If you're a user of London's smartcard public transport ticketing system, Oyster, chances are that you'll have heard the message to "always touch in and touch out to get the best fare" when using the tube, train or DLR. Because if you don't, you may be overcharged.
Indeed in 2011 a whopping £66m came in to the fare box from customers who did not touch in or touch out properly. That's a lot of cash and one of the reasons why Transport for London spend a lot of time trying to get the message out to "always touch in and touch out."
However so far this year I've been told completely contradictory advice. Not by Transport for London, but by staff of Southeastern trains. And the cause is a paper extension ticket.
Back in 2005 I blogged about "Bounday Extension" tickets on National Rail. The logic behind them is simple. If you already have Travelcard and you want to do a journey that takes you in or out of your normal zones, you don't need to pay again for the bit of your journey that you have a Travelcard for.
So if I want to travel from London Bridge to East Croydon and I already have a Zone 1-3 Travelcard, my Travelcard will cover the cost of the journey to from London Bridge to the Boundary of Zone 3 and I just need a ticket from there. It saves a few pounds, especially if your journey starts from Central London.
Since that blog post was written, Oyster Pay As You Go came along. Now if you're travelling in Greater London you just need a Travelcard and some credit on your Oyster and it's all handled automatically. Go out of your normal zones and the system will handle it for you, and you'll pay the right fare without needing a paper ticket. My Osyter always includes a Travelcard and top up for this reason.
But if you want to travel outside Greater London - say, to Portsmouth or Brighton - you still need a paper Boundary Extension ticket. And this is where the fun with Southeastern's staff comes in.
See, the Oystercard holder now has a problem. The Boundary Extension ticket doesn't open the ticket gates for you. But if you touch in with your Oyster, then you can't touch out at the other end as there's no Oyster reader at the other end of your journey.
So you go to the member of staff at the ticket gates. And they look at your ticket and let you through. This tactic has held me in good stead for many years travelling with almost every rail company who operate in the South East (except for Greater Anglia and C2c as I've never travelled by them) with one exception. Southeastern.
Southeastern staff have, on several occasions, absolutely insisted that I touch in. One memorable morning I had a rather heated debate at Victoria with a member of staff, very conscious of the fact that there was also a member of the British Transport Police stood next to me. I didn't want to touch in as, following Transport for London's very clear advice, if I didn't touch out I might be overcharged.
In the end his solution was for me to touch in on the entry gate, then immediately touch out again on the exit gate. This, he said, would mean I would be fine and what I should always do. Coincidently, days before I'd watched BBC Two documentary, The Tube, where it had been revealed that this technique was a popular one with fare evaders. Yes, a member of Southeastern staff had just told me, in the presence of a police officer, how to avoid paying any fare at all. Genius. I didn't have the energy to explain that his technique was completely mad and wouldn't work when I returned later that evening.
My hand was forced more recently at London Bridge where, on the same debate, asked to see my ticket then touched it in for me, despite my protests. Indeed here I spent five minutes explaining to the member of staff how the Oyster system works, to which his response was a baffled "Why do they make it so complicated?" Clearly no one had ever explained to him how a major ticketing system works - according to various industry insiders I know, Southeastern have quite a reputation for poorly training their staff.
Given I'd now been forcibly touched in on a journey I decided to see what would happen. With my mixture of Travelcard, Pre-Pay and a Boundary Zone ticket, who would be right? If TfL were to be believed, I could end up being overcharged. But if Southeastern's ticket gate staff were correct, it would make a complete mockery of TfL's attempts to always get customers to always touch in and touch out.
Drum roll please…
Well the answer seems to be that actually Southeastern's staff are right. If you have a Travelcard and you touch in within the zones of your Travelcard but don't touch out, you do not get charged. Presumably the reverse is true as well although I didn't get to try it.
Yes, unfortunately Southeastern's assertions that you don't always need to touch out if you have a Travelcard were actually correct. For National Rail anyway. How the logic works on the Underground and DLR is another matter given both are entirely within the Oyster network.
So whilst I didn't get charged, customers here are left with a gloriously confusing message. After all "always touch in and touch out to get the best fare, but don't worry if you can't touch in or touch out when you're on National Rail and you have a paper Boundary Zone ticket because it will all work" is not exactly clear and simple.
But then, given that Southeastern staff are going round telling customers information that completely contradicts the official advice, Transport for London have an even bigger problem on educating customers on their hands.