) The single Oyster fare for a bus journey is £1.50, but capped at £4.40 for any number of trips in a day (including trips by Tram and tube). Cash is no longer accepted on London’s buses, but a contactless debit or credit card can be used in place of an Oyster card at the same fare. A single tram journey is charged as per a single bus journey, but the tram ticket machines do still accept cash (£2.40) for a single journey.
Using pay as you go, a single trip on the Tube within Zone 1 costs £2.30 (compared to £4.70 cash), or £1.70 at peak times (£1.50 off peak or £4.70 for cash at any time) within any other single zone. Journeys in multiple zones are progressively more expensive.
The Oyster pay as you go system coupled with the zoned fare system inevitably gives rise to some quirks in the fares charged. A 9 stop journey between Clapham Junction and West Hampstead on the overground is charged at £1.70 at peak times (£1.50 off peak) whereas a 1 stop journey between Shoreditch High Street and Whitechapel on the same line costs £2.30 at all times. This occurs because Shoreditch High Street is the only station on the line exclusively in zone 1, all others being in zone 2. The cash fare is £4.70 in all cases and at all times.
A ‘capping’ system was introduced on 27 February 2005, which means that an Oyster card will be charged no more than the nearest equivalent Day Travelcard for a day’s travel, if penalty fares are not incurred. The daily cap in September 2014 was £7 during off-peak hours and £8.40 during peak hours within zones 1-2, provided no penalty fares are incurred for failure to touch in or out, or for touching in or out at the same station. A lower cap of £4.50 applies if the day’s journeys are restricted to buses and trams only. In January 2015 the cap for zones 1-6, which cover most of the network, was set at £11.80 in peak hours, and £9.40 in off-peak hours. In some cases when there are severe delays it is possible for passengers to be charged much more than the daily cap because of penalty fares incurred for being unable to travel due to lack of trains. For example, on the 5th May 2016 card number 054774288740 was charged £26.40 in a single day because it was touched in at Feltham Station (in zone 6), where the passenger waited for forty minutes without a train, (due to a fire at Vauxhall station) and then touched out again at Feltham to take an alternative route.
Price capping does not apply to PAYG fares on London River Services boats and on Southeastern high speed train services.
Holders of Disabled Persons, HM Forces, Senior, 16–25 National Rail Railcards and Annual Gold Cards (as of 23 May 2010) receive a 34% reduction in the off-peak PAYG fares and price cap; Railcard discounts can be loaded on at London Underground ticket machines (with help from a member of staff).
Disabled Person Railcard holders can also purchase an Off-Peak Day Travelcard for one accompanying adult for £3.00.
Bus & Tram Discount
On 20 August 2007, a ‘Bus and Tram Discount photocard’ was launched for London Oyster card users who received Income Support. It allows cardholders to pay £0.70 for a single bus journey (capped at £2.40 per day), and to buy half price period bus passes. This was the result of a deal between Transport for London and Petróleos de Venezuela to provide fuel for London Buses at a 20% discount. In return Transport for London agreed to open an office in the Venezuelan capital Caracas to offer expertise on town planning, tourism, public protection and environmental issues.
The deal with Venezuela was ended by Mayor Boris Johnson shortly after he took office, and the Bus and Tram Discount photocard scheme closed to new applications on 20 August 2008; Johnson said that “TfL will honour the discount [on existing cards] until the six-month time periods on cards have run out”.
The Bus and Tram Discount Scheme reopened on 2 January 2009, this time funded by London fare payers. The scheme has been extended to people receiving Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and to those receiving Job Seekers Allowance for 13 weeks or more.
River Bus discounts
Boats operated by Thames Clippers offer a 10% discount on standard fares to Oyster PAYG users, except on their O2 Express service, and a 1/3 discount to passengers carrying Oyster cards which have been loaded with a valid period Travelcard.
