The QR Code JR Gate Equation

The new Takanawa Gateway station transit gate pictured in the JR East press release

Every year my office sponsors a company trip. This ‘company spirit’ building practice used to be standard in Japan but the custom has eroded considerably since the end of the bubble era. It’s the first ‘unnecessary expense’ item inbound hedge funds always cut when they get a say in Japanese company management: it’s much easier to let staff go when said staff hasn’t spent any time getting to know each other outside of the company setting.

The Group Ticketing Dilemma
Most of the company trips are by Shinkansen but the tickets are group tickets arranged through a travel agency who negotiate with JR East/Central/West depending on the final destination. Group tickets are paper tickets with no mag strip on the back. A group ticket or similar paper only items like special discount passes for the disabled have to handled by a station gate agent booth. The standard transit gate layout for JR East stations is a mix of Suica only ‘IC’ gates, mag strip paper ticket + Suica gates and a single gate agent booth.

Gate agent booths are choke points. Because they can only handle one special task at a time, one person with a problem holds everybody up. Our company group nearly missed a Nagoya station Shinkansen transfer connection on the return leg when a Chinese woman tied up the one and only station agent for 10 minutes with a problem that could have been taken care of at a ticket sales window, not a gate agent.

The next generation Suica architecture (aka Super Suica) in 2021 will solve many problems but it won’t solve everything. Group ticketing, special passes for disabled users, and other one-off tickets don’t fit in the Suica box, or even the regular mag strip paper ticket box. This is one problem I suspect the new Takanawa Gateway station Suica + QR Code transit gates are designed to fix.

Disposable paper tickets with a QR Code solve group ticketing very nicely: the travel agent can print them out instead of going to the JR station, they can be reprinted in case someone loses one. An app version is certainly possible but only an extra option for people with smartphones (think school children on a day trip). QR Codes might work well as a replacement for inbound paper Japan Rail Passes.

It’s not about speed, Suica or smartphones. It’s all about freeing up those increasingly rare and harried transit gate agents from the mundane task of validating one off paper tickets so they can take care of transit users who really need their help. I can’t think of a better use case for putting QR Code readers on JR East Suica transit gates.

Regular Mag Strip Ticket Costs
The only question remaining in my mind is what strategy JR East will chose to retire regular mag strip tickets and reduce costs. Those intricate, and fast, OMRON mag strip ticket machines are an engineering marvel. However, even though QR Codes and central processing are slower, the front end machine is much less expensive and easier to maintain. The magnetic strip paper itself is also expensive and less environmentally friendly than other paper. We will find out what JR East is really planning when the new Shinkansen eTicket system launches next spring, just about the time that Takanawa Gateway station goes into operation.

Omron states the speed of their mag strip gate machine is within 600 Milliseconds, but how long will they be around?

Right now JR East has 2 basic ticketing systems:

  • Suica
    Fast, less expensive fare tier for regular transit, Mobile Suica support for Apple Pay and Google Pay credit/debit card recharge, Shinkansen eTickets and discounts, Green Car upgrades, commuter passes, etc.
  • Paper Tickets
    Slow, more expensive fare tier for regular transit, cash purchase only for local travel, credit card purchase for express train and Shinkansen tickets

I think the next step of migrating mag strip paper ticketing to QR Code is pretty clear. The real question is will JR East continue with the same transit tiers they have now: cheaper Suica IC fares vs. more expensive paper ticket fares. They will probably offer an app with QR Code support as but I see it as a simple extension of QR Code paper tickets, i.e. it won’t get the less expensive Suica fares. And don’t forget the ultimate Suica advantage: touchless walkthrough gates.