Tube Contactless Trial: How's It Going?

By Londonist Last edited 46 months ago
Tube Contactless Trial: How's It Going?

Photo by Steve Chambers

You might have heard that Transport for London is currently running a trial on the tube for contactless card payments (buses already accept contactless payment from everyone). We wondered how it was going, so we asked two people who are registered for the trial to sum up their experiences. Obviously this isn't a comprehensive overview but they've picked up some issues that we can all learn from. And by all, we also mean TfL.

Geoff Marshall is the man behind the Secrets of the Tube Line videos and the Guinness World Record holder for visiting all stations on the Underground in one day. He's been using contactless for roughly the last month and tells us that, in his opinion, contactless is an inferior system to Oyster. The amount you've spent per journey doesn't appear on the gate reader (something Steve, below, also flagged up as a major flaw). Neither is there any way for you to find out how much you've spent without logging onto your online account or checking your bank, and that takes 24 hours to appear.

During the trial, the only capping available is daily and on the tube (if you're using contactless on buses, there's no capping until the system goes fully 'live' for everyone across all travel modes later this year). When the system is opened up to everyone there will be combined bus and tube capping. If you hit the equivalent of a seven day travelcard during Monday to Sunday while using a contactless card, your usage will be capped. (If your working week happens to run Friday to Tuesday you'll be better off with a weekly travelcard on Oyster, or take the first days' hit until it pans out.) Monthly and annual travelcards will never find an equivalent on contactless.

This weekly cap creates an interesting disparity between Oyster and contactless, with Oyster users at a disadvantage. There also a question about why do a trial when the system that's being tested isn't the final system that everyone will use: the trial doesn't test weekly capping or the bus/tube combination — TfL confirm the weekly cap is included in this trial. Our guinea pigs have also picked up conflicting information about how exactly the capping's going to work and we suspect there will be user confusion and problems when the system goes fully live with all its untrialled bits and payment differences. You may want to stick with Oyster for a while.

Steve Chambers is doing a PhD in Planning Studies at UCL. He's written us the following digest of his contactless usage — from his experience, it may be possible to travel with a zero balance in your bank account, as funds don't get debited the same day. Also, feedback and refund times need improving. But TfL confirmed that the pink validators should work and Steve evidently hit a glitch using them...

"I decided to sign up for the contactless trial out of curiosity and was intrigued by the idea of never having to top up again. I currently spend about £30 a week on Oyster and have a fairly irregular travel pattern. When you sign up to the pilot you must start a TfL online account linked to your contactless card to track journeys, but when the system is live for everyone this will not be mandatory.

"My experience for the week was typified by what happened on the first and second days of use. On the first day I used the contactless card it was great. I made a simple off peak journey outside zone 1 and back again. I already knew the charge for this was £1.50 each way, and the next day £3 showed up on my contactless account and £3 was shown as a pending transaction on my online banking. I liked not having to take time to top up, or having to remember to do it online. So far, so good.

"On the day following travel you get the first notification of what you are being charged. This is because the barriers and validators don't tell you the amount you have spent at the end of each journey. They either display nothing or “card accepted”. The ticket machines will not read your card and instead display a fault notice, so they cannot display your journey history. Staff will hold up their hands and say “we can’t do anything with that”, somewhat reminiscent of the early days of Oyster. But with Oyster they could print you a journey history and, according to the staff I asked, with contactless they can't.

"The journeys do not get debited from your bank account in real time, not even as ‘earmarked’ funds out of your available balance. There is no cue whatsoever as to what you have been charged. On the first day this was not a problem for me, but on the second day I could have done with more information.

"On day two my usage was more complex. I travelled to zone 1 on the tube in the morning. Then later in the day I took a tube and London Overground journey, interchanging at Euston. Finally I took another London Overground journey, interchanging at Gospel Oak, where I touched the pink validator to let the system know I wasn’t going via zone 1 which is a cheaper fare.

"The following day I found my online banking hadn’t updated with a pending transaction as it had the day before. This to my mind is a problem as not all contactless users will have, or even know about, online TfL accounts and will rely on their bank statements to check they have been charged correctly. Checking my TfL account I found the data had arrived. From this I discovered I had been incorrectly charged the via zone 1 fare for my Overground journey via Gospel Oak.

