One of the great things about Japanese trains is how seamlessly they connect nationwide. Buy a ticket and travel to your destination anywhere in the country even on a different JR company line. This is the legacy of JNR with ticket office staff that knew everything inside out and got you the best connections at the best price. But even in local regions cross company thru transit is a given. There is a small catch however: you must have a ticket specifically designated for the destination on a different connecting company line. For paper tickets that is.
The great innovation of Suica and the Transit IC standard was that it did away with the need to purchase special connecting tickets. Just tap and go, each company transit gate automatically calculates and deducts the stored fare (SF) from Suica. Another innovation of Suica was IC fare. IC fare is slightly cheaper because it is ticketless, the fare collection is automatic and less expensive to process. The cheaper IC fare is also encouragement to use IC cards instead of paper tickets for local travel. As of FY 2021 JR East says 95% of Tokyo area transit uses Suica/PASMO.
Nevertheless, despite Suica being around 20 years and the Transit IC standard in place for 10, paper mag strip tickets are still with us. Why? A number of reasons but the biggest one being they are essential for long distance interconnected transit. Travelers can get on a local JR West train in the Osaka region, transfer to the Shinkansen and ride to Tokyo, transfer to a JR East local train and ride to their destination with a single purchased set of paper tickets, usually with a discount when purchased far enough in advance. Can’t we already do this with Suica and the like? Yes and no.
Bad JNR Breakup
The 1987 breakup of JNR had some bad repercussions that are still with us today. It came at a crucial point just as the next generation ticketing Suica smart card was in development, delaying deployment for many years. This delay fossilized the JR Group ticketing system to mag-strip paper. Post breakup JR companies developed their own transit IC card systems without larger JR Group integration, limiting coverage to high volume traffic areas where they could recoup transit IC system installation costs. This resulted in large sections of lower traffic rural lines being left off the Suica/Transit IC map with mag-strip paper tickets the only option. I experience this situation whenever I travel from Tokyo to Minobu. Suica only goes to Kofu, but the Minobu line is not wired for Transit IC as the Minobu station signage makes very clear.
The transition from mag-strip paper tickets
When JR East unveiled their next generation transit gate prototype in late 2019 with Suica and QR Code readers but no paper ticket slot, it was clear that closed loop QR ticketing was the transition plan for retiring paper tickets. Mag-strip paper recycling costs are increasing and mechanical paper ticket transit gates are expensive to purchase (said to be 10 million JPY per unit) and maintain. Migrating to QR eliminates these costs…but it will be a long transition. The end of mag-strip paper tickets will only be happen when all JR Group companies, and connecting private transit companies, implement QR that covers all station points paper does now.
Filling the gaps
Despite all appearances, JR Group companies have been busy creating a foundation of new services that fall into basic categories:
•Extensions: (1) Closing Transit IC gaps on their respective systems with hard wired stations or readers installed on trains for tap-in/tap-out transit, (2) Extending Transit IC beyond JR Group systems with lower cost cloud based solutions or government subsidized installations for connecting transit operators.
•Cross region transit between Suica-TOICA-ICOCA-SUGOCA regions (Atami, Maibara, Shimonoseki, etc.), this has started with through cross region Transit IC commuter passes, the next step is through cross region for regular cards.
•Online Reservation and Ticketing: Eki-Net, EX/Odekake-Net that cover eTicketing for Shinkansen, Ticketless reservations for express trains and special seasonal package tickets.
•Special Issue: Suica/PASMO for disabled users with discounts that replace paper passes
Suica is extending to cover the entire rail network starting in the Tohoku region in March 2023 with a new lower cost cloud based Suica system (aka Super Suica Cloud), Suica is also extending to cover Tohoku region bus companies via the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Card program that kicked off in 2020. Suica/PASMO for disabled users will also launch
Announced TOICA will be coming to all lines and stations “soon”, along with more EX non-Shinkansen ticketing options and EX-MaaS package tours that cover train, hotel, car rentals, etc.
In short QR will be a mobile only default replacement for paper while JR East-Central-West are extending Suica-ICOCA-TOICA to be the default mobile + physical card mode for local travel. This covers all of Honshu but we still don’t know what Transit IC expansion + QR plans there are for the financially weaker JR Group companies: JR Hokkaido, JR Kyushu, JR Shikoku.
The Eki-Net QR Super Suica Cloud Connection
One of the little noticed key aspects of the JR East Eki-Net QR Ticket announcement is the initial service launch area and time: Tohoku. This is the same area where the Cloud Suica extension is launching in March 2023. Eki-Net QR starts here over a year later, between October 2024~March 2025. This new Suica system has a few tricks up the sleeve that give a clue how Cloud Suica and Eki-Net QR complement each other. Let’s start with the new Suica/PASMO cards for disabled users launching in, yet again, March 2023. Fare discounts for disabled users are very complex as they are certified by the resident local ward or city. Up until now paper passbooks were manually examined at entrance or exit to verify the fare discount.
Suica/PASMO disability fare cards are the first time the discount is validated by the Suica system. Look very carefully at the valid use regions because Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards were designed to support special fares on non-JR East transit and region affiliates will support Suica/PASMO disability cards when they launch. As both Cloud Suica and QR will use the same cloud linked transit gates, it’s a given they will also share the same backend validation system.
Where does Eki-Net QR fare fit?
The online reservation and ticketing apps we use now (Eki-Net, EX, etc.) will be the same apps people will use to buy and display QR Code tickets. We already use QR Codes to pickup paper tickets from a station kiosk, displaying the same QR Code to go through a gate is the next natural step. The essential question is which fare tier QR tickets reside in. Currently JR East has 2 basic fare tiers:
- eTicket and Ticketless (Suica / Transit IC cards)
Less expensive fare tier for regular local transit, Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets with bigger discounts, Eki-Net Ticketless Express Train Reservations with bigger discounts
- Paper Tickets
More expensive fare tier for regular transit, cash purchase only for local travel, credit card purchase for express train and Shinkansen tickets, seasonal tickets, special package tours, and so on.
The logical progression is that Eki-Net QR tickets simply replace the paper ticket tier. There’s a huge variety of one-off specials and package tours that don’t fit well in the Suica eTicket/Ticketless box that would be ideal for QR treatment. We shall see but I suspect JR will want to keep the tier differences in place because NFC Suica/Transit IC ticketing works without a network connection, QR Code ticketing does not. And we all know that station network environments are the worst.
New Transit Gate Design
Last but not least we have QR reader equipped transit gates that JR East will start installing in stations starting December 2022. Like the paper to QR transition, installation will see a gradual replacement of older end-of-life combo Suica + paper transit gates with new Suica+QR+paper transit gates. We may also see installment of the earlier Suica + QR prototype gates that JR East tested in 2020.
One aspect of both designs is the QR reader is placed way in front of the Suica reader, which is placed as far back as possible. This peculiar design has an important function of preventing ‘Suica Express Transit’ card clash when a user is going though the gate displaying a QR Code. JR East doesn’t want an extraneous Suica card read/write to clash with a QR read that sets Suica to ‘start transit’ mode. I’m sure the gates will automatically turn off the blue Suica reader when it detects a QR Code, but keeping the readers far apart is a good thing. We don’t want any MTA OMNY-like launch nonsense.
This is only a start. JR East has only announced the broad outlines of their paper to QR transition, the real transition will kickoff when other JR Group companies announce their plans which they have not done so far. One thing is for sure, the trusty old JRN built mag-strip paper ticketing system is finally getting a reboot for the cloud based mobile ticketing age.