How Long Does The Oyster Card Have Left?

How Long Does The Oyster Card Have Left?
Photo: Transport for London

The Oyster card launched in June 2003, making it nearly 15 years old . Back then it was the only alternative to paper tickets. In the intervening years a new option arose, contactless payments, which some believe is the future of London transport's ticketing.

It's the same simple motion as Oyster — a tap with a card or phone. Notably it's cheaper for TfL, they don't have to bear the brunt of the production costs, instead the bank and smartphone designers do. This might seem a minor issue considering that Londoners tend to hold onto one Oyster card for years at a time. However, this isn't true of everyone: TfL issues 700,000 new cards monthly.

The surprising stat is especially pertinent because of TfL's current financial situation. Since the removal of their central Government grant (at one stage £700 million a year) and the downturn in passenger numbers, TfL need to cut costs. As a popular supermarket-chain regularly remarks: Every little helps. Could a disappearing Oyster card become part of that little?

There was a sign that this might be happening sooner rather than later. In 2017 there was a push to nudge people away from their Oyster cards and towards contactless. One announcement rang out all over London's tube stations:

Why not use your contactless bank card today? Never top up again, and it's the same fare as Oyster.

Hearing the same announcement every day gets annoying, but even moreso when its message is inaccurate. There are still numerous cases where using contactless instead of Oyster leads to a different fare.

Naturally this shift towards contactless suggests that the Oyster's days are numbered. Some already view it as public knowledge that Oyster is on its way out.

Except that when we reached out for comment, a TfL spokesperson said that there are no plans to phase the Oyster card out. It was a pretty adamant rebuttal, and TfL claims that any article speculating as such would be unhelpful and misleading to our readers (clearly we think it's worth speculating).

Some of the advertising campaign that's pushing contactless. Illustrator: Rob Bailey

In recent months, stations have stopped playing the aforementioned announcement with such repetitive frequency. So perhaps Oyster is here to stay (for now). It's possible that TfL had planned to ditch Oyster sooner rather than later, but changed their mind.

One thing that might've affected this is the new unlimited bus hopper fare. This article from 2016, shows that when the original bus hopper fare launched, there was already talk of an unlimited version. But the Oyster card's prehistoric (by 21st century standards) technology stood in the way; it's a much simpler task on contactless. TfL's tech team must have overcome this obstacle when they introduced the new fare, proof that there was still life in the Oyster card yet.

Contactless still has a long way to go before it can mount a serious challenge to Oyster cards

Contactless use is on the rise in London — 43% of pay as you go journeys are made with the system. However, the funky pie charts above outline this still only makes up a small proportion of total journeys. Another issue that TfL is aware of, is that not everyone has or wants a contactless card — most notably children.

In 2016 TfL licensed the tech behind both Oyster and contactless with Cubic Transportation System (the team who developed contactless), which plans on bringing it to New York's metro. Across the pond, the technology will replace the outdated Metrocard in a few years — soon contactless bank cards and smartphone pay apps will be the only way to use the system. We can't help but wonder if TfL is at all jealous that it's not in the same boat.

When the Oyster cards were introduced in 2003, many might've heard the bells tolling for paper tickets. However, a decade and a half later they're still here. That's a hopeful sign for Oyster cards. Only time will tell if three formats can peacefully co-exist across London's transport network.

Last Updated 06 April 2018

Continued below.

Gregg

There is one problem however & that is that 19 million tourists visit London. As a Londoner living in Colorado with both American & British bank accounts/credit cards I can tell you that many American credit cards/bank cards with chip & pin [The USA was about 12 years behind the UK with chip & pin.] do not work with automated British ticket machines or when used instead of Oyster Cards. I trialled this last December on a visit after reading a lot about this in American travel forums. American chip & pin does not work when buying tickets from machines most of the time. I was lucky because I could fall back on my UK credit cards. In addition, to bear this out NOT once was I able to use my brand new chip & pin USA Barclaycard in any retail outlet, restaurant or pub by entering the pin. Every single one of the 50 transactions had to be signed for. You can buy a rail ticket online [Like trainline.com.] & use the American credit card at a station machine to collect it no problem but you can't use the American credit card to actually buy a ticket from a machine, you have to go to the ticket office - if its open.

Peter Randazzo

I'd ditch the Oyster if I could load my annual pass to my contactless bank card.

Annabel Smyth

Yes - our contactless cards do not work in other countries, nor do ours in theirs, so some alternative form of ticket is necessary. Also, what about those of us who have passes of one kind or another - Freedom passes, or disabled passes, or children's Oyster cards that do not charge a fare.

