Avoiding the world’s most expensive metro fare for my commute

Avoiding the world’s most expensive metro fare for my commute

It has been a long time since my last post about my life in the UK. I have finally got a job which goes well in London since March this year, which is a rail consulting company, and I am a full-stack developer in the company. Unfortunately it is located in Central London (the closest stations are Chancery Lane and Farringdon), understandable because the company wants people to commute by rail as Farringdon is the central point of the rail network in London, but it means expensive peak-time fare on the trains (my work starts at 09:30 and ends at 17:30 so it is peak hour both ways). Also, during the last year I moved twice, first time in December was because my home in Cricklewood was closed for major repair and I was relocated into a place on Dollis Hill. That place was eventually found out to be dodgy so I moved again to Willesden Green in June to a proper flat.

The cost of commuting

My company allows hybrid work and we are expected to get into the office for at least two days per week out of five days. Normally we all get in on Thursday for the weekly company meeting, and very few get in on Friday. However, by the time I started the job, I lived in the dodgy place on Dollis Hill mentioned above which was totally unsuitable for remote working, as there was no place to put a working table and the mobile reception was very bad. Also I expect to get out for most days after work for my swim training and orienteering races so I would get into the office every working day.

That dodgy place was outside walking distance (within 1 km) of any railway station. There were 3 bus routes serving the bus stop immediately outside it (16, 232 and 245) and another 2 routes on the main A5 road (32 and 266). However, London Buses are generally as slow as turtle (although a few exceptions do exist, such as the 232 which runs on the North Circular between New Southgate and Brent Cross and can achieve an average of more than 30 km/h on that section, faster than some tube lines and the Overground) so I was better off using my old cheap second-hand road bike to access the rail network. It would take me about 4 to 6 minutes on my bike between that dodgy home and the nearest rail station, which was Cricklewood. From that station to Farringdon, a peak Oyster or contactless PAYG fare is £4.20, which meant if I commuted for 20 days per month using my Oyster card on PAYG (the standard figure used by rail companies for Delay Repay purpose on a monthly season ticket, your mileage may vary), I would have to pay £168 just for my commute in one month.

However, there are season tickets available on this route which may be able to save money on my commute. Within London, for most journeys, you can choose between a standard season ticket, which is bought between two stations you nominate (available for most, but not all, station pairs), or a season Travelcard for your selected zones (at least 2 consecutive zones).

Rail tickets to Farringdon from the Thameslink route are issued with London Thameslink as the destination, which includes all Thameslink core stations between London St Pancras and London Bridge / Elephant & Castle. A monthly ticket between Cricklewood and London Thameslink costs £113.30, which is a significant saving over paying by PAYG every day, however it can only be used between the two stations listed on the ticket (including intermediate National Rail stations, but not intermediate tube stations on the interavailable route – tickets to London Thameslink are interavailable on the tube between West Hampstead / Kentish Town and the core stations unless otherwise specified on the ticket).

The other option is a season Travelcard, which I needed zones 1-3 because a journey between Cricklewood and Farringdon passes these 3 zones. It costs £184 per month so it actually cost more if I only travelled for my commute, however a Travelcard is valid for all rail and tube services within the zones specified, all London buses regardless of the zones specified as buses don’t have zones, and, if it contains any combinations of zone 3, 4, 5 or 6, all trams as well (i.e. only a zones 1-2 Travelcard can’t be used on the tram)., so it is still worthwhile as I would make enough non-commute journeys within zone 1-3 to break even.

The choices of a season ticket

As mentioned above, there are two kinds of season tickets, which are National Rail standard season tickets, usable only on the line of route between the specified stations, and season Travelcard, usable on rail and tube services in the specified zones, all London bus services, and tram services if it contains any of zones 3-6. A National Rail standard season tickets offer a great discount for travelling on the same route, but as soon as I go off route, it becomes useless; while a season Travelcard, being a TfL product, is deliberately priced so that it doesn’t offer a great discount in order not to disadvantage those commute less than 5 days per week. A weekly Travelcard is priced 5x the all-day cap on Oyster or contactless, and a monthly Travelcard is priced 3.84x of the weekly one, so the perk here is free weekend travel, assuming a 5-day commute. Those commuting less, or with some commute in the off-peak, are better off paying PAYG especially with a railcard which can be loaded into an Oyster card. As I travel a lot, probably 7 days as week, a Travelcard season ticket should be worth it, but…

Your commute varies? You are out of luck.