Penalty fares and maximum Oyster fare
In order to prevent “misuse” by a stated 2% of passengers, from 19 November 2006 pay as you go users are automatically charged the “maximum Oyster fare” for a journey on that network when they touch in. Depending on the journey made, the difference between this maximum fare and the actual fare due is automatically refunded to the user’s Oyster card upon touching out. The maximum fare is automatically charged to a passenger who touches out without having first touched in. Two maximum fares are charged (one for touching in, one for touching out) if a passenger touches in at a station, waits for over twenty minutes, and then touches out at the same station, because the system assumes that the passenger has been able to travel to another station in that time, taking no account of situations where there are severe delays.
Users must touch in and out even if the ticket barriers are open. At stations where Oyster is accepted but that do not have ticket barriers, an Oyster validator will be provided for the purposes of touching in and out. The maximum Oyster fare applies even if the daily price cap has been reached as this does not count towards the cap.
Maximum Oyster fares may be contested by telephone to the Oyster helpline on 0343 222 1234 or via email. This involves providing the Oyster card number and the relevant journey details; further journeys appearing on the card are helpful to validate the user’s claim.
If the claim is accepted then the maximum Oyster fare minus the cost of the journey will be refunded. The user will be asked to nominate and make a journey from a specific Tube, DLR, London Overground or National Rail station, or Tram stop. On touching in or out, the refund is loaded to the card. The only way to collect a refund is as part of an actual journey, otherwise a further penalty fare is charged. This is because when the passenger touches the reader with their Oyster card, not only will the refund go on to the card, but a new journey will start.
The start date to pick up the refund can be the next day (at the earliest) and the refund will remain at the nominated station for 8 days in total. The customer does have the option to delay the start date for up to 8 days, and the refund will still remain at the gate for up to 8 further days. After this time the refund will be deleted from the gate line, and the customer will have to re-request the refund.
Customers claiming a refund must do so within 28 days of the overcharge.
Oyster users who do not touch in before making a journey may be liable to pay a penalty fare (£80) and/or reported for prosecution if caught by a revenue protection inspector.
The roll-out of Oyster features and migration from the paper-based system has been phased. Milestones so far have been:
- London Underground ticket barriers, bus ticket machines, Docklands Light Railway stations and Tramlink stops fitted with validators. Cards issued to Transport for London, London Underground, and bus operator staff (2002)
- Cards issued to the public for annual and monthly tickets (2003)
- Freedom Passes issued on Oyster (2004)
- Pay as you go (PAYG, first called ‘prepay’) launched on London Underground, DLR, and the parts of National Rail where Underground fares had previously been valid. (January 2004)
- Off-Peak Oyster single fares launched (January 2004)
- Annual tickets available only on Oyster (2004)
- Monthly tickets available only on Oyster, unless purchased from a station operated by a train company rather than TfL (2004)
- Payg on buses (May 2004)
- Daily price capping (February 2005)
- Student Oyster Photocards for students over 18 (early 2005)
- Oyster Child Photocards for under 16s—free travel on buses and reduced fares on trains (August 2005)
- Automatic top-up (September 2005)
- Weekly tickets available only on Oyster (September 2005)
- Oyster single fares cost up to 33% less than paper tickets (January 2006)
- Auto top-up on buses and trams (June 2006)
- Journey history for Pay as you go transactions available online (July 2006)
- Ability for active and retired railway staff who have a staff travel card to obtain privilege travel fares on the Underground with Oyster (July 2006)
- £4 or £5 ‘maximum cash fare’ charged for Pay as you go journeys without a ‘touch in’ and ‘touch out’ (November 2006)
- Oyster card for visitors branded cards launched and sold by Gatwick Express.
- Oyster PAYG extended to London Overground (11 November 2007)
- Holders of Railcards (but not Network Railcard) can link their Railcard to Oyster to have PAYG capped at 34% below the normal rate since 2 January 2008.
