image courtesy of  Matthew Black (via Flickr)

 

Starting on Thursday 13 December, 2012 London Buses was the first mode of transport in the UK to accept contactless bank card payments. This means entire fleet of 8,500 buses now accepts these payments, enabling passengers who have a Maestro or Mastercard NFC card to pay their fare using these, as opposed to Oyster cards, paper tickets or cash payments.

 

The History

NFC (Near Field Communication) contactless cards have been in circulation in the UK since Barclaycard first introduced them on its credit cards in 2007. The more familiar Oyster cards first saw the light of day back in 2003 when TFL (Transport for London) rolled out this method of contactless payment in an attempt to accelerate passengers through bus doors and tube barriers. It also aimed to remove cash handling responsibilities from bus drivers.

Londoners were quick to adopt Oyster cards as their preferred payment method for travel, but other types of contactless payment have been less well received around the country. It is hoped that this move will persuade more of the NFC card-holding public to use and embrace the system in other areas of life.

The Science

Oyster card readers use a different technology which reads RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips that are embedded in Oyster cards. All readers on the buses have been upgraded to accept both methods of payment. In addition, Smartphones that support NFC technology should also be compatible.

In a society where we are all being pushed into increasingly cashless transactions it is likely that in the coming years we will all be carrying several different contactless methods of payment. However, if you have more than one card about your person at present it is likely that this will confuse the readers on London buses. Oyster card holders have been informed via email that –

“If you present two cards together, the reader will usually reject them both”

It also states –

“But there is a small possibility of payment being taken from a card which you did not intend to use”

It is not an ideal situation, and it will be one that will need addressing swiftly if this system is to be taken up by the population of London at large.

The Cost

The good news is that, when using your NFC card to pay for a single bus journey, it will charge you the same as you would pay when using your existing Oyster card. This charge is £1.35 in comparison to a price of £2.70 when paying with cash. (And as any seasoned Londoner will tell you, you do not want to pay with cash if you want a happy bus driver!)

Although the system does not currently support the daily price capping (a system that ensures “pay and go” travellers never pay more than the price of a daily travel card) found on Oyster cards, TFL have stated that this will be integrated into the system over 2013. They even plan to introduce weekly capping that is not presently found on Oyster cards.

The Future

So, for holders of NFC contactless cards, is it time to ditch your old blue friend the Oyster? Not just yet, as the system is not currently supported on London’s tube, train and tram network. However, this is set to change as the TFL website states that –

“In 2013, you’ll be able to use your contactless card on (the) Tube, DLR, Trams (and) London Overground.

It also promises that –

“By then, you’ll also be able to check your journey history online, which means you can see where you’ve been and how much it cost. And because everything will be managed by your card issuer, it means the whole system is secure. There’s no need for PIN numbers, and at no point will we have access to your account.”

http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/projectsandschemes/19976.aspx

And there we have it. It would seem that by the end of 2013 the Oyster card’s days will be numbered and travellers will be happily swiping and bleeping their way across the entire London transport system without ever having to worry about purchasing a travel card or “topping up”. Certainly a fine idea, but it remains to be seen whether it will work as seamlessly as TFL promises. I for one will still carry a little cash, just in case.