Back in March and April, I sometimes went to London Fields Lido after work for swimming. Initially I tried to cycle all of my commute, i.e. from my home on Dollis Hill to my office in Holborn, then from Holborn to London Fields, and finally bringing my bike onto the Overground from Hackney Central to Brondesbury (which is allowed off-peak but not during peak hours) and riding back to my home on Dollis Hill. However as the journey was so long and so hilly, I couldn’t sustain doing it every day. I then tried to cycle part of my commute. On those days, as I needed to use Thameslink for my journey out and London Overground for my journey back, I cycled to the intersection of the two, i.e. West Hampstead, and parked my bike at the station, and did 3 journeys on the day: from West Hampstead Thameslink to Farringdon (morning peak), from Farringdon to London Fields (evening peak), and from Hackney Central to West Hampstead (off-peak). The total cost using a railcard-discounted Oyster was £7.95, just below the all-day cap for zones 1-2. By cycling (railheading) to West Hampstead, I didn’t need to use zone 3 for my journeys, which is a typical way to cut the cost of a commute.

However, on the days I wasn’t swimming, I would just cycle to Cricklewood in zone 3 and commuted straight and back, as there is a hill between Cricklewood and West Hampstead which I wanted to avoid cycling over it if it was feasible, but however unpleasant it was I would still prefer it over paying extra fare to take a train which only runs every 15 minutes for the short section from West Hampstead to Cricklewood after alighting the Overground. Then the problem came. A zone 1-2 season Travelcard wasn’t suitable because the extra-zonal fare for my zone 3 travel would make the Travelcard not worthwhile compared to paying PAYG. A zone 1-3 season Travelcard wasn’t suitable because it was more expensive than paying PAYG every day. A standard rail season ticket also wasn’t suitable because there wasn’t one which can cover both my peak commute journeys, i.e. from Cricklewood or West Hampstead to Farringdon to Liverpool Street to London Fields, as these tickets are generally not available for cross-London travel involving the tube or Elizabeth line, which Farringdon to Liverpool Street is one. So despite I travelled 7 days per week, no season tickets suited my need.

Don’t need the tube for your commute?

Then since May, I have used Parliament Hill Fields Lido after work for swimming instead of London Fields Lido, so my commute has become railheading to West Hampstead Thameslink, taking Thameslink to Farringdon in the morning peak, taking Thameslink back to Kentish Town in the evening peak, and finally taking Overground back to West Hampstead. That’s all on National Rail. By drawing the route on a map, it is apparent that a season ticket from Gospel Oak to London Thameslink can cover all these journeys, which is available at £85.70 each month. However, as mentioned above, on the days I don’t swim, I would like to travel from Cricklewood and back which this ticket can’t cover as Cricklewood is clearly out of the route between Gospel Oak and London Thameslink. A season ticket from Cricklewood to somewhere in South East London, for example, New Cross, where travelling through the Thameslink core and via the East London Line are both normal routings, can cover all these journeys, however, due to the way these tickets are priced, all tickets involving Cricklewood and central London come no cheaper than £113.30 per month, which is a lot more than £85.70 if the starting station is West Hampstead instead for such a small extra section. I have finally decided that it’s not worthwhile to pay the extra for such a short extra section where trains only run every 15 minutes with the fast line trains not stopping, where from West Hampstead, trains are more frequent, running approximately every 7 minutes for the morning commute and every 12 minutes for the evening commute including some fast line trains stopping there.

Also, because of the way these tickets are priced, I can choose the appropriate stations to maximise the coverage of my standard rail season ticket without jumping up in price. For example, a monthly ticket between Kensal Rise and Lewisham is also £85.70, the same as one between West Hampstead Stations and London Thameslink, but the former has a much larger coverage as all of the West London Line, Thameslink core, and East London Line are valid ways to travel between Kensal Rise in NW London and Lewisham and SE London. I eventually bought a monthly ticket between Camden Road and Herne Hill as I was expecting to travel to Herne Hill regularly for my swim club outdoor training sessions, but unfortunately the training sessions didn’t happen.

