On the 30th June 2003, London Underground introduced the notion of tapping in and tapping out – the Oyster Card had arrived.

It was the District line in the 1960s that introduced the first magnetic-stripe tickets and these were rolled out to the rest of the network in the 1970s, and ever since, travellers have become used to sliding a card ticket into a slot, hearing the whir of motors, and with a bit of luck, out popped the ticket and the barriers opened.

Now, we tap.

The first trials of smartcard technology, which would lead to Oyster, began as early as 1992, but it took until 2003 for the technology to reach the point that it could be rolled out, and on a massive scale.

Ticket barriers gained the distinctive yellow tap pads, and people now routinely tap their cards on them to open the barriers. As it happens, you don’t need to make physical contact with the pad, but as the radio range is just a few millimeters, people tend to “tap in”. Or quite often, rub in, rubbing their card on the reader in the vain expectation that this somehow improves the connection.

John Zammit

When it was introduced in 2003, the Oyster Card was one of those 15-year PFI contracts that London Underground was encouraged to sign by the government. Today should mark the anniversary also of that contract, but TfL terminated it early in 2010, officially for the cost savings, but unofficially due to repeated technical problems in July 2008 cost TfL around £1 million in lost fares.

The Oyster Card also underwent a major change in 2009, when the original wireless radio technology (MiFARE) was upgraded to increase the computing power inside the Oyster Card itself. 

The upgrade also enabled a range of new billing options to be launched by TfL. Whereas the Oyster Card was originally launched more as a cost-saving option to do away with paper tickets and speed up ticket barriers, today they are also opening up a wider range of payments for fares.

The introduction of pre-pay fare capping, the buses hopper fare, and later this year, they will be adding ‘Monday to Sunday’ weekly capping to the Oyster card. 

Around 6 million Oyster cards are issued each year, at a cost on average of 80p per card.

The Oyster cards could be on their way out though. Introduced long before bank cards had contactless technology, the Oyster Card is more likely to be a temporary feature as bank cards are increasingly replacing the Oyster card.

The introduction of paying for single journeys with a bank card saves customers having to get an Oyster Card, and the roll out of fare capping has seen a huge uptake of people using bank cards instead of blue Oyster cards.

Watch as a ticket inspector walks along a train, and my estimate is probably half the passengers will hold out a bank card for inspection. A tipping point will take place where more bank cards are used than Oyster cards.

The addition of season tickets to bank cards is the final barrier to be broken, and when that happens, the Oyster Card will slowly go the same way of the paper ticket.

Will the Oyster card last long enough to mark it’s 30th anniversary?


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  1. Daniel says:

    Before they phase out the Oyster they need to be able to link discounted travel to bank cards. As the contactless fares are all calculated back office I don’t understand why they don’t offer this already…

  2. martin says:

    There’s a rather quaint section about the PRESTIGE project on the 2003 version of the TfL website: https://web.archive.org/web/20021018181822/http://www.tfl.gov.uk:80/tfl/prestige_procurement.shtml

    For some reason I thought it launched on buses only, so went to find some old pages to check – you can also browse a rather elderly oystercard.com: https://web.archive.org/web/20031002014401/http://www.oystercard.com:80/index.php

  3. Andrew Gwilt says:

    Soon you can use the Oyster cards on the Elizabeth Line which the Oyster card could extend to as far as Slough. Possibly Slough might be in Zone 8 or 9 if the Oyster Card does extend to Slough.

    • Ian Visits says:

      TfL has already said that Oyster cards will be accepted on the Elizabeth line to Reading from December 2019.

    • Melvyn says:

      So Elizabeth Line to Reading and yet I can’t buy a Zone 1-9 Travelcard at Benfleet Station on C2C for a trip to say Aylesbury or Watford Junction on the Underground/Overground using the old magnetic stripe tickets . (I also have a national rail Disabled Persons Railcard .) Perhaps S Stock trains on the Metropolitan Line and Watford Overground trains should have readers so you can’t tap in on the go for zones 6-9 !

      Much fuss is being made abothe amount of unused money on oyster system but I reckon most of this breaks down to small individual sums on cards bought by tourists who kept their card on returning home or lost or broken cards.

      Anamount is over £300 million is said to be lying dormant in TFL balances so I reckon it’s time some of this money was released for investment in items like escalators or lifts to improve Tube accessibility as I can’t see many claiming this money !

    • Andrew Gwilt says:

      So is Slough and Reading going to be in a special oyster zone or will Slough & Maidenhead will be in zone 9 and Reading in zone 10.

      As Watford Junction is on zone 8. Which was in a special zone before. As other stations outside of inner London are in zones 6 & 7 that near or close to the M25 motorway that is where the London boundary is.

    • Ian Visits says:

      Ask me again in December 2019.

  4. Andrew Gwilt says:

    Will do.

  5. Annabel says:

    I wonder what they will do about Freedom passes for elderly and/or disabled people. And for visitors from abroad – other people’s contactless doesn’t work here, any more than ours does when abroad.

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