London: Happy New Year

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COMMENT

by jnoelbell

It's a new year for Londoners, and two things are certain: hangovers and transportation price hikes.

The cost of taking the Tube goes up every year, but no more so than this year, with a whopping 33% increase to single cash journey bus and Tube fares. Going into central London's Zone 1 now costs a staggering £4, if you care to pay in pounds. Hopping the bus costs £2. The Tube has become far and away the the single most expensive transport system in the world.

The exorbitant fare increases will hit tourists and non-Londoners worst. Most of London's everyday Tube travellers have been railroaded into using the RFID chip embedded Oyster card since last January, when fare increases for paper tickets made buying them impractical for daily use. Using a credit-based Oyster card offered savings, and was said to be the wave of the future. People were encouraged to link them to their bank accounts for automatic top-ups, or register them for discounts - privacy concerns be damned.

And while Oyster cards have been around for more than three years now, there remain some clearly identifiable problems. First of all, the Oyster card is not universally accepted on the overland rail network; pay-as-you-go Oyster cards are invalid on most of the train system, many stations don't yet have Oyster card readers in place, and Oyster cards are not valid outside London. So if any part of your daily journey combines the Tube and rail services, you could find yourself shelling out more than you thought.

Tourists as well, are at a disadvantage. Tube travel is confusing even for the locals, with zillions of different fare combinations; how on earth are visitors expected to navigate it? While one can pay a £3 deposit for a pay-as-you-go Oyster card, many tourists may not know about the savings associated with it, or how to use it properly. Additionally, while they may be encouraged to use an Oyster card in order to get special deals on popular tourist activities, many tourists will find they cannot easily get their deposit back when they're done visiting the capital; if you have used a credit or debit card to top-up your Oyster, then your deposit is returned via cheque (to a UK address only, natch). One-day travelcards (an all-inclusive one day ticket for rail/bus/tube/tram journeys) also cannot be loaded onto an Oyster card. Children between 11-15 must still buy paper tickets, so families are out of luck. To add further insult to injury, confusion over where and when Oyster cards can be used, or forgetting to "touch in" or "touch out" could mean you end up inadvertently paying the highest possible penalty fare of £5.

In other words: you're shucked if you use the Oyster, shucked if you don't.

And for all the hassle and expense of the Tube, what visible improvements to service have there been? Are Tube lines less overcrowded? No. Are they more reliable? No. No. Are they cleaner? No'. Are they safer? No. Are there fewer strikes? No. There remain an unacceptably high level of daily delays, annoyances, and inefficiencies. For all our extra money, the only amenities we have to look forward to seeing this year to is the Tube running running a half hour later on weekends, and free bus rides for under-18's.

Now, if only there were some other way to get to work.

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