"The website includes a 'contact us about this journey button' and I used it to flag a problem with the overcharged journey. I quite liked that feature, however I didn’t like the 10 day promised reply window. I telephoned the support number and on the second attempt at doing so got someone to process a refund right away. For this they required my bank account number and sort code. I have no idea why, given they have my long card number and other relevant details.

"The following day, the day two charge showed up on my online banking. As a minor grumble, and this may be unique to my bank, the date shown for the transaction was a day after the day of travel. So working out which payment corresponds to which day of travel is a little confusing. The refund for the overcharge had not yet appeared, but TfL had said it would take up to five days for that to happen. In the end it took four days from reporting the overcharge for the refund to appear. It was paid via the obsolete BACS system (superseded by Faster Payments) rather than a refund to the debit card. Why? I didn’t like having to give out my account number and sort code when they already had my debit card information. Perhaps this is a temporary arrangement during the trial. I hope so.

"After a full week of use I can see why they held a trial. Contactless has one big advantage over Oyster. I really like no longer having to top up, almost enough to ignore the flaws of the system. The most significant flaw is that the barriers don’t show you what you have been charged at the end of each journey so next day there is always an element of surprise. Is there a technical limitation here? How about the ticket machines? Could they be updated to allow you to view your journey history? The online banking reconciliation needs to be next day, every time, and the bank statement needs to make clear which day of travel each payment relates to. Also the refund process should be more straightforward and take no longer than the time it takes to debit payment. If they ironed these things out I’d be happy to chuck the Oyster card away forever."

Last Updated 17 June 2014


I've been using it for a while and my experience is largely positive. The only major issue I had was when I took a train from Clapham Junction to Richmond and it wouldn't let me touch out (though it did let me touch in when I left Richmond).

Another slight issue is that reading a contactless card at a barrier (or on a bus) is a little slower than an Oyster, which, once everyone's using them, could cause congestion. Because my brain knows how long a card read "should" take, I get slightly nervous between the time I expect an Oyster read to take and the added wait for contactless.

As a light user of public transport (I live in Zone 1, so I walk/cycle most places), I was keen to have one fewer cards in my wallet, and it has certainly achieved that. Having switched from a PAYG auto top-up Oyster to contactless has hasn't affected me in terms of travelcards/capping. As an added bonus, I get 1.25% cash back on my contactless American Express card with every journey, which is effectively a cut in ticket prices :-)


I don't see any advantage over an Oyster with autotopup enabled (apart from the weekly capping)

David Mitchell

I think there's a significant error in this article. Weekly caps are being applied in the trial as I have already had one week where my usage was capped by the time I got to Sunday morning.


It is a weird system that has added complexity. I enabled auto-topup on my Oyster about 7 years ago, and haven't used a ticket machine since.

The reading of the contactless card (even though it must make contact with the reader) is a tad slower than Oyster, and many times got the 'seek assistance' message, only for it to work OK if I just use another barrier. Then there is getting many many transactions on the statement that don't really match up to the online account.

The biggest inconvenience is having to separate the card (or oyster) you want to use. If you have any other NFC card in your wallet - it wont work (when before it would, as the reader was generally reliable enough to pick out only the oyster card). I see people stopping suddenly at the gates to fiddle with their cards.

diamond geezer

I understand the official launch for contactless payments will be in September. So, three months to get any wrinkles sorted.


For the record, BACS isn't obsolete, it is still the main system that corporates use for bulk payments


Basically if you're an irregular PAYG user, Contactless is perfect for a simple point to point journey. However, going by the reports from the Londonist contributors, it certainly isn't the death of Oyster by any means.

Erik Idol

I've been using contactless on the tube for about a month and a half. Main gripes:

-- more often than not I have to tap the card several times, having received a 'card not accepted' message (not card clash, no other NFC nearby)
-- not being able to see how much it costs when I exit.
-- being charged only the next business day, meaning payments are consolidated, so it's hard to tell how much each journey cost.