“ RFID in Transportation- London’s oyster travelcards are a necessity for Londoners and tourists and RFID technology helps save the day with quick access, ticketing and seamless transportation.”
London is a dream travel destination for many travel enthusiasts and why shouldn’t it be. It has got this old city vibe and with all its late-Georgian British architecture, popularly known as Regency, it got this aesthetically distinct buildings and museums and churches bordering on neoclassicism, a trend that started in the late 1760s and lasted until the 1840s and ‘50s.
People like London for it is a modern city, it uses technology in transportation and healthcare system but it is also a great city for tourists. For visitors, it offers a Visitor Oyster card which is an RFID-based travel card. People visiting London for the first time can apply for an Oyster visitor card in advance and collect it when they land/ arrive in London. They can also purchase an oyster card at one of the London Overground, Tube, and Elizabeth line stations as well as newsstands/newsagents selling oyster cards.
The RFID oyster travelcards are very significant as around 80% of all the underground or subway payments and bus payments are now done by oyster cards and TfL (Transport for London) has issued more than 10m oyster cards so far and more than 38m journeys are made each week.
The RFID technology and London oyster cards
The use of technology in transportation is an intrinsic part of London city and given the massive footfall each year, it only makes sense. In 2019, 21m visitors made it to the city of London, though the number saw a drop of 4.6m in 2020 due to covid19. Places like Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, Leadenhall Market, Palace of Westminster, and West End see high tourist footfall each year. These tourists need an easy way to move around the city and Oyster Visitor cards are a great way to do so. Tourists can use it on buses and tube and trains and reach any corner of the city they want.
The Oyster cards are smart travel cards issued by TfL, Transport for London, and these contain a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip that can hold information such as card no. and the credit amount on the card.
RFID is a wireless technology that is most suitable for short-range wireless communication, vis-à-vis automatic identification and data capture (AIDC).
The technology uses an RFID tag, which comes with a microchip and antenna embedded together, and an RFID reader to function. When the RFID tag is in the vicinity of the RFID reader, it captures the RF signal coming from the RFID reader and gets activated, and then sends the encoded data to the reader. The reader in turn captures the RF signals coming from the RFID tag and decodes it for the end users.
RFID in Transportation: Oyster Cards
In the case of an Oyster card, the card contains a microchip and an antenna etched between the layers. Each card stores critical data such as unique identification no. and the amount of credit it has. When visitors pass through an Oyster turnstile and touch the card to the reader, a digital conversation, a transaction ensues and the travel fair is deducted from the card. This only happens within a station premises and any other RFID reader won’t be able to deduct any credit amount.
The TfL Oyster visitor cards are a great way to access transport services in London, especially for tourists who don’t want to stay for long and don’t want to purchase Oyster travel cards. All around, Oyster travel cards provide ease of movement across London, allowing people to visit popular places such as London Bridge, Westminster Palace, Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, etc.
Could London's Oyster travelcard system be hacked?
Surprisingly, yes. Some security researchers at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Holland, working at Philip’s Mifare RFID cards in 2008, hacked the TfL oyster cards with a laptop and an RFID reader. They successfully cloned the card and added credit to it and took rides. So it's possible to hack an oyster card but the TfL wasn’t worried about it as all anyone could do was take a few free rides until they identified the hack.
Now, Oyster cards are being upgraded to support NFC (near-field communication) and TfL is upgrading its readers to support both, RFID and NFC technology for easy transportation services.
To summarize, it’s been more than 20 years since oyster smart cards have been functional in London, and with technology like RFID in transportation, it has helped billions of tourists and Londoners move around the city using tube, underground/subway, and buses. The use of RFID provides a safe and quick entry and exit at stations and travelers can easily move around. It also helps with crown management at stations as RFID technology allows fast access/entry and exits.