Go Cashless or (don’t) Go Home
Today, the day after they stopped accepting cash on London buses, I find myself chatting with no fewer than ten people who are stranded at my local tube station, unable to get on a bus. Some are angry, some are confused, and those who are locals are loudly taking the mayor’s name in vain. In vain because, despite all protests and suggestions that this might not be the best idea in the UK’s capital city and major tourist hub, Boris & his cohorts have bull-headedly persevered with the first phase in their master plan to removing all human contact from the world’s oldest underground railway.
Ours is a well maintained station with – shock horror – actual staff, but it is small and parochial. It therefore has only two ticket machines, only one taking filthy dirty money, as well as one or two TFL staff on the desk to assist with queries and open ‘the big gate’ – necessary when you want to take a case, buggy, or otherwise bulky item through. You can also, shockingly, buy tickets from these humans. For the tube. For now. But not for buses, which serve an enormous part of both the visiting and the indigenous population. No no, for buses my friend, you need to plan ahead.
. Granted, some of my befuddled compatriots do not have Oyster cards, which clearly means they are ‘not from round here’, so why on earth would we want to let them onto our travel network? Yeah, so this station may be on the Piccadilly line, which runs through both Heathrow (the busiest airport in the UK) and Kings Cross Station (the 9th busiest train station in the UK), and admittedly that means the one most likely to host non-natives, but if you don’t have a UK bank card then you can forget it mate. Why didn’t you buy the right kind of ticket at Heathrow, eh Johnny foreigner? Ok, so the machine that takes cash here is broken today, but that’s your problem, not Boris’. He couldn’t have forseen this possibility, could he?
My heart goes out to the genuinely sympathetic, helpful, but ultimately powerless staff member at the tube station who is trying (futility personified) to help people with their onward journey. Never mind the confused visitors to our supposedly great city. Never mind the language barrier or the soggy children in tow. Never mind the woman who, despite being an Oyster-brandishing Londoner, finds herself with minus credit so cannot get any further. What’s that, lady? You’ve got cash? Nope, sorry, your money’s no good round here. The working Oyster top-up machine is card only, so you should have thought about that before trying to go to the job you work at to afford London’s exorbitant travel fares. Coins, you say? Where’s your pay pass card? Whaaaat? You don’t have one? Then you don’t deserve to travel as you clearly aren’t part of the in crowd.
I have myriad issues with Pay Pass cards already. Firstly, what was the purpose of bringing in chip & pin to tighten security if any person with sticky fingers can now lift my card and spend up to £20 in each of several shops without raising the alarm? No one looks at the cards, so the one I’m tap-tap-tapping could say Mr Boris Johnson on it and no one would be any the wiser. When I was obliged to tap in a busy pub and had the audacity to ask for a receipt the barman looked at me like I was from Mars. “But it’s Pay Pass?” he said, like he was speaking to a small child. “It’s still my money” I pointed out. Reckoned I nailed that response! “Yeah…but it’s Pay Pass” he countered. Ah.
In a café I visited with a friend in Leicester Square recently, a woman ‘caused a scene’ when the (extremely rude) waitress grabbed her card out of her hand and tapped it for her. The customer was perturbed, and asked why she had done that. “Shouldn’t I get to choose if I tap or not?”, she asked, in an entirely reasonable way. The waitress (did I mention she was rude?) eyeballed her and muttered, “Pay Pass”. “Yes, I know” replied the customer, whose temper was beginning to fray, “but I should have the option, shouldn’t I? And least of all I should be asked to check the total – you didn’t ask me to do that, so how do I know you charged me the right amount”. This was greeting by a shrug, a tossing of the card back on to the table, and a flounce off. My fellow customer was so taken aback she was cowed for a moment, so I sidled up to her and said, “I agree, it’s terrible this Pay Pass thing”. The woman looked at me, gratefully, and without warning three other people from neighbouring tables turned round and chimed in, agreeing with us and raising their concerns about its security. The waitress surveyed the mounting dissent with what can only be described as utter distain, poked a colleague, and muttered “you deal with it” before scuttling off to no doubt delight another patron. The gentleman waiter who replaced her was apologetic, soothing, and agreeable – as in, he too agreed. So with such mistrust and dislike for TFL’s new poster child, should our politicians and transport network rethink?
Well, we had better all get used to it, as part of TfL’s ‘Future Ticketing Programme’ is that the Oyster card platform is due to be replaced by a contactless payment card system by June 2015. What that means for non-UK residents or those without a qualifying bank account is anyone’s guess.
The most prolific bus users are still the elderly, and thankfully they are still entitled to free bus travel, alongside those with qualifying disabilities. It’s a vote-winner, but the Freedom Pass has actually been around since the 70s, despite many attempts by various politicians to take credit for it since. That being the case, in 2012 Boris announced a shiny, new pass succinctly called the “60+ London Oyster photocard”. Now, why would this be necessary if the Freedom Pass already exists? If you are a cynic you might think it is an attempt to claim some already achieved glory – after all it was the Labour-led Greater London Council that introduced the scheme – however, there is more to it. Firstly, the age people qualified at was initially raised during Ken Livingstone’s mayorship, and has continued to rise, being incrementally increased to 65 or 66 by 2020 depending on which website you read. In actuality there is a fundamental difference between the cards: eligibility and, unsurprisingly, cost.
On introduction, Londoners became eligible for the Freedom Pass on their 60th birthday. Initially the pass entitled them to free travel, at all times, on London Underground, London Overground, Bus, Tram, and Docklands Light Railway services in Greater London (also at most times on many rail services in and outside Greater London and on bus routes that fall into the English National Concessionary Bus Travel Scheme). In January 2009 this was altered and the pass is now only valid on weekdays from 9:00. The 60+ card is valid for fewer journeys and incurs a £10 issuing fee – that said it is still far cheaper for those over 60 not yet eligible for ‘Freedom’. Little known fact – with both cards you may take up to four under-11s on the tube, DLR and Overground Services. That’s the grandkids sorted. Unless they’re 11+, in which case you will have to pay – as long as it’s not with cash!
Without assuming or casting aspersions, one would surely be forgiven for thinking this is the group most likely to be carrying cash, and least likely to have a couple of Pay Pass cards tucked in their wallet. The other eligible group, the disabled, will often being in the same category. What happens then if the people who normally utilise this card lose it, or god-forbid are robbed? What if they stumble upon one of the non-included forms of travel, or happen to go somewhere or return outside the qualifying hours? If they are prepared they may have a Pay as You Go Oyster for such occasions – or be lucky enough to find a working machine that takes cash or one of the endangered species, a staff member, to assist. But only if it’s the tube or train. Not buses – not anymore. No Pay Pass card? Then tough. Walk home, Grandma.