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) and Cloud Suica will solve some problems such as special passes for disabled users but it won’t solve everything. One-off limited tickets and group tickets don’t fit in the regular Suica box, but Suica Light will take care of many special needs. And even the old reliable ‘buy 10 tickets and get one free’ ticket books have been replaced with Suica and JRE POINT. With so many Suica options, the need for mag strip paper tickets and the ticket machines that support them has decreased to the point where support costs don’t make sense anymore. Paper tickets still have a role to place of course but support costs need to come down. Enter QR Codes and the new JR East Suica + QR Code transit gates are designed to fix the problem.
Disposable QR Code paper tickets fill the special niches that Suica does not but it’s really 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.
Right now JR East has 2 basic ticketing systems and fare schedules:
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
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. I’m certain it will stay in place. Will JR East offer an app for QR Code ticketing? I doubt it as mobile connectivity in station areas is notoriously unreliable, it’s the number one complaint of Suica app. The whole QR Code point for JR East is reducing the need for station agent validation, smartphone QR Code apps will only make it worse.