Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The world is your Oyster...if you go slowly

A 30-minute blast into space on Richard 'Beardie' Branson's new Virgin spacecraft sounds great fun but the ride will cost you £200,000. It's a familiar story; a fantastic new bit of kit comes out and only folks with a shed load of cash can afford to buy a ticket. A similar tale emerged on Monday morning (14 December) when the Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Olympic golden girl Dame Kelly Holmes waxed lyrical about Britain's first high speed commuter train service whisking passengers between London and Kent.

All of this high speed hype was lapped up and regurgitated by TV news and media, including the London Evening Standard. Understandably, they dwelt on the impressive new Hitachi Class 395 trains that were made in Japan. They also focused on the equally impressive Dame Kelly - made in Britain - as she was beaming a smile at a gleaming train named after her. But they failed to mention that Oyster pay as you go cards aren't valid on these high speed services.

Oyster's invalidity is a bit strange because these new Southeastern services make a Zone 3 stop at Stratford International station right next to London's 2012 Olympic Park. The Zone 1-3 St Pancras International-Stratford International journey takes only seven minutes. But we can't use our Oyster cards on this one journey, We won't even be able to use them from 2 January 2010, the big 'Oysterisation' day when we can use our Oyster cards on almost every other National Rail service across the London Travelcard Area's nine Zones.
Why not? Whilst researching an article for RAIL magazine, a Transport for London spokesman told me: "The Southeastern service between St Pancras and Stratford is classified as a premium service and will not be included in the extension of Oyster pay as you go at the request of Southeastern."

So, "at the request of Southeastern", we're invited to hail high speed rail whist forced to inhale its premium price.
A single from St Pancras International to Stratford International costs £5.
That's £1.40 per minute!
True, the new high speed trains offer an air-conditioned and much faster trip than an often crowded and baking Central Line ride to Stratford Regional station (also right next to the Olympic Park). But that Central Line Zone 1-3 journey using Oyster, typically from Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Circus, costs a far less painful £2.70.
An off-peak day return on a high speed train is set at £6.50 and an 'anytime return' at £8.50.
That's the premium stacked on the price of travelling at high speed between two increasingly important London stations.
I'm still waiting for Govia, Southeastern's parent owner, to reply to my request for some answers. If and when they do, I'll post their response.

Will the bar on using Oyster be lifted during the 2012 Olympics?
Highly unlikely, I'm afraid.
Southeastern and the Olympic Delivery Authority's transport chiefs are planning to run a high-frequency high speed Javelin service between St Pancras and Stratford during the Games. They hope the Javelin trains will zip about 25,000 spectators to the Games each day but they fear demand will exceed the service's capacity. So tickets will have to be booked in advance, possibly when buying Games event tickets. The transport guys, quite rightly, don't want thousands without Javelin train tickets turning up and causing chaos at St Pancras International...even if they're waving their Oyster cards.

True, 'demand management' makes sense during the Games when 400,000 people per day are expected to bowl up at the Olympic Park at Stratford.
But it doesn't make much sense before the Games.
Why didn't Transport for London, the Department for Transport and Southeastern come up with a mutually acceptable agreement that would've enabled Oyster usage on these high speed trains, especially as it could've helped to relieve overcrowding on Central Line and North London Line services to Stratford Regional?
Was protecting Southeastern's revenues a good enough reason to invalidate Oyster?
Or was it because someone didn't want us Oyster oiks using a premium high speed service affordable mainly by bonus-bagging bankers from Kent?
Surely, off-peak Oyster validity would've been an acceptable compromise.

The Oyster bar on Southeastern's high speed services makes even less sense from 2011. That's when Stratford City opens right next to Stratford's two rail stations. Westfield's massive development means Stratford City will become Europe's largest urban retail mall - bigger apparently than Westfield's White City colossus - yet Oyster card users won't be able to reach it by a high speed train. Are Southeastern going to tell Stratford City's lower-paid retail staff that they'll have to pay the high speed premium to get to work?
'Oysterisation' on 2 January is a long-awaited day. Finally, Londoners will be able to get around London more easily thanks to the biggest expansion of the Oyster network since Oyster was launched in 2003.
It's been a long time coming because of tortuous negotiations between TfL and private train operators keen to protect their precious fare revenues.
Even so, there'll still be this one glaring high speed omission.
The world is not yet our Oyster.

Photo shows one of Southeastern's 140-mph Class 395s - 395017 - dwelling at Ebbsfleet International as escalator maintenance is carried out.

Paul Coleman, London, December 2009

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