- Oyster PAYG can be used to buy tickets on river services operated by Thames Clipper (23 November 2009)
- Oyster PAYG extended to National Rail (2 January 2010)
- Contactless cards can be used on London Buses (End of 2012)
- Cash no longer accepted on buses. Cash ticket machines removed from bus stops in central London (Summer 2014)
- Contactless cards can be used on London Underground, Docklands Light Railway, London Overground and National Rail service. Weekly capping introduced on contactless cards. (September 2014)
- ‘One Day Bus and Tram Pass’ introduced in 2015. Can be used for a maximum of one day only and can not be reloaded with credit. Allows the user to have unlimited journeys on buses and trams. (Winter 2015)
- Apple Pay accepted on the TfL network (July 2015)
Roll-out on National Rail
The National Rail network is mostly outside the control of Transport for London, and passenger services are run by number of independent rail companies. Because of this, acceptance of Oyster PAYG on National Rail services was subject to the policy of each individual company and the roll-out of PAYG was much slower than on TfL services. For the first six years of Oyster, rollout on National Rail was gradual and uneven, with validity limited to specific lines and stations.
Several rail companies have accepted London Underground single fares because they duplicate London Underground routes, and they adopted the Oyster PAYG on those sections of the line which run alongside the Underground. When TfL took over the former Silverlink Metro railway lines, PAYG was rolled out on the first day of operation of London Overground. As a consequence, some rail operators whose services run parallel to London Overground lines were forced to accept PAYG, although only after some initial hesitation.
Examples of these services include London Midland trains from Watford Junction to London Euston and Southern trains to Clapham Junction.
The process of persuading the various rail firms involved a long process of negotiation between the London Mayors and train operating companies. In 2005 Ken Livingstone (then Mayor of London) began a process of trying to persuade National Rail train operating companies to allow Oyster PAYG on all of their services within London, but a dispute about ticketing prevented this plan from going ahead. After further negotiations, Transport for London offered to fund the train operating companies with £20m to provide Oyster facilities in London stations; this resulted in an outline agreement to introduce PAYG acceptance across the entire London rail network.
TfL announced a National Rail rollout date of May 2009, but negotiation with the private rail firms continued to fail and the rollout was delayed to 2010. Oyster readers were installed at many National Rail stations across London, but they remained covered up and not in use. In November 2009 it was finally confirmed that PAYG would be valid on National Rail from January 2010. The rollout was accompanied by the introduction of a new system of Oyster Extension Permits to allow travelcard holders to travel outside their designated zones on National Rail. This system was introduced to address the revenue protection concerns of the rail companies, but it was criticised for its complexity, and was abolished on 22 May 2011.
Since the introduction of the Oyster card, the number of customers paying cash fares on buses has dropped dramatically. In addition, usage of station ticket offices has dropped, to the extent that in June 2007, TfL announced that a number of their ticket offices would close, with some others reducing their opening hours. TfL suggested that the staff would be ‘re-deployed’ elsewhere on the network, including as train drivers.
In August 2010 the issue of the impact of the Oyster card on staffing returned. In response to The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) ballot for a strike over planned job cuts, TfL stated that the increase in people using Oyster electronic ticketing cards meant only one in 20 journeys now involved interaction with a ticket office. As a result, it aims to reduce staff in ticket offices and elsewhere while deploying more workers to help passengers in stations.
By June 2010 over 34 million cards have been issued of which around 7 million are in regular use. More than 80% of all tube journeys and more than 90% of all bus journeys use Oyster. Around 38% of all Tube journeys and 21% of all bus journeys are made using Oyster pay as you go. Use of single tickets has declined and stands at roughly 1.5% of all bus journeys and 3% of all Tube journeys.
Oyster PAYG is now valid at c2c stations Purfleet, Ockendon, Chafford Hundred and Grays in Thurrock (Essex).
On 2 January 2013, Oyster PAYG was extended to Shenfield (the terminus of the future Crossrail service) and Broxbourne by Abellio Greater Anglia.
