London’s Oyster Cards can’t stand all these zones. Let’s just get rid of them

Zoned out. Image: TfL.

I’m walking through a lush river valley, home to cows, sheep, and even baby Shetland ponies. I can see the surprisingly steep banks of the River Chess ahead, formed when the owner of Latimer House chose to enhance the natural beauty of his rear view with an unexpectedly wide lake. This is the Chess Valley, on the borders of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, and it’s totally perplexing that this 15-mile long stretch of rural land, totally outside anything resembling London, gets a good six stations on the Tube map.

This is the outermost part of the Metropolitan Line. As the first railway to tunnel under London, it gave birth to the Underground, but it never really stopped being a bit like a heavy-rail train – so once it’s in the Home Counties, the line feels a lot less like rapid transit and a lot more like commuter rail. 

The Metropolitan Line bore a child, and that child was Metroland: a hugely ambitious attempt to encourage development beyond London’s outer limits by building new stations and using railway land for speculative housing projects. And it was successful, from Harrow to Moor Park and beyond. But when the Metropolitan was transferred into public hands along with the rest of the modern Underground in 1933, nationalisation brought rationalisation – pulling the purple mess back from the reaches of Buckinghamshire. Or, at least, sort of.

This corner of the Metropolitan is particularly rich with extremities when it comes to fare zones. Moor Park, just over the line in Hertfordshire, is the last stop in Zone 6, with Rickmansworth hitting 7 and the termini of Amersham and Chesham both in Zone 9. That’s nine times the number of zones they have in Stockholm. 

It goes without saying that the zones on the Tube Map are a bit of a disaster in general; an Oyster card is technically programmed for 15, yet everything beyond 9 simply appears as “Special Fares Apply”. Somehow, even within the same zones, prices can differ: a train to Chingford costs more than a train to Harrow and Wealdstone, even though they’re both supposedly part of zone 5 on the Overground. Then there are the bouts of geographical nonsense: Epping is still inexplicably in Zone 6 despite being outside the M25, while Rickmansworth, which lies within it, is in Zone 7.  

TfL’s endless extensions into the provinces are making fares (and season tickets, and pay as you go prices, and the actual functioning of the Oyster Card) more difficult for everyone. And it all started with the Metropolitan Line’s desire to run so far beyond London’s natural limits in search of speculative housing and even more speculative passenger demand. 

This leaves us with two choices. The first choice is to stop pretending that services beyond the Greater London boundary should be TfL’s responsibility. Schemes like the Croxley Rail Link prove that a scheme co-authored by TfL, national government and local councils is doomed to fail. 

Moreover, the kerfuffle over extending the Overground onto routes run by private operators has seen London and the DfT at loggerheads. If TfL only ran services within the Mayor of London’s area of control, it’d make matters of transport planning simpler, and we could easily cut our zones down to 6 – or abolish them completely – and forget Epping, forever. 

Unfortunately, it seems a bit unfair, indeed, retrograde, to reinstate private rail services to stations like Chesham – and it would be almost impossible in Epping, given the smaller gauge on the tracks designed for diddy Central Line carriages. Even though the sorts of people who live in these places are, overwhelmingly, the same middle class commuters who’d be using proper railway commuter services if they lived anywhere else in the belt around the capital, it’s hard to discriminate against them because the Underground happened to be built out to their suburb almost 100 years prior. That brings me to our second choice: an attempt to put price and service unification at the top of TfL’s agenda.

It is increasingly unclear where TfL’s remit really ends, especially because the Elizabeth Line is going to Reading for some reason and the literal county town of Hertfordshire is on the Tube Map now. But so is Epping. So maybe “London” should embrace its geographical eccentricities. 


The first step would create a new “area of interest” for TfL that extends beyond Greater London and towards the natural suburban termini that run out from London. Good examples are Hertford East – where Greater Anglia trains terminate and the Oyster pretends to work – and Welwyn Garden City, at the ends of the line from Moorgate. 

The second step would be getting into the ring with Grant Shapps and pummelling him with policy (I don’t understand lobbying) until the Overground is allowed to run the services to places like Hertford and Gatwick. The end goal would be to make the “Tube and Rail Map” (which has been a complete mess for ages) obsolete, and replace it with two Tube Maps: one, already present inside trains and on paper, for “Central London”, and one for the Greater Transport for London Area (name very much up for discussion). 

Finally, in a Paris-style twist, TfL would radically simplify the fare structure. It would work like this: if the station’s within (or straddling) the Greater London boundary right now, it’s in Zone 1. If it’s outside it, it’s in Zone 2. This might sound unfair – to draw some arbitrary line between spaces and make those who aren’t “proper Londoners” pay. But the way things are, those people actually get into London quicker: it’s often much faster to ride a commuter rail service into King’s Cross from Potter’s Bar (in Hertfordshire) than it is to take the Piccadilly from Cockfosters (just on the other side of the boundary in Enfield). If the home counties folk are consistently getting faster services, those services – the ones that stop on the fringes then stream into the termini – should have a single higher tariff, or go the way of the fast trains to Amersham, and get axed. It was Boris Johnson who cut that service. Now that man (like him or loathe him) is Prime Minister, so it was clearly the right call. 

While it might sound unfair to institute a blanket charge for living outside Greater London, it’s worth remembering that these people are a) overwhelmingly middle class commuters and b) not paying any taxes to the GLA. Have you been to Epping? They don’t need subsidised travel! I bet the buses in Chigwell are shocking

It’s beyond blindingly obvious that the fare structure on the Tube at the minute is confusing, overcomplicated, and a mess of incentives. The solution is a flat fare for the people who live in London, and exceptions for the commuters who wish they did too.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.