Zoey Nguyen

Ditching the Oyster card for good is so upper middle class thinking. You need to think about people such as tourists and those who aren't eligible for contactless card or worse, live off cash ONLY.

Andrew Gwilt

I much prefer using PAYG Oyster Card. Because I can top it up as of when I do go to London. Which I’d applied for it online and top up around £20-£30. And I get a email when my Oyster Card is nearly running out of credit.

Don Lambert

I have my Senior railcard linked with my Oyster so that all off peak rail fares are 30% discounted. The railcard can not be linked to contactless cards so I would lose this benefit if I used contactless cards

david13

Why would TFL want to ditch Oyster? You have to pay a deposit (£5?) to get one in the first place. How many people ever claim it back? They end their holiday, forfeit the deposit & any balance left on the card. How many people have old Oyster cards they have forgotten about?
Money for old rope, like those gift vouchers people forget to use before they expire!

Joe Kent

I read the comments regarding problems using contactless why tourists and people with Freedom Passes I also think that there are people who do not have bank accounts or smartphones they would have problems using contactless besides people have to purchase the Oyster it is not free anymore so in TFL should be able to recover the cost of producing the Oyster

Dan A

Although contactless is awesome, there are people in this world who want yo keep their regular chip and pin system and not open their card up to RFID fraud. Also those under 20 are not allowed to have contactless as an overdraft is a requirement. In addition most kids don't have a debit card. TfL will always want to serve those customers so for that reason they won't remove the oyster card. The technology behind them might change to work the same as contactless, e.g. like the ventracard in Chicago. But I highly doubt the oyster will dissapear. The paper tickets, might.

Dominykas Samsonas

If there would be a way for me load my Monthly or Annual travelcard on to my contactless card or my smartphone I would be all over it.

Paul

An oyster card can be linked to a railcard which will reduce the oyster card fare but a bank contactless card can not be linked.

Jonathan C

As a non-Londoner, I was a bit annoyed a year ago after buying myself a Oyster card online to then find out when I got to the underground that I could have just used my contactless card

Vern Rosson

"...the downturn in passenger numbers..." Really? Can anyone confirm this or give a reference? Thanks

David T-Rex

I have an oyster card for work trips which I can claim back (its so much easier topping up with £20 and getting a receipt) and the contactless for any personal trips. I think if they replaced it over time with ITSO compliant cards then it would be cheaper (as lower licencing costs and not a Proprietary system) and would give more option. Customers would not notice the difference and I am sure the DFT paid to upgrade the oyster readers to be ITSO compliant - you can also have multiple ITSO cards on one chip for different operators.

Jonathan Wadman

I use Oyster rather than contactless because I don't want to be fiddling about with my wallet at ticket gates.

Louise Allen

I have many contactless cards but I still will use Oyster. I'd rather not wave my credit/debit card about in a busy station. It's much easier to replace a lost Oyster than a bank card, with less financial risk.

Melvyn Windebank

The Mayors fares freeze means that buying Travelcard includes fare rises by the Government which might not apply if your only using TFL services where fares are frozen hence the announcements to use contactless in preference to Travelcard.

While paper Travelcard is still popular with people travelling into London as it gives freedom of travel network and covers all modes . This may change with the development of cards like The Key issued by Southern Railways which can include a Travelcard as well as season tickets etc .

Complete City Guides

It is very useful for tourists/non locals, who don't want to get foreign transaction fees on their credit/debit card (assuming they even have contactless).

Graham Head

What a lot of people don't realise is that by using contactless Monday to Sunday, there is a weekly cap of £62.30 for zones 1-6. This doesn't exist for oyster cards which would be a cap of £12.50 per day (£87.50). Even if you only use Oyster Monday to Friday, it costs £62.50 - still a 20p charge for using their own system.
I'd also like to know how much TFL make out of unclaimed payments, plus the cost of an Oyster. They used to be free when obtained from the now defunct ticket offices.

Alex Jenkins

What will happen with someone who does not have a contactless card, either through not being able to have one, or not wanting one (like myself), when they try to use the TfL network, if the oyster card is withdrawn? Will they be able to buy a single-use ticket with a chip, or a magnetic stripe ticket?

My Name

Contactless-only would violate the right to financial independence, & there is little argument not to keep disposable tickets as a legacy: if only people with no alternative use them, very little paper is consumed.

Kai Michael Poppe

From Germany, where I got my first contactless card _this year_ I am bloody depended on Oyster. Additionally, when I checked last (now changed), you had to have an UK-issued contactless card to use the system which would have elimimated every single tourist from that equation.
Despite the cost for TfL for producing new Oyster cards (which are likely to be covered by the 5 GBP deposit) it's, IMHO, a very well working system that should not be ditched light-heartedly.