With regard to London’s airports, TfL and BAA studied acceptance of Oyster Pay As You Go on BAA’s Heathrow Express service and the Southern-operated Gatwick Express service in 2006, but BAA decided not to go ahead. However, Oyster has been valid to Gatwick Airport since January 2016
Contactless payment cards
Transport for London started accepting contactless debit and credit cards on London Buses on 13 December 2012, with the aim of expanding the new system to other transport modes by 2013. Transport for London further expanded the use of contactless cards to the Underground, Tram and the Docklands Railway from September 2014. It is reported that TfL’s long-term aim is to stop handling money and collecting fares altogether. The same requirement to touch in and out on underground services applies to contactless cards. The same price capping that applies to the use of Oyster cards applies to the use of contactless cards (provided the same card is used for the day’s journeys). The fare paid every day is settled with the bank and appears on the debit or credit card statement. Detailed usage data is written to Transport for London’s systems and is available for customers who register their contactless cards with Transport for London. Unlike an Oyster card, a contactless card does not store credit (beyond the holder’s credit limit) and there is no need or facility to add credit to the card.
An Oyster card can have a longer term “season” ticket loaded onto it (either at a ticket office or on line). Such a ticket can start on any day and be valid for a minimum of seven days and a maximum of one year. Unlike an Oyster card, a contactless card can automatically apply a seven-day travel card rate. If the card is regularly used between any Monday to Sunday period, an automatic cap is applied. The seven-day period is fixed at Monday to Sunday, it cannot be any seven-day period, unlike a seven-day ticket applied to an Oyster card. There is currently no automatic cap for longer periods.
Since the Oyster readers cannot write to a contactless card, the reader when touching out is unable to display the fare charged for the journey, as the card does not have the starting point stored in it. This is calculated overnight once the touch in and touch out information is downloaded from the gates and collated. As with Oyster, a failure to touch either in or out, charges the maximum possible fare. Transport for London state that if ticket inspection is taking place, that it is necessary to present the contactless card to the ticket inspector’s portable oyster card reader. As the reader at the starting station cannot write to the contactless card and the card’s use is not downloaded until the following night, it is not clear how the isolated portable card reader can determine if the card was used to touch into the system.
On 8 June 2015, Apple and TfL confirmed that it would start accepting Apple Pay as another form of payment on its network from July 2015 onwards. The fares would be same offered by Oyster and contactless.
Trial versions, Transport for London staff versions and the first version of the standard Oyster card for the public were released with the roundels on the front of the cards in red. Standard issues of the Oyster card have been updated since the first public release in order to meet TfL’s Design Standards.
There have been three issues of the standard Oyster card, including the original red roundel issue, but all three Oyster cards have retained their original dimensions of 85mm x 55mm, with Oyster card number and reference number located in the top right-hand corner and bottom right hand corner of the back of the card respectively, along with the terms and conditions.
The second issue of the standard Oyster card had ‘Transport for London’ branding on the back of the card, with the Mayor of London (having replaced the ‘LONDON’ branding in the blue segment of the card’s back). The roundel on the front of the card was changed from the colour red to white, as white was seen to represent Transport for London (whereas a red roundel is more known to represent London Buses).
The most recent issue of the standard Oyster card has TfL branding on its front, removed from the back of the card in the previous issue. The Mayor of London branding has also been moved from the blue segment on the back of the card to underneath the terms and conditions, where it is more prominent.
Oyster card holder/wallet
With the release of the Oyster card, TfL released an accompanying Oyster card holder to replace the existing designs, previously sponsored by companies such as Yellow Pages, Direct Line and IKEA, as well as London Underground’s and London Buses own releases of the holder which came without advertising.
The official Oyster branded holders have only been redesigned twice, keeping up with various versions of the Oyster card. However, in 2007 the Oyster card wallets were redesigned and are now black.
