You Risk a Penalty Fare If You Use Oyster to Travel to Gatwick

Comments of social media have highlighted how our disjointed transport system places visitors to our capital city at risk of a penalty fare.

A Confusing Situation for the Uninitiated

It seems that yesterday Revenue Protection Officers (RPOs) were heavy-handedly dishing out Penalty Fares to passengers who had apparently either not realised that London Gatwick is not in London or were unaware that the validity of Oyster ceases at the London border.  It is easy to see how someone other parts of the country might be confused by this.  Similarly, tourists may understandably be puzzled that the Oyster card they bought to cover travel during their trip to our capital does not include London Gatwick.

There is scope for Southern to do far more in terms of having large, printed notices and making clear announcements at London stations reminding passengers that Oyster is not valid for travel to Gatwick.

Or how about introducing a policy that the conductor should make an announcement as the train leaves the London station reminding passengers that Oyster is not valid and then pass through the train selling tickets to those who had made a genuine mistake.

Southern’s surprising lack of proactive action in this area could leave people with the impression that they want passengers to get caught out.  After all, it boosts their profits.

Lack of Discretion By RPOs

Whilst these passengers had travelled without a valid ticket for part of their journey and were technically in the wrong, they are not the people the Penalty Fare scheme is intended to catch.  RPOs are supposed to be trained to use discretion and could, for example, have just charged these passengers a full price ticket from London to Gatwick instead of a Penalty Fare.  Sadly, it sounds like they chose not to do so.

Southern’s dubious incentive scheme, in which RPOs can earn up to 5% of the revenue they collect, is a possible explanation for this lack of decency.  Not only does the passenger have to pay the Penalty Fare, which is twice the ticket price, but they also still have to buy the ticket itself.  That brings the cost up to a total of 3 times the price of the ticket – plus, of course, another £8.80 for touching in with Oyster in London but not touching out.

The most expensive single listed on Southern’s website from London Victoria to Gatwick for a Sunday is £15.40, so in total the passenger could have paid £46.20 for the Penalty Fare + the ticket.  The Oyster penalty brings it up to £55.  If the RPO earns the full 5% commission, then they have just added £2.31 per person to their wages.

Should Oyster Be Extended?

Perhaps the answer is to extend Oyster, so that it is at least valid to London Gatwick.  That would prevent this sort of problem in the first place.

In fact, isn’t it time we had a national smartcard system?  Given we already had the Oyster smartcard system that train companies operating within the London borders have to accept, it is baffling that the Department of Transport has allowed companies such as Southern, and now Southeastern, to bring in their own alternative smartcard system instead of making them extend Oyster beyond London’s borders.

This sort of thing is always presented as “giving customers choice”, whereas in reality all it does is confuses all but the most rail-savvy travellers and gives their customers an unpleasant and unexpected Penalty Fare, along with the risk of a criminal record for fare evasion!