Transport for London plans to start accepting credit and debit cards at the turnstile, reducing Oyster's cut and removing the requirement for pre-paid tickets.
Instead of charging an Oyster card with credit, and then using that credit to pay for buses, tubes and trains, Londoners will be able to pay instantly at the turnstile within two years: according to Transport For London. The details won't be public until next month, but local TV show London Tonight got hold of meeting minutes referencing a schedule calling for all buses to be equipped early in 2012, with the tube network to follow later the same year.
The idea is already on trial in New York: one simply waves a contactless bank card and the cost of the ticket is deducted from the owner's account, but doing the same thing in London will be complicated by the fact that not all tickets are made equal as the price of a journey depends on its length.
We don't know how TfL will be addressing that issue, but it might explain why the first implementation will be on London's buses which already enjoy a standard fare regardless of how far one goes. Most likely a tube system will deduct a set amount, then credit back the change when the user waves their card again on exiting the tube network.
The idea isn't to replace Oyster, at least not initially. The systems will exist in parallel, but TfL wants to reduce the amount it pays to Oyster every time a traveller tops up an account. Given that TfL owns the "Oyster" branding that's probably not going to disappear even if the cards eventually do, though that's not going to happen as long as the cards are needed to support travel cards.
Most locals rely on a Travel Card, paying a set amount for unlimited travel, and while TfL reckons it can replicate that using bank cards it's much more difficult to do.
All this would be much easier if we all had mobile phones supporting the N-Mark (Near Field Communications) standard, which can cope with more complex applications. But it seems the nearest we'll get in the UK (for the next few years) is Barclaycard-branded stickers and SMS notifications when they're used, which isn't quite the integrated mobile experience we might have hoped for. ®