In March 2007 the Oyster card holder was redesigned by British designers including Katharine Hamnett, Frostfrench and Gharani Strok for Oxfam’s I’m In campaign to end world poverty. The designer wallets were available for a limited period of time from Oxfam’s street teams in London who handed them out to people who signed up to the I’m In movement. Also, to celebrate 100 years of the Piccadilly line, a series of limited edition Oyster card wallets were commissioned from selected artists from the Thin Cities Platform for Art project. Any new Oyster cards are now given with black wallets that display the Oyster logo and the Transport for London roundel. The previous wallets handed out were sponsored by Ikea who also sponsor the tube map, and did not display the Oyster or the London Underground logos.
In addition to the official wallets distributed by TfL, which may or may not carry advertising for a sponsor, Oyster card holders and wallets are sometimes used as a marketing tool by other organisations seeking to promote their identity or activities. Such items are normally given away free, either with products or handed out to the public.
The standard public Oyster card is blue but colour variants are used by transport staff.
The standard Oyster card designs are as follows:
- Standard Oyster card. Blue. Design has remained mostly the same since its introduction in 2003. These are issued when limited edition cards are not in circulation
- One Day Bus and Tram Pass. Green. Introduced in January 2015, this Oyster card can only be used for a maximum of one day, and can not be reloaded with credit. About half the thickness of a standard Oyster card, as it is meant to be discarded when it expires.
A number of limited edition Oyster card variant designs exist. These are produced in limited quantities but otherwise function as standard Oyster cards. These include:
- 2011 Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
- 2012 Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
- 2012 London 2012 Games.
- 2013 150th Anniversary of London Underground.
- 2014 TfL Year of the Bus.
Three design variations of the Oyster visitor cards also exist:
- 2007 Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition.
- 2007 Standard version showing the London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, 30 St Mary Axe and the Millennium Bridge.
- 2012 Visitor Oyster card containing letters made up of landmarks spelling LONDON.
Issues and criticisms
Touching out penalties
Card users sometimes forget to touch in or touch out, are unable to find the yellow readers or it may be too crowded to touch out. Such card users have either received penalty fares by revenue inspectors, been charged a maximum cash fare, or been prosecuted in courts which can issue high penalties. Card users are also penalised for touching in and out of the same station within a two-minute period. The system applies two penalty fares (one for touching in, and one for touching out) to passengers who touch in, wait more than twenty minutes for a train, but are unable to travel because there are no trains, baulk at the waiting, and touch out. This is because the system assumes that, after such a long delay, the passenger has traveled to another station where they have failed to touch out and failed to touch in, thus resulting in two penalty fares.
Holders of Travelcards can add pay as you go credit on their Oyster cards. This credit is used as ‘extension fare’ when the Oyster user travels beyond the zones in which their Travelcard is valid. This extension fare equals the regular Oyster fare for a journey from/to the respective station outside of the validity area of the Travelcard to/from the closest zone still covered by the Travelcard. To distinguish between Peak and Off-Peak fares, however, the start of the journey is taken into account. That means a traveller might be charged the (more expensive) peak fare as extension fare even if they had not yet left the area of validity of their Travelcard by the end of peak time. Conversely, however, a journey starting in the covered zones shortly before the start of the peak time will be charged as off-peak.
The system has been criticised as a threat to the privacy of its users. Each Oyster card is uniquely numbered, and registration is required for monthly or longer tickets, which are no longer available on paper. Limited usage data is stored on the card. Journey and transaction history is held centrally by Transport for London for up to eight weeks, after which the transactions and journey history are disassociated from the Oyster card and cannot be re-associated; full registration details are held centrally and not on individual Oyster cards; recent usage can be checked by anyone in possession of the card at some ticket machines.
