Oyster and Gatwick – The truth

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.

36 thoughts on “Oyster and Gatwick – The truth”

  1. Hello mike, i think yours is a superb site! Really interesting
    It makes the point that for a journalist ever seeking examples of bureaucratic stupidities there is always a simple solution – but it is not always so! There is also a political point – the railways have been split up to create competition including price competition (gatwick express dearer and better for example)/j but government also defers to a public which wants simple uniform fares, and not to be told when a train is cancelled that they are not allowed on the next train. These goals are incomaptible.

    I am a freedom pass holder, and the issues are travelling outside zone 6 allowed i presume, including shenfield? I will illustrate the question with shenfield (and harold wood and brentwood). But only on tfl trains (abellio has stopping trains on sundays though). And combining a freedom pass with a paper ticket. (It seems that within a certain area it is possible to buy a ticket from zone boundary to your destination (and rule 19 does not apply?)/but for other journeys you have to note the last station within the zones (last station in zone 6 or last station in zone 9? Or is shenfield included?) And rule 19 does apply.

    I think a post explaining the shenfield zone and adding paper tickets would be good. I think a post re watford and adding paper tickets beyond it would be good. I sympathise with the railcos on this, they don’t want people using long distance trains for local journeys – i wonder what will happen on cross-rail?

    • Hi,

      Firstly I’ve tried to edit out the typos in your post – hopefully I’ve got the meaning right.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head with the Gatwick issues. And yes, the express is a complete joke. I’m also working on pages covering issues with the other beyond zone destinations – watch this space. As to Crossrail, I await developments with interest. There are a few technical issues to be ironed out before Oyster can be extended towards Reading.

      The freedom pass is treated like an off-peak season ticket. Condition 19 does apply, but as it is a season ticket the train doesn’t need to call where you switch from the pass to the paper ticket. Generally you need a ticket from the boundary of zone 6 when travelling on non-TfL services. The pass is valid at all times on any TfL provided service (Underground, DLR, Overground and TfL Rail). On the Shenfield line you can use it on all trains as far as Harold Wood, then only on TfL Rail services to Shenfield. For Abellio you need a ticket from Harold Wood (or BZ6) and the train doesn’t have to call there.

  2. Thanks for this article. I wasn’t aware of the fiendish dabbling that had been going on in the background. I guess this shows the perils of creating a product that is seen as essential and then gets hijacked by political pressure (Oyster to Gatwick). It’s not just the DfT in the dock here but also a lot of London Assembly members who perhaps don’t quite appreciate the mess that has been visited on people and may yet happen again. I doubt TfL had any ability to stop this extension of PAYG being forced through on political grounds.

    Do you know if the minimum fare levels at Gatwick are scaled back if you have a concession (Railcard or priv) entitlement on your Oyster card? They are within the zones but given the mess here I certainly wouldn’t want to have to have up to £20+ on my PAYG just to enter a gateline.

    We must hope that “redesigned” Oyster allows these nonsenses to be ironed out as I can certainly see Reading having similar issues to those applying at Gatwick (more than one type of service, three operators from London, a “premium” fast service).

    • Entry levels are set at the appropriate single fares to London, so discounted cards have lower entry thresholds. Redesigned Oyster is pretty much todays contactless so it isn’t going to iron out these issues. However, I don’t think fast GWR services cost more than stopping ones between Reading and London. I also don’t see Oyster being accepted on SWT or the North Downs line unless those TOCs are prepared to pay for the equipment.

  3. I’m headed to Gatwick on Tuesday. It looks cheapest to go from Canning Town via Canada Water [+pink reader] on the Overground to Clapham Junction (avoiding zone 1). Then taking a Southern train to Gatwick. When I get to Gatwick I can just tap out and everything will be ok?

