A couple of weeks ago a bus I was travelling on was boarded by two revenue protection officers who promptly got to work validating Oyster cards and checking paper tickets.
When I offered them the contactless Barclaycard I’d used to pay for my fare they simply waved the card away, carried out no check and moved on to the next passenger.
At the time I assumed they lacked the necessary technology to validate whether I’d paid and that TfL would plug this gap in their arsenal as the roll-out of Wave & Pay continued.
But it now seems that being able to board a bus without paying – or at least not being punished when you’re caught doing so – is actually a cardholder benefit negotiated between TfL and the banks.
If you don’t use the bus fret not, this exciting new benefit is coming soon to a Tube, Overground or DLR train near you.
We can probably guess why.
Contactless payments have not been as popular as banks and merchants would like – anecdotally this is because they offer very little benefit to customers over paying with Chip & Pin.
The system has always lacked what in computing circles would be called a ‘killer app’ – something which makes a device or platform irresistible and desirable to use.
In London, Oyster level bus fares with – in time – daily and weekly price capping without the need to top-up a separate card could well be the killer app which makes contactless payments part of daily life.
And once everyone is familiar with using contactless cards to pay for their Bus or Tube fare, it’ll be easier to get people to use them in Sainsbury’s.
So it’s understandable that the banks didn’t want TfL scaring people away from their new shiny toy by fining them £80 if they bungled their fare payment and accidentally travelled without paying.
But the ‘light touch’ approach TfL has agreed to implement is a licence to fare dodge with impunity – all anyone caught trying to hitch a free ride needs to do is offer up a contactless debit card and an innocent, pleading look and instead of a penalty fare they’ll be taken by the hand to the front of the bus and shown how to pay next time.
TfL seems to have decided that making it easier to fare evade without sanction is worth it for the longterm savings moving from Oyster to Wave & Pay offers.
But like other recent iffy decisions, it seems to have arrived at that conclusion with no public discussion or explanation and in doing so is letting down honest Londoners who pay the ever higher fares demanded of them.