The police have used Oyster card data as an investigative tool, and this use is increasing. On 13 April 2006, TfL stated that “Between August 2004 and March 2006 TfL’s Information Access and Compliance Team received 436 requests from the police for Oyster card information. Of these, 409 requests were granted and the data were released to the police.” However, in response to another request in February 2012, “TfL said this had happened 5,295 times in 2008, 5,359 in 2009, 5,046 in 2010, and a record 6,258 in 2011”.
Additionally, in 2008 news reports indicated that the security services were seeking access to all Oyster card data for the purposes of counter-terrorism. Such access is not provided to the security services.
As yet, there have been no reports of customer data being misused, outside the terms of the registration agreement. There have been no reports of Oyster data being lost.
The system has been criticised for usability issues in general system, website and top-up machine design.
Oyster pay-as-you-go users, on London Underground, DLR and National Rail (including London Overground) services are required always to “touch in” and “touch out” to cause the correct fare to be charged. This requirement is less obviously enforced at stations where there are only standalone yellow reader rather than ticket barriers. Without a physical barrier, pay-as-you-go users may simply forget to “touch in” or fail to touch their card correctly, which will result in a maximum fare being charged. Equally, if the barriers do not function (reading ‘SEEK ASSISTANCE’) and the TfL or train operating company staff member has to open the gates manually, then the maximum fare may be charged. If this occurs a refund may be requested by telephoning the Oyster helpline the day after the incident occurs (to allow time for the central computers to be updated); the overcharged amount can be added back to the pay-as-you-go balance on the card from the following day when the Oyster card is used to make a journey.
The use of Oyster cards on buses has been subject to criticism following a number of successful criminal prosecutions by TfL of bus passengers whose Oyster card, when checked by Revenue Protection Inspectors, did not show that the passenger had “touched in” correctly on boarding. In particular, problems have been highlighted in connection with the quality of error messages given to passengers when touching in has failed for any reason. In one case, a passenger successfully appealed against his conviction for fare evasion when the court noted that the passenger believed he had paid for his journey because the Oyster reader did not give sufficient error warning.
In 2011, London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon obtained figures from the Mayor of London which revealed that in 2010, £60million had been taken by TfL in maximum Oyster fares. The statistics also detailed a “top ten” of stations where maximum fares were being collected, notably Waterloo and London Bridge. In her criticism of the figures, Pidgeon claimed that “structural problems” with the Oyster system were to blame, such as faulty equipment failing to register cards and difficulty in obtaining refunds. A report by BBC London highlighted the system of “autocomplete” (in which Oyster cards journeys are automatically completed without the need to physically touch out, exceptionally used when large crowds are exiting stations) as particularly problematic.
In January 2004, on the day that the pay-as-you-go system went live on all Oyster cards, some season ticket passengers were prevented from making a second journey on their travelcard. Upon investigation each had a negative prepay balance. This was widely reported as a major bug in the system. However, the reason for the “bug” was that some season ticket holders were passing through zones not included on their tickets. The existing paper system could not prevent this kind of misuse as the barriers only checked if a paper ticket was valid in the zone the barrier was in.
On 10 March 2005 an incorrect data table meant that the Oyster system was inoperable during the morning rush hour. Ticket barriers had to be left open and pay as you go fares could not be collected.
On 12 July 2008 an incorrect data table disabled an estimated 72,000 Oyster cards, including Travelcards, staff passes, Freedom Passes, child Oyster cards and other electronic tickets. The Oyster system was shut down and later restarted during traffic hours. Some customers already in the system were overcharged. Refunds were given to those affected and all disabled cards were replaced. Freedom Pass holders had to apply to their local authority for replacement passes (as these are not managed by TfL).
A further system failure occurred two weeks later on 25 July 2008, when pay as you go cards were not read properly.
On 2 January 2016 the Oyster system failed with readers failing to process Oyster cards but continuing to process contactless cards and Apple pay transactions.
