The Great Big Nankai VISA Touch Transit Boutique

VISA Japan has been busy this year marketing VISA Touch contactless cards with the SMBC group, leveraging the SMBC-GMO-VISA co-venture stera payment platform that launched on July 6. We have already seen a few VISA Touch stera powered ‘transit boutiques’: smallish inbound tourist centric transit companies that don’t support Transit IC cards like Suica and PASMO. This could be changing.

Nankai Electric Railway along with VISA Japan, SMBC and QUADRAC Co., Ltd., a SoftBank and hedge funded systems company that develops VISA Touch and QR fare systems among other things, announced a co-venture test of VISA Touch and QR Code open loop fares for ‘inbound tourists’ on Nankai transit gates in 2021. ‘Test’ not ‘rollout’. The wording of the press announcement is vague with photo ‘images’ of what it might look like. It reads more like a VISA PR release than a Nankai one.

To understand why Nankai is testing this it helps to know a few things. Nankai lines service Kansai International Airport that up until COVID hit had a lot of inbound tourists from China visiting Universal Studio Japan in Osaka, amoung other things, the AliPay thing being the most important.

The other thing to know is that Kansai area transit companies (Hankyu, Keihan, Nankai, Hanshin) never developed a PASMO like transit card for non-JR group transit companies. PiTaPa is a failure because it’s a post-pay transit card, a SMBC managed credit card with credit card checks and unsuitable for the commuter pass masses without credit cards. This is why Hankyu ‘borrows’ the JR West ICOCA card for issuing commuter passes. It’s a mess. But it also means that transit companies in the PiTaPa SMBC orbit are in a weaker position, open to SMBC pressure and loan incentives to try VISA Touch open loop (not really open loop when it’s an exclusive VISA Touch arrangement and nothing else right?).

The Japan Transit IC map. Post-pay PiTaPa based transit cards are in a weaker position than regular prepaid transit cards

It also helps to know that stera Panasonic JT-C60 NFC readers are the slowest transit Suica compatible readers I have every used. These same readers are used in VISA Touch transit boutiques and we all know that EMV contactless is slower than FeliCa.

So what is Nankai testing exactly?

(1) Transit gate friction. Transit IC card tap speed is less than 200 milliseconds (ms) while legacy mag strip paper ticketing is 600 ms. The stera Panasonic readers are far slower than 600 ms, if that’s what they end up using for the test…it’s hilarious to imagine Nankai retrofitting a bulky slow Android based NFC reader on a Omron transit gate.

(2) Fare system overhead. How much does the centralized fare processing and linking to VISA and AliPay cost and how does it perform versus local stored value transit IC cards.

The eventual rollout plan will be based on hardware and system cost balanced against the estimate of capturing more inbound transit revenue. There are also transit gate layout issues to consider, is it better to go with slow and fast lane transit gate layout, or retrofit every gate as cheaply as possible. Does any of this make sense in the COVID era when tap speed is more important than ever?

The Real Friction Point: Inbound
We’ll see how it works out but since the advertised point of this effort is for the benefit of inbound tourists, I’ll come out and say it: one of the best things about COVID is the elimination of inbound tourists and their luggage on commuter trains in heavily trafficked areas like JR East Yamanote.

Large groups of people with lots of luggage riding commuter trains during rush hours without following common sense etiquette is a huge stress point for regular commuters. When doors are blocked by luggage and tourists who don’t know, or don’t care about other people using the train, it’s trouble in the making.

The hallmark of any good transit system is safety and reliability, a finely tuned balance of servicing all customers and wisely investing in infrastructure. All too often the grab for inbound tourists ignores this balance at the expense of daily riders. Nankai must keep this in mind. If they do not it will end up being a ‘do less with more’ money losing proposition for Nankai, but not for VISA, SMBC and QUARDRAC.