Final frontiers: How Suica 2.0 will solve the IC fare region barrier problem

The Suica cross region problem, no thru transit going from the Suica area to the TOICA area for example, is a well known and criticized shortcoming of the Transit IC system. There has been some recent progress with cross region thru transit commuter passes but barriers remain for regular Suica use, which is a headache for both local residents and longer distance travelers. Despite all the fancy technology, the cheapest thru transit fare choice is paper tickets.

The entire Suica/PASMO service region is huge but covers less than half of the entire JR East rail network

A lesser known Suica barrier remains on the JR East network: Suica service region gaps. Currently there are 3 Suica regions: Tokyo, Sendai and Niigata. There are also some curious gaps between them as illustrated below:

Filling the Suica gaps
Back in 2019 JR East CEO Yuji Fukusawa said the company planned to have 100% Suica deployment by March 2022 but that didn’t happen. Why? Transit use killing COVID, the resulting red ink and redeployed resources are a big reason of course, but system development snags certainly contributed to the missed deadline. There was also a shift from a narrow focus of a lower cost Suica system to a wider focus of Suica 2 in 1, Cloud Suica and a cloud based central fare processing system. JR East’s Suica vision is evolving to a wider, transit based service platform encompassing a range of technologies, with FeliCa as one component of a larger whole flexible new system.

In October 2022 JR Central announced that TOICA is coming to all JR Central lines and stations. The pressure is now on JR East to complete their delayed Suica rollout to all stations first. But there is something else: it’s an open secret that JR East hosts the TOICA system. JR Central would not make such a big TOICA commitment unless JR East had a new system in place to facilitate the expansion. This new system, which I call Suica 2.0, starts operation on May 27 in the Tohoku region.

The launch brings Suica to 45 stations in the Akita, Aomori and Morioka regions but only 9 of these are fully automatic transit gates similar to what you find in Tokyo area stations (the same new QR equipped gates shown in the press announcement are installed in Yoyogi station), the rest, 36 in all, are Suica 2.0 validators. Performance is an obvious concern. Suica users are accustomed to the fastest transit gate fare processing speeds on the planet. Will Suica 2.0 performance satisfy an Suica 1.0 experienced customer base with high expectations? To understand how Suica 1.0 fare gates achieve speedy performance apart from FeliCa technology, we need to examine why Suica regions exist and how they relate to transit gate performance.

Transit gates have very little memory, most of it dedicated to their task of local processing Suica fare at the exit point. Low overhead is a necessity. They can’t hold massive fare tables, hot card lists, dead card lists and so on. Only the bare minimum information required to do the local processing job is periodically synced with the central server. Limiting fare processing to specific heavy use regions is a necessary strategy in keeping the local fare processing overhead low and speedy. This is why a Tokyo Suica/PASMO region transit exit gate only processes the fare from a Suica or PASMO (or any Transit IC card) that started the journey in the same region.

It’s the same situation writ large with different transit IC card regions. Border stations like Atami (Suica and TOICA) have 2 sets of exit gates: one for travelers from the Suica region, one for travelers from the TOICA region. Suica/TOICA cross region thru transit is limited to special cross region commuter passes and those are limited to specific cross region stations, again to keep the local processing overhead low.

It’s important to note however that IC coverage extensions to border stations with 2 sets of different gates and cross region commuter passes, are very recent 2021 developments. This is the JR Group companies laying the foundation to remove IC transit barriers in the near future. Because Suica 2.0 can process any and all Transit IC fare configurations, transit gate memory limits for local processing are no longer a concern. The barriers will come down when gate hardware is updated and Suica 2.0 cloud servers are in place.

Suica 1.0 local processing and Suica 2.0 cloud processing switching
But final exit performance is a concern. Does this mean that eventually all Suica fare processing will be done in the cloud and users can kiss the good old speedy Suica gate experience goodbye? I don’t think so. In fact I think region barriers will stay in place, figuratively and only from the internal system perspective. Why? Because they are extremely useful for highly optimized, low overhead fare system performance based on 22 years of Suica operations and traffic analysis.

Here’s my scenario of how it will work. We all know programmers don’t use a new API unless they have to, or the new API offers insanely great performance over the old API. They like to stick with what they already have if at all possible and only use a new API when they really need to. Same for Suica. Automatic Suica transit gates will be upgraded so there is both the old Suica 1.0 ‘Suica Region API’ and the new Suica 2.0 ‘Region-Free API’. If a transit card user travels in the same Suica region, the exit gate uses the reliable local processing Suica 1.0 API it does now.

However if the transit card user travels from outside the exit station Suica region, the gate switches to Suica 2.0 API and sends it to the Suica 2.0 fare processing cloud. Simple. Locals enjoy the same Suica performance they’ve always had, people traveling from outside the local region might see a little bit slower performance at the exit gate. We find out how well Suica 2.0 works on May 27…hopefully it will be a happy marriage of local + central fare processing, the best of both. The important point is that all Transit IC card barriers will eventually go away. People can travel anywhere on the transit IC network not having to think about barrier nonsense, just like paper tickets. Sounds great but when does it happen?

The JR East QR Eki-Net Connection
I think Suica barriers will drop when QR Eki-Net service launches in the later half of FY 2024 (October 2024~March 2025). QR service starts in the very same Suica 2.0 Tohoku launch region, for all practical purposes QR will use the same Suica 2.0 fare validation system. And when does seamless cross region IC transit for Suica, TOICA, et al. happen? As soon as all the station gate wiring is done basically. JR East seems to prefer stationary cloud connected Suica 2.0 validators at unmanned stations. JR Central and JR West prefer the bus approach of having on board enter and exit validators for rural lines with unmanned stations. Either way is fine, just get it done already. Let the Transit IC barriers drop away into the past where they belong. Because with Suica 2.0 in place and barriers gone, the way is also cleared for fare capping, specialty ticketing and lots more.