    • Hi Eric,

      Yes, you only need to touch the pink reader at Canada Water on the way. You might find it quicker to take the Overground to New Cross Gate/Norwood Junction then a Southern train to East Croydon (or even Gatwick if you’re lucky). If cost really is the driving factor then you need to touch out and back in again at East Croydon. That will split the journey in two with Canning Town to East Croydon avoiding zone 1 at £3.50/£2.50 and East Croydon to Gatwick Airport at £5.20/£3.00; total £8.70 peak, £5.50 off-peak.

  4. Travelcards on Contactless (and consequently New Oyster) is the big unknown at the moment, in terms of how it will interact with daily and weekly capping.

    • Hi Matthew,

      Yes, indeed. My understanding is that the details of the travelcard will be held centrally and taken into account when processing touches/journeys. As such it should work the same as Old Oyster in terms of utilising extension journeys.

  5. Moving to Redhill next month and commuting to Stamford Brook. The whole oyster/contactless/season ticket situation seems confusing. What will the best option be?

    • Hi Matt,

      Leaving aside any potential issues with relying on Southern trains, the answer depends on which way you intend to travel. If you want to go via Victoria then a paper travelcard to zones 1-6 is best. If you can avoid zone 1 changing at Clapham Junction, West Brompton and Earls Court then the cheaper travelcard to zones 2-6 will work. Oyster and contactless are not effective for 5-day a week commuting from Redhill.

  6. Thanks Mike,

    Is a Zone 2-6 Travelcard valid from Redhill or would I also need to purchase a ticket to somewhere in Zone 6?

    I’m unclear what Zone Redhill is.

    • Hi Matt,

      Redhill is outside the zones. It is cheapest to buy a paper ticket from Redhill to zones 2-6. Sadly you can’t put that on your Oyster card.

  7. From Gatwick(around 11.30) to Hither green(stay for 7 days with trips to 1-3 zones), which is the better option? PAYG to London Bridge and then issuing a 7 day travelcard?

    • Hi Jim,

      Yes, but get the travelcard loaded onto the Oyster card first if you can, then you’ll only pay for Gatwick to zone 4. If your stay is a full week (eg Wed-Wed) then you’ll need to use PAYG on the last day. That is usually cheaper when ending at Gatwick.

  8. If I use PAYG from Gatwick to Hither Green with a change to London Bridge(for southeastern service) the cost is 8 pounds or is it 10.20, for travel after 09.30?

    • Hi Jim,

      It’s £8.00 if you don’t use Underground. If you went Gatwick to Victoria, then tube to Charing Cross, then Southeastern to Hither Green it would be £10.20.

  9. Νο, Ι’m thinking to not use tube, just go from Gatwick to London Bridge and from there to take Southeastern to Hither Green. So, the price will be 8 pounds, right?

    • Yes!

      That was the first sentence of my previous reply. I then went on to explain what the £10.20 fare involved so you could see how and why they were different.

  10. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for answering so many questions!
    Im moving to Feltham but will commute for work to wood green station and west kensintin(or barons court) Whick is the cheapest way or fastest way of doing it?? thank you!

  11. sorry for the misspelling its west kensington and not kensintin. im in wood green two days a week and 2 days in west ken. holding my baby and writing at the same time 🙂

    • Hi Yasmine,

      You’ve definitely got your hands full then!

      Feltham to Barons Court or West Kensington is probably quickest changing onto the District Line at Richmond. It’s a zone 6 to zone 2 National Rail + Underground journey and you won’t be able to reduce the price unless you can get to Hatton Cross instead and make it Underground only.

      For Wood Green you do have a choice. Fastest is to change onto the Piccadilly line at Hammersmith or Barons Court and go straight through. If you are doing Hatton Cross then it’s one train all the way. The problem is that you go through zone 1 and that will cost more, especially if using SWT from Feltham. The alternative is easier from Feltham and involves changing to London Overground at Richmond, travelling all the way to Highbury & Islington, then taking the Victoria Line to Finsbury Park and a cross platform change onto the Piccadilly for the last few stops to Wood Green. Feltham to Wood Green that way will cost the same as Feltham to Barons Court!