As a standard rail season ticket can’t be put onto an Oyster card, I can’t combine it with Oyster PAYG without getting off the train (it can be put on a GTR The Key smartcard with KeyGo enabled, but within London KeyGo can only be used on the GTR network, not on the tube or London Overground services), so if I want to buy an additional ticket to travel from Cricklewood to West Hampstead Thameslink and switch to the season ticket to continue to Farringdon without getting off the train, my only choices are either to buy a paper ticket, £3.80 for my morning commute as my 26-30 Railcard can’t be used to discount fares under £12 before 10:00, and £2.50 with railcard discount for my evening commute, which is a rip off for a 2 km journey; or to load my season ticket on a smartcard and enable KeyGo which GTR price matches with the cheapest paper or PAYG fare, however there is a high risk that I will run into barrier trouble, as it is well known that tickets may not operate the barriers at intermediate stations, especially for more obscure routes or at Underground-managed stations such as Kentish Town. With a paper ticket, when it doesn’t work the barrier, the staff will usually let me go when I show a season ticket at a station which is somewhere between the printed stations, less likely with a smartcard as it can’t be visually inspected. Finally I bought the season ticket on paper and stopped using Cricklewood station, and cycled to West Hampstead every day.

My suggestions in buying a National Rail season ticket:

  • Look at the map and type in various combination of stations beyond your commute into BR Fares to check the season ticket price to see if you can gain additional validity at no or little extra cost.
  • Study the Routeing Guide to have a better idea about which routes you can use, such that you can pick stations strategically to maximise the coverage of your season ticket.

But sometimes I really want to use the tube!

I moved away from the dodgy place on Dollis Hill as soon as possible. However it was so difficult to find a good place within my budget, and I eventually moved to a place in Willesden Green, near to a tube station but not any National Rail station. Although I can still keep my former way of commute, cycling to West Hampstead, as there is no direct train from Willesden Green to Farringdon, there are now a lot of situations where using the tube is more preferable. For example, in the past, I was forced to cycle (or take a bus) to a rail station if I wanted to go to Brighton, and at that circumstance I would cycle to West Hampstead where all of the tube, London Overground and Thameslink are feasible options, and a standard National Rail ticket from West Hampstead Stations is valid on all three options because it comes with a Maltese Cross and West Hampstead is a valid interchange station between the tube and National Rail, but now with Willesden Green tube station next to my home, the option of getting a direct tube across London, either direct to London Bridge or changing at Green Park for Victoria, becomes so attractive.

Another possibility is if I want to go somewhere else after work, and the way back there to West Hampstead is on the Jubilee line. In such case it will also become attractive to leave my bike at home and to take the tube all the way back to Willesden Green, but it also means I will have to pay £1.90 in the morning peak to travel from Willesden Green to West Hampstead where I can start using my National Rail season ticket.

Because Willesden Green is not a National Rail station, it is not possible to buy a standard rail season ticket for usage at Willesden Green. I can either pay for the tube separately or buy a season Travelcard. No matter which option I choose, once I have to use the tube, there is no way out of the most expensive metro fare in the world unless I only travel off-peak.

How about an annual Travelcard?

An annual Travelcard offers a significant saving over monthly Travelcards, as it is priced the same as a 10 months and 13 days Travelcard. Moreover it is also a Gold Card, which is a railcard valid in the Gold Card area giving 1/3 off most rail fares after 09:30, and can be added into an Oyster card for 1/3 discount for off-peak fares and off-peak cap as well. In contrast, a Network Railcard has a minimum fare on Monday to Friday and can’t be added into an Oyster card. However, as I have a 26-30 Railcard, a Gold Card can’t benefit myself currently.

As odd days can be added onto a monthly season ticket, which is priced at the same daily rate, I can buy my monthly season tickets strategically such that they end before weekends or before I take a long leave. I am also not sure that if I really use the tube so much that a Travelcard is better than a National Rail standard season ticket every month over the year, therefore I am not committing myself to an annual Travelcard at this stage.

My suggestion is that, an annual Travelcard is worthwhile only if:

  • You commute in peak hours for 5 days per week, with the peak-time fares alone nearly reaching the daily cap.
  • You commute in the morning peak for some days per week, but you also travel extensively on other days in the week, reaching the daily cap on most of the days, and don’t have another railcard which can be used to discount Oyster fares. (If you only commute after 09:30, buying a cheap Gold Card season ticket in order to load discount into the Oyster card will end up cheaper than buying a season Travelcard)
  • You don’t have an extended break in travelling throughout the course of the year, for example, a long holiday outside the UK.
  • Your travel involves a mixture of modes. (If you only travel by tube, especially outside zone 1 only, using PAYG every day may well be cheaper; if you only travel by National Rail, a National Rail standard season ticket is significantly cheaper)

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