Oyster cards: TFL small fortune remains unclaimed

Sixty-six million Oyster cards haven’t been used in at least a year. And while they might be forgotten in drawers, purses and wallets, Transport for London (TfL) has accumulated a fortune in balances and deposits. Now it is almost £400m.

How can it be that much?

Yes, more than £399m of travellers’ cash is in accounts managed by the TfL treasury, and is being utilised to “improve the transport network”.

More than half, £202.8m to be precise, is made up of the £5 deposit you need to leave when requesting an Oyster card; the rest is remaining pay-as-you-go balances.

The government body is getting interests on that money but said interest rates are low and it would be “complex” to determine a figure for the past year.

Any interest collected is also used on repairs, but the money will “remain available” should customers want to use their Oyster card again or ask for a refund, it added.

Why has it built up?

There are several reasons. When Tfl introduced the Oyster system in 2003, it transformed travel across London. But journeys made in this way have steadily decreased since TfL started taking contactless in 2014.

About 25 million rides a month were made on bank cards in 2015-16, the first full year it was in use across buses, the Underground and DLR, compared to more than 99 million a month made using Oyster.

But in 2018-19, contactless and mobile payment took over with 78 million rides a month, while Oyster has dropped to about 76 million a month.

So is the Oyster card dying?

The short answer is no. TfL has issued almost nine million cards in the past 12 months, and nearly one billion rides on the TfL network were using Oyster in 2018-19.

But the rise of contactless only accounts for some of the 61 million Oyster cards and five million visitor cards that have not been used for at least 12 months.

Many are spread all over the world as souvenier. People who have left London or tourists who visit sporadically and have hung on to it. Consequently, the remaining balance.

TfL said Londoners frequently keep an extra Oyster for friends and family visiting London – so typically, these are used less regularly and may lie in drawers for months at a time.

Why aren’t people claiming?

One potential reason is the average balance on an unused Oyster is £3.46.

Sometimes it might not seem worth the effort. But add the deposit on top and that £8.46 refund doesn’t get you far in central London.

There are currently 784 cards in circulation that have not been used in a year with a balance of £90 – the maximum credit that an Oyster can hold.

That’s worth digging around in the kitchen drawer to see if you have one under the takeaway menus.