JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch

Today, March 14, marks the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.

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Transit IC only JR East Shinkansen eTicket reservations start today

The new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service debuts March 14, but 30 day advance ticket reservations mean it kinda starts today. The best explanation, Japanese only at this point, is the Eki-net online guide that outlines the new reservation, purchase and seat assignment process for PC and smartphone web pages. I find the smartphone online version more streamlined than the PC one but they are straight forward if you are familiar with Eki-net. The basic Eki-net process is the same until step 7, the section where you assign the eTicket (s) to your registered transit IC card (s). The differences from smartEX are interesting:

  • You can register up to 6 different transit IC cards to a single Eki-net account: Suica, Mobile Suica, PASMO, Kitaca, ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, PiTaPa, nimoca, SUGOCA, Hayaken
  • A single Eki-net account can reserve/purchase up to 6 Shinkansen eTickets then assign tickets and seats to registered transit IC cards

JR East Shinkansen eTickets are geared for family travel in a way that smartEX, EX-Press and the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets ending March 13 are not. Other systems can only attach a single IC transit card per account. The flexibility opens up some interesting possibilities, since Apple Pay Suica is just another transit IC card, one person can buy and assign eTickets up to 6 difference Apple Pay Suica devices. The downside is that transit card linking is completely manual and up to the user to update information when a new card is issued or the Apple Pay Suica ID number changes (less common than before but still happens). There are bound to be some very short trips that end with a transit gate error. Some other observations:

  • eTickets require a Transit IC card (paper tickets can be issued in the event of a lost transit card)
  • eTicket reservations are currently limited to Eki-net online but Eki-net app will gain eTicket support when the service launches March 14
  • As Suica App is tied to Apple ID and the Mobile Suica cards registered to it, I don’t see Shinkansen eTickets being integrated back into Suica App anytime soon
  • I don’t see QR Code ticketing support coming until after the transit IC eTicket system is complete and necessary gate infrastructure in place, a few years down the road at best

Eki-net eTickets are limited to JR East operated Tohoku, Yamagata, Akita, Hokkaido, Joetsu, Hokuriku Shinkansen lines. The next obvious question is when will other ticketing be migrated to Transit IC, and what kind of discounts will be offered?

Discounts, incentives and ticket system silos
Most Japanese don’t buy express train or Shinkansen tickets at regular prices. The whole point of Eki-net, smartEx, and all the other account based ticketing systems are the discounts and incentives to get people out of the ticket office line and online. Each operator has their own complex set of discount schedules which they guard and control carefully because it is their business engine.

For this reason I am not optimistic we will see an all-in-one train ticket app. Sure, there is some integration of JR East eTicket and JR West e5489 because they share Hokuriku Shinkansen operations, and there might even be an app than integrates many different ticket systems, but I don’t see it offering all the discounts of stand alone apps like Eki-net, EX, Odekake-net, etc. I also don’t see multi-lingual support in the mix, at least not in time for Tokyo Olympics. The fun starts March 14 with many things still coming down the pipe, from next generation Suica to new transit gates. It will be an interesting time.

Touchless walkthrough transit gates coming in 2020, Mobile Suica eTickets more popular than ever

Mobile Suica has been under a lot of stress this week. The cloud service almost went down under a heavy load on November 26, at the same time the Suica App has shot up in the App Store Japan rankings, briefly touching the top 3 which is unusual. At first I scratched my head then remembered that Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets become available 30 days in advance, and that means the New Year vacation period. But the unexpected Mobile Suica load and Suica App downloads signal something else: more first time Suica App users than ever before.

Even though Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket purchases are not eligible for CASHLESS rebates, it looks like more Japanese are taking the opportunity to go cashless this year with many first time users signing up for a Mobile Suica account and going all in with Apple Pay Suica/Google Pay Suica. Discounts on some advance Shinkansen eTickets are also pretty good.

In other news Kyodo reports that JR East is developing a new ‘touchless’ walkthrough gate with an overhead antenna design that lets users keep Suica in a bag or pocket. No more waving cards and devices over a reader. It’s also big help for left handed people, Apple Watch Suica users and wheelchair users. Field tests are expected to start in 2020 with a rollout in 2~3 years. It sounds like a perfect match for the new eTicket system that JR East will launch in April 2020 and Super Suica coming in April 2021. It will be Super Suica all the way, we are entering the final years of magnetic strip paper ticketing.

It would be great fun if a few JR stations near Tokyo Olympic venues could have a few walkthrough Touchless gates installed for inbound Apple Pay Suica users to try out. Great for travelers with both hands full. Look ma, no hands! Take that QR Code fans.

