Suica Light, the Welcome Suica for locals

JR East announced, yet another, Suica card: Suica Light. In terms of functionality it has no card deposit, a 6 month transit validity, card issue is not direct from JR East and limited to local governments, schools and corporations. In other words it’s not for individual purchase and use. The concept is somewhat similar to Welcome Suica: a Suica for specific kind of user with a limited transit use validity, no card deposit, no refunds. A time limited, throw away Suica. What’s the point?

On one level JR East wants to offer a new option that simply replaces some paper ticketing for group travel and also leverages current Suica platform (transit and eMoney) infrastructure. The logical and easy step might be using QR to handle special ticketing that doesn’t fit with regular Suica. JR East has tested QR Code capable gates but there is no rollout map or announced strategy. The problem with QR for JR East is that it doesn’t grow their Suica platform.

2022 is a big year for JR East’s MaaS strategy centered on the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate program with 8 new cards launching in the Tohoku region. The key new feature is that different special services can be attached to differently branded Suica cards. Local users get the benefit of special local services linked with the wide national Suica footprint. This is also what Suica Light is aiming for in a different way: special services and/or tour packages attached to a differently branded, limited validity Suica.

We’ll see how it goes but there are sticky points for Suica Light and Suica 2 in 1:

  • Recycling: the short validity means these Suica Light cards have a very short life. JR East should provide a recycling program so that users can safely dispose of them.
  • Anywhere/Anytime recharge: hard money recharge is the old standby but many users would greatly appreciate the ability to check the card balance and recharge it with a smartphone app when on the go. It’s high time that JR East provide a recharge app for all plastic Suica cards.
  • Management: with the proliferation of Suica 2 in 1 and Suica Light that are not issued directly by JR East, users need a mobile app to manage the card (confirm or add services) without a trip to the local card issuer office.
  • Mobile Support: Suica Light mobile issue has some challenges at JR East is not directly involved and the user needs to verify their ID, but Suica 2 in 1 needs mobile support, sooner the better.

The challenge facing JR East is building a flexible, feature rich, future proof Suica cloud backend that extends the fast local processing Suica frontend, while reducing costs. Not an easy task.