Twelve-year-late NSW smartcard arrives

By Julian Bajkowski

The New South Wales government has trotted out the latest iteration of its vexed transport ticketing smartcard for public testing more than 12 years after commuters were promised the now unremarkable device in time for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Known as the “Opal” Card (which has no connection to the identically named brand of low aromatic fuel designed to stop inhalant abuse), the smartcard will be initially put to work on the cross harbour ferry run between Neutral Bay and Circular Quay.

The O’Farrell government hopes to have the new ticket working across all of Sydney’s public transport system – recently renamed Transport for Sydney after competing agencies were forcibly put under central command – by 2015.

Transport Minister for NSW, Gladys Berejiklian is hoping that the rollout of the latest card will go better than two previously abandoned attempts that produced little more than litigation and burned through hundreds of millions of dollars while customers suffered and services deteriorated.

The latest move comes after a protracted court case with previous contractors ERG was finally settled by the O’Farrell government after the state sued the company – under the previous Labor government – for damages to head off an expected claim that transport authorities had made the contract unworkable.

Many of those who worked on the initial project believe that elements of NSW Railcorp effectively sabotaged the smartcard project because it would reduce the number of bureaucrats needed to run one of the world’s most convoluted and unwieldy fare matrix.

Under the now abandoned previous fare system, each combination of destinations on the rail map became an individual fare product, thus making smartcard calculations far more difficult and slower than they needed to be.

That fare system has since been abandoned and a more simple zone-based matrix – similar to London and New York – introduced to make the NSW smartcard workable.

Sydney also shares the same ticketing infrastructure provider as London and New York, Cubic Transportation Systems, who scored a $1.1 billion deal for the new build.

However that is where the similarities end. While London and New York are now actively trialling the introduction of regular contactless payment card capability for public transport to reduce the inherent duplication in ticketing payments, Sydney is yet to say whether it will move in this direction.

Most Australian cities now have operational public transport smartcard systems including Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra.

[updated] Adelaide's transport smartcard, Metro Card, has been publicly available since 4th November 2012.

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