      I’m not sure you want to contemplate the avoiding zone 1 journey from Hatton Cross as there is a lot of changing and going backwards. For completeness it is Hatton Cross to Acton Town then District to Turnham Green, District to Gunnersbury, Overground to Highbury & Islington and then as above.

      Hope that helps.

  12. Hi, we (two adults) will be travelling from East Croydon to Gatwick off peak returns in a few months. We were going to use oysters at £3 each way per person but reading this we will need to have at least £8 on the cards for the return trip, hence will need at least £11 on each card before leaving ECR, am I right?
    We each have contactless bank cards and a two together railcard would it be better to use that to buy tickets or use the contactless?

    • Hi Bob,

      Yes, you are right. If you use the contactless cards on their own you will get charged £6 total each. If you use one to buy tickets with the two together railcard then the return tickets will be £3.95 each.

  13. Hi,

    Can you advise on what I should do to pay the cheapest fare? I have a pay as you go oyster and need to go to Gatwick Airport from Colliers Wood tube (probably via Balham and East Croydon) around 10:30 am next week. I will be making a return journey from Gatwick a couple of days later around 19:45. Shall I use my oyster pay as you go for the entire journey or should I come out at East Croydon and touch back in with my oyster?

  14. Sounds like the confusion is an ongoing issue for years now.
    What does a traveler to the UK, staying outside of London, touring into London daily and about London using the tube, supposed to buy? The Oyster card and a National Rail Card?
    Trying to save some money each day, but not sure the best way to go about it.

    • Hi Sarah,

      If you can expand on your plans a bit I might be able to offer some advice. I’ll need to know where you are staying, how long for and whether anything outside the central London area is required.

  15. Hi Mike,
    Tomorrow I will be travelling around on either my contactless MasterCard or my adult Oyster card on my one day trip to London. I will arrive in London City Airport at 9:30 exactly and plan to travel around enough to trigger the off-peak Z1-Z3 cap. In the evening, I will fly out of London Gatwick Airport, but how should I pay for this journey? I know for a fact that I will not use Gatwick Express, but I am not completely sure whether I will be travelling out of London Bridge or Victoria.
    – Say I have triggered the off-peak Z1-Z3 daily cap on Oyster card. Will I be charged Z4-Gatwick, Z1-Gatwick or what?
    – Same as above, but with contactless – is there any difference?
    Thanks in advance, Thomas

    • Hi Thomas,

      In both cases you will be charged the full fare from London to Gatwick. You can avoid this if you have a few spare minutes by alighting at East Croydon, touching out and back in again, then getting the next train. In both cases you’ll be charged the much cheaper single fare from East Croydon to Gatwick. On Oyster you’ll also be charged a zone 1-5 single while on contactless it will be a zone 4-5 single.

      I hope that helps and I haven’t left it too late to reply.

  16. Hi Mike
    Getting the train to Gatwick from Clapham junction, week day before 6.30am. Can l use my 60+ Oyster card? If not should l use my Oyster card? How much will it cost.

    • Hi Sonia,

      The 60+ Oyster card is not valid all the way to Gatwick, and nor is it valid on Southern services before 0930. You’ll need to use your Oyster card. The fare is £6.80 if you touch in before 0630. If you have a senior railcard discount attached to your Oyster card then it’s just £4.50.

  17. Dear Mike,
    Thanks for this useful site. I use PAYG Oyster, and I’m looking at a journey from London to Gatwick on 21.10.18, and the Thameslink website tells me my Oyster fare will be £8.30, but then I’m looking at one back from Gatwick to St Pancras, which the same website says will be £14.70. I’m confused. Can you help?

    • Hi Rose,

      £8.30 is the off-peak fare while £14.70 is the peak fare. From London to Gatwick it’s peak between 0630-0930 and 1600-1900. The other way round it’s only peak in the morning. The key time is the touch in time at the start of the journey.

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