By Julian Bajkowski
New South Wales transport authorities have announced the extension of customer trials for the state’s rebirthed public transit smartcard, Opal, to trains with readers for the devices now being switched-on at rail stations on Sydney’s City Circle line as well as Bondi Junction.
The start of trials for CBD rail passengers is a critical step for the electronic ticketing scheme because it will test the speed, reliability and resilience of systems in locations where passenger numbers and throughput are at their highest and will have the biggest impact if they malfunction.
Sydney is sorely lagging most Australian capital cities which have had smartcard-based public transit ticketing in place for some years.
The harbour city’s previous transport e-ticket attempt, Tcard, was botched by rail authorities and finally collapsed in 2008, triggering bitter litigation between the government and a spin-off of local technology supplier ERG that was only finally settled in 2012.
Tcard had initially been slated for introduction during the Sydney 2000 Olympics, but the government has since plumped another $1.2 billion in the hope of finally getting a working smartcard system up-and running.
As frustrating queues at CBD station ticket windows and vending machines endure at an almost an unmanageable level, the NSW government is taking its time to weed out glitches ensure that the tap-and-go style smartcard tickets hold-up under the pressure of peak-hour passenger volumes.
Even though the government is testing the devices and readers at only six City Circle and three Eastern Suburbs line train stations, they are among the busiest in the city. So far, the Opal cards in the trial will only able to be used by passengers travelling between participating stations in the city to Bondi area and some ferry-runs.
The government is betting that generous incentives will attract commuters to the trial.
The key discounts on offer for trial Opal users outlined by the NSW government are an 8 per cent price drop compared to single paper tickets and a further 30 per cent cut for journeys taken outside the weekday peak times of 7am to 9am and 4pm to 6.30pm.
To boost those discounts, Transport for NSW has said it will also introduce a series of price-caps that kick-in after 8 paid journeys in a week: meaning that a commuter who typically two trips a day from Monday to Thursday will then not need to pay for travel on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The popular all-day Sunday capped fare of $2.50, previously only available to families under the ‘Family Funday’ promotion will be extended to all Opal trial users, while a ‘daily travel cap of $15 from Monday to Saturday’ will also be applied in the trial zones to entice tourists and casual travellers.
Between June 2013 and March 2014 the state government says it will have stations on the following lines switched on to accept Opal as either a customer trial or full service:
• City Circle and stations to Bondi Junction (customer trial);
•Stations north of the city to Chatswood (customer trial extension to includestations without gates)
• Stations from Redfern to Strathfield, Strathfield to Hornsby, Epping to Chatswood and north of Chatswood to Wyong on the Central Coast
• Along the Western Line to Emu Plains and Richmond and stations from Strathfield to Liverpool via Regents Park.
The biggest advantage of smartcard ticket systems like Opal is that they allow passengers to use a reloadable smartcard to hop between public transport modes – like ferries, busses, trams and trains – without having to buy separate tickets for each service.
It’s a big cultural shift for all the agencies concerned.
Until the formation of mega-agency Transport for NSW with the election of the O’Farrell government, different public transport authorities in the state essentially competed against each other (instead of cooperating) under a peculiar model of independent statutory corporations that often did not even answer directly to the transport minister.
A key mission of the O’Farrell government and its Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has been to form a single, integrated, public transport network that works together by forcing a change of thinking among white collar transport bureaucrats who the government previously regarded as deeply resistant to changes.
The biggest structural change to the NSW fare and ticketing system has been the dumping of complex and discreet fare components in favour of a more flexible distance based system divided up into consistent zones to allow travel on a single ticket across busses, ferries, trains and trams.
While the recently introduced zones have been well received by commuters, new plans to bolster ferry operations – including the opening of wharves to new competing private operators has caused concern among some public transport advocates who fear that ticketing could again become fragmented.
How passengers will be able pay for their reloadable Opal card tickets also remains an evolving issue.
One of the government’s preferred methods of payment for Opal is for travellers to use automatic reload facilities that can automatically draw funds from credit and scheme debit payment cards (essentially MasterCard and Visa branded cards issued by banks).
At the time of writing, Opal’s website was only offering options for payments via MasterCard or Visa products and did not yet have options for either BPay, PayPal or American Express.
Like other cities, Sydney’s transport authorities are counting on retailers to help push the new smartcard-tickets by making reload facilities available in places like convenience stores and newsagents.
However just how many merchants will adopt the ticket reload facilities remains to be seen given that some convenience stores now demand surcharges of up to 50 cents over and above ticket prices when passengers by cards like Eftpos rather than cash.
Even less clear is if and when rail authorities in NSW will upgrade existing ticketing machines that now accept card payments using fraud prone magnetic strip technology to smartcard technology including similar tap-and-go functionality to that of the Opal card itself now embedded in most MasterCard and Visa branded plastic.
At the moment many bank branches use a combination of the ‘tap’ functionality and PIN numbers to authorise teller transactions.
The ubiquity of tap functionality on British and European payment cards has spurred some public transport operators to look at bypassing the tickets altogether and allowing travellers to just tap their bank issued cards to get on board.
Transport for London, which is providing much of the smarts for the Opal system along with ticketing system supplier Cubic, has already announced plans to let commuters on London Busses use their bank issued tap-and-go payment cards to get on board services.
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