Ever since Oyster was expanded to cover the whole National Rail network within the zones there has been a desire by the government for it to be accepted for journeys on the express services to Heathrow and Gatwick airports. There are a number of issues which have prevented progress, but when Govia Thameslink Railway were awarded the management contract to run Great Northern, Thameslink, Southern and Gatwick Express, enabling Oyster (and contactless as well by now) on the Express was one of the key target deliverables. Initially the idea was to allow Oyster on Gatwick Express services only, because of the limitations of the Oyster system with regard to the number of zones it can cope with. The difficulty with that is that passengers may see the Oyster pads at Gatwick and use it to board a stopping service, perhaps alighting at Redhill. The potential for bad press when penalty fares and/or prosecutions were threatened was too great. So finally the system was squeezed and contorted in ways it was never designed for and fares were set for all the stations between Merstham and Gatwick Airport inclusive.
As soon as the fares became available to view on TfL’s single fare finder it rapidly became clear that Southern, probably at the behest of the DfT, had seriously cludged the fare setting system. Gone was the idea that you only paid for each zone travelled through once, especially if you reamained on National Rail. Now there were fares for direct Southern and Thameslink services and higher fares if you wanted to use Southeastern and South West Trains, and also other Southern services if you ventured off the direct Gatwick to London routes. They had also abandoned the long standing rule that if you avoided zone 1 you got a cheaper fare. OK, it still holds true for Gatwick itself, but from any of the intermediate stations it costs more to avoid zone 1 (eg via New Cross/New Cross Gate) than it does to travel via London Bridge. Utter madness!
Then there were the fares for travelling on the Express itself. The only way they could differentiate between the Express and other Southern services was by using the gates to platforms 13 and 14 at Victoria. This is fine when things run to plan, but as anyone who has used Southern in the last six months will know, running to plan often goes out of the window. If normal services use platforms 13/14 then Oyster/CPC users have to be directed to use other validators, while if the express gets routed into another platform all the Oyster/CPC users get a cheap ride. If you travel to/from anywhere other than Gatwick then the correct fare will be charged, but only to/from Victoria NR. There is no OSI to link an Underground or Southeastern journey so you may still be overcharged.
And that’s not all. Southern (the DfT) stipulated that the minimum balance required on an Oyster card at Gatwick Airport is the non-express fare to London. Yes, even if you have a travelcard on your Oyster and will only be paying the relatively cheap fare to East Croydon. And there’s no way to get that extra balance back without cancelling the Oyster card, which is a really big faff if you have a travelcard which you need to keep for commuting. Also, no account is made if you have already reached (or soon will reach) the daily cap for Gatwick Airport. You still need the full non-express fare even if you’ll actually pay nothing. Oh, and in the afternoon peak (1600-1900) you need the peak single fare even though you’ll only be charged the off-peak fare if your journey ends in zone 1.
Then there’s the auto topup system. Auto topup adds funds to your PAYG balance if you start a journey with less than £10. But £14 is required at Gatwick in the peak (and £19.80 at anytime at Victoria P13/14), so the gate simply rejects your card saying you have insufficient credit. So much for the “never need to worry about topping up again” advantage of auto topup.
The light at the end of the tunnel. There were some winners in all this upheaval. Holders of contactless payment cards making return journeys to London found that they benefitted from TfL’s “best fare policy” where every combination of zonal cap and extension fares were compared and the cheapest one was charged. In most cases this was the zone 1-4 daily cap and extensions from Gatwick etc to zone 5 (effectively East Croydon). This meant that for contactless users the Gatwick or Redhill etc daily caps almost never applied. Word quickly spread through social media and part-time commuters found their travel costs much more reasonable. That is until the mandarins at the DfT worked out what was going on.
During February and March this year emails passed back and forth between Govia and TfL discussing how to ensure that the Gatwick/Redhill caps applied if anyone made a return journey to London. I have seen these emails and, although some information was readacted, it is clear that TfL had serious misgivings about what was being proposed. In the middle of May the contactles extension fares for Merstham to Gatwick were changed such that the full fare from London was effectively charged, capped only by the full Gatwick or Redhill daily caps. No public announcement was made leaving commuters to find that their daily commute had increased significantly only when they checked their bank statements (or TfL accounts).
It’s worse than just that though. TfL are actively promoting adult Oyster users to switch to contactless. You can’t make an Underground journey without hearing announcements extolling the virtues of contactless. It’s the same fares as Oyster without the need to top up, they say. And in the zones it is true – in fact it can sometimes work out cheaper thanks to the best value combination of caps and extension fares. But travel beyond Coulsdon South and it gets very muddy indeed. If you have a weekly zone 1-4 travelcard on an Oyster card and make a one-off journey to Gatwick you will be charged from East Croydon. But if you use a contactless card to travel from say Norwood Junction to Oxford Circus each day and make a similar one-off journey to Gatwick you will be charged much much more. Which is why there is no mention of the Gatwick/Redhill caps on TfL’s website where it explains how contactless fares are charged.
So, well done DfT. You have successfully undermined almost every aspect of the Oyster system with your precious acceptance of Oyster from Gatwick Airport. Politically there is nothing TfL can do, though I suspect that privately they wish that they’d never agreed to allow Oyster to Gatwick.