Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 16/06/04Last year, I wrote about London Transport's Oyster card -- an RFID ticketing system that lets us Londoners skip nimbly around the capital from tube to bus to train without relying on little bits of paper. Only, as I pointed out at the time, it does rely on little bits of paper.

Wednesday 16/06/04
Last year, I wrote about London Transport's Oyster card -- an RFID ticketing system that lets us Londoners skip nimbly around the capital from tube to bus to train without relying on little bits of paper. Only, as I pointed out at the time, it does rely on little bits of paper. The danger was that there was more to lose than before, so the chances of something going wrong were therefore multiplied. Oh boy. If only I'd known.

On Monday, y'see, I put my Oyster through the washing machine. You might think that anything named after a marine bivalve should be able to cope with a little water, but not my Oyster. It came out looking pale: tests showed it was completely inoperative. And, of course, I had my little proof-of-purchase card and my picture ID card in the same wallet: these had deliquesced completely.

No problem, I thought. I'll just shimmy on down to the nearest tube station. Their mighty computer will know all about me and my card. They'll issue a replacement lickety-spit.

You're ahead of me, aren't you? You know, as I knew, that this was not going to happen. But I persuaded myself that it might.

I went to the tube station. "Not us, guv. You need to phone the Oyster helpline." I phone the Oyster helpline. "We're closed until tomorrow." I wait until tomorrow. I phone the Oyster helpline. "You need to get a form from the tube station."

It's started.

Return to station. Station closed. Walk to next station. Bloke is about to clock off at end of shift: is not impressed with what he sees. Moreover, he's never had to do one of these forms before. He pushes it at me -- it requires everything but my inside leg measurement. "Can't you just get my information from your computer?" I ask, helpfully. "We don't have access to your personal information, Sir," he said loudly, in tones implying nincompoop status. You had it when I bought the card in the first place from you, I think. Silently.

Our conversations were hindered by the thick glass plate London Underground employ for this very purpose: there are what look like speakers either side, but I think they just waft Aggravating Gas at the punter.

I look at the form. "What's this Security Code it wants?" I ask, not unreasonably. There's a space for it, but no explanation. Clocking-Off Bloke sighs. "I'll just phone the helpline", he says. He mutters into a phone, then he mutters at me.

"Pardon?" I say.

"I SAID, WHAT'S YOUR DATE OF BIRTH?"

"24TH OF JUNE SIXTY-FIVE!" I yell back. (hackers note: it's not)

"WHAT'S YOUR MOTHER'S MAIDEN NAME?"

"SMITH!" (hackers: see above)

"HOW DO YOU SPELL THAT?"

And so on and so forth, while realisation spirals in. The Oyster system is indeed not part of the London Transport system -- although the London Transport system is used to get the data. So, to get the information the ticket office needs, I have to fill in the form. Most of that information, however, is not known to me -- issue date? Expiry date? They were on the ticket. And on Oyster's computer. So if I can't fill in the form, Clocking-Off Bloke has to get it from Oyster using the security checks I gave London Underground when I first got the ticket. Which I have to yell at him in a crowded ticket hall.

No matter. I'll get my mother to change her maiden name later.

This happy dance continues for about quarter of an hour, after which we have jointly managed to siphon off enough data from the Oyster system to let it accept that I am who I am (why, after all this, I need to produce two bits of ID, I cannot tell. But I do. There is much here I cannot tell.). We then send this information back to Oyster, which then lets London Transport issue me with a replacement card.

In short; it was as bad as I could have expected, when it should have been as good as I could have hoped. It took about an hour in all, when a two-minute phone call should have done.

Can't wait for National ID cards.

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