UPDATE
It looks like Kyodo News is playing somewhat loose with their reporting. Ever reliable IT journalist Junya Suzuki contacted JR East for confirmation. JR East confirmed the basic story that they are developing a Touchless gate but have not committed to a rollout schedule. The picture that ran with the Kyodo piece is an older photo of an exhibition demo unit and not necessarily the Touchless gate, or the Touchless gate technology in development.

What’s the difference between iOS 13 Wallet created Suica and SuicaEng?

iOS 13 Wallet gained the ability to directly create a Suica card without an app. Judging from Twitter posts however, it seems inbound visitors prefer SuicaEng for adding Suica to Apple Pay. This is understandable: SuicaEng is a onetime use app that completely removes the ‘set Region to Japan’ to add Suica requirement that confuses people. The region change is only for adding Suica but many people seem to think that the iPhone Region must be set to Japan to use Suica, which is not true: Suica works regardless of the device Region setting. Apple clearly needs to improve the Wallet UI so that users can easily add different country cards without a confusing side trip to Settings and Region.

It doesn’t matter how a user adds Suica to Apple Pay but there are some interesting differences. There are 3 basic variety of Suica cards when buying a plastic one from a station kiosk or creating a virtual one in Suica App: non-registered Suica, registered My Suica, commuter Suica.

Non-registered plastic Suica cannot be re-issued if lost and the balance is gone too, but the arrival of Apple Pay Suica blurred the lines between non-registered and registered My Suica. Technically the distinction is still there and JR East is not obligated to refund or re-issue a non-registered Suica if it stops working on Apple Pay.

Regardless of the variety, when any plastic or virtual Suica is added to Apple Pay the user Apple ID becomes part of the Suica card ID, permanently attaching it to the Apple Pay and Mobile Suica systems like a petrified barnacle. This is the reason why Apple Pay users must refund/delete all Apple Pay Suica cards and their Mobile Suica account if they migrate to Google Pay Suica (and vice versa).

The differences between SuicaEng and iOS 13 Wallet created Suica boil down to:

  1. SuicaEng creates a single non-registered Suica card in Wallet, it cannot create more than one.
  2. iOS 13 Wallet creates a registered My Suica and can create multiple Suica. It’s a very tight integration between Apple Pay and Mobile Suica.

Not that users will notice any difference because all Suica look and work exactly the same way. The differences are hidden away from the users on the backend, exactly as they should be.

Suica and Octopus Compared

Hong Kong’s Octopus is coming to Apple Pay soon, it shares the same FeliCa technology base with Suica but there are some interesting differences.

Branding
The mobile version of Suica is Mobile Suica across 3 different payment platforms: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay and Google Pay. The current mobile version of Octopus is called Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay but it’s not clear yet if the Smart Octopus branding will stay with Samsung Pay or be set free.

Deposits
Mobile Suica does not have deposits. Plastic Suica cards have a ¥500 deposit but is automatically returned to the stored value (SV) balance when transferred to Apple Pay or Google Pay. Octopus has a HK$50 deposit on both plastic and mobile versions. An interesting difference is that the Octopus deposit will be used temporarily if the SV balance is insufficient to pay transit fare at the exit gate.

Stored Value Balance Limits
Suica has a SV balance limit of ¥20,000. Octopus Cards Limited (OCL) just raised the Octopus SV balance limit for cards issued after October 1, 2019 from HK$1,000 to HK$3,000. In JPY this is roughly double the current Suica limit, about ¥40,000 which puts it inline with other Japanese e-money card balance limits like WAON. Suica balance limits will likely be doubled when the next generation ‘Super Suica’ card architecture arrives in April 2021.

Number of Cards
Smart Octopus is limited to a single card per Samsung Pay user account. Mobile Suica/Apple Pay Suica can have the multiple Suica cards up to the device Wallet limit.

Recharge Fees
One of the many innovations that Apple Pay Suica brought was elimination of the annual Mobile Suica ¥1,050 ‘membership fee’, Google Pay got the same deal and Mobile Suica membership fees are disappearing altogether next year. Mobile Suica does not charge any upfront fee for recharges, but Smart Octopus does: 2.5% a pop for the luxury of recharging in Samsung Pay with Visa and Mastercard card brands although Union Pay cards are apparently free.

The differences in this last section are interesting. JR East charges nothing for recharging Mobile Suica, while OCL does for Smart Octopus. Mobile Suica has been around far longer and JR East has many more online services, such as EkiNet, to offset cloud expenses. Smart Octopus only started in December 2017 and the footprint of Samsung Pay devices compared with everything else is probably small and doesn’t drive enough transaction volume to offset Smart Octopus cloud startup costs. Apple Pay will growth the transaction size of Smart Octopus considerably, hopefully enough for OCL to reduce or eliminate the Add Value Service Fee at some point.

I look forward to digging through service details when Octopus finally launches on Apple Pay.