The difference between pay as you go and Travelcards
Transport for London promoted the Oyster card at launch with many adverts seeking to portray it as an alternative to the paper Travelcard. In late 2005 the Advertising Standards Authority ordered the withdrawal of one such poster which claimed that Oyster pay as you go was “more convenient” than Travelcards with “no need to plan in advance”. The ASA ruled that the two products were not directly comparable, mainly because the pay as you go facility was not valid on most National Rail routes at the time.
Transport for London has made a significant surplus from excess fares deducted for those travelling using PAYG and failing to touch out as they exit stations. According to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act TfL made £32m from pay as you go cards of which £18m was maximum fares for failing to touch out. Only £803,000 was paid in refunds, showing that whilst customers can apply for a refund, most do not. The oyster online site does not list all penalty fares eligible for refunds on the front page, and users must search for fares charged on a particular day to discover all penalty fares that have been charged. The maximum fares for failing to touch out were introduced late 2006.
Validity on National Rail
Until the availability of Oyster pay-as-you-go on the whole of the National Rail suburban network in January 2010, the validity of PAYG was not consistent across different modes of transport within London, and this gave rise to confusion for Oyster pay-as-you-go users. Many passengers were caught out trying to use Pay as you go on rail routes where it was not valid.
On some National Rail routes where pay-as-you-go was valid, Oyster validators had not been installed at some intermediate stations. While Oyster pay-as-you-go users could legally travel along those lines to certain destinations, they were not permitted to board or alight at intermediate stations. If their journey began or ended at an intermediate station, they would be unable to touch out and consequently be liable for penalty fares or prosecution.
The complexity of Oyster validity on these routes was criticised for increasing the risk of passengers inadvertently failing to pay the correct fare. Criticism was also levelled at train operating companies for failing to provide adequate warnings to passengers about Oyster validity on their routes and for not installing Oyster readers at certain stations.
TfL published guides to the limitations of pay-as-you-go validity diagrammatic maps illustrating PAYG validity were published in November 2006 by National Rail, but these were rarely on display at stations and had to be obtained from transport websites.
Online and telesales
Oyster card ticket renewals and pay-as-you-go top-ups made online allow users to make purchases without the need to go to a ticket office or vending machine. However, there are certain limitations to this system:
- tickets and pay-as-you-go funds can only be added to the Oyster card from the day after purchase (if bought online);
- users must select a station or tram stop where they must touch in or out as part of a normal journey to complete the purchase (as cards cannot be credited remotely);
- users must nominate the station in advance – failure to enter or exit via this station means that the ticket is not added to the card;
- tickets purchased in this way cannot be added from a bus reader (due to these not being fixed in a permanent location).
In June 2008, researchers at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, who had previously succeeded in hacking the OV-chipkaart (the Dutch public transport chip card), hacked an Oyster card, which is also based on the MIFARE Classic chip. They scanned a card reader to obtain its cryptographic key, then used a wireless antenna attached to a laptop computer to brush up against passengers on the London Underground and extract the information from their cards. With that information they were able to clone a card, add credit to it, and use it to travel on the Underground for at least a day. The MIFARE chip manufacturers NXP Semiconductor sought a court injunction to prevent the publication of the details of this security breach, but this was overturned on appeal.
The Mifare Classic—which is also used as a security pass for controlling entry into buildings—has been criticised as having very poor security, and NXP criticised for trying to ensure security by secrecy rather than strong encryption. Breaching security on Oyster cards should not allow unauthorised use for more than a day, as TfL promises to turn off any cloned cards within 24 hours, but a cloned Mifare Classic can allow entry into buildings that use this system for security.
Transport for London, in partnership with academic institutions such as MIT, has begun to use the data captured by the Oyster smartcard system for strategic research purposes, with the general goal of using Oyster data to gain cheap and accurate insights into the behaviour and experience of passengers. Specific projects include estimation of Origin-Destination Matrices for the London Underground, analysis of bus-to-bus and bus-to-tube interchange behaviour, modelling and analysis of TfL-wide fare policy changes, and measurement of service quality on the London Overground.