How much does Suica Off-Peak Commuter Pass really save you?

JR East Off-Peak Commuter Pass PR vid

With the new train schedule and barrier-free transit tariff going into effect on March 18, current Suica Commuter pass users like myself who use the JRE POINT Off-Peak Commuter Point Service that ends this month, face a dilemma: does the Off-Peak Commuter Pass offer the same level of JRE POINT reward savings? Let’s face it, in these inflationary and looming tax increase times, pinching every point to yen counts.

It comes down to 3 choices: (1) a more expensive regular commuter pass that is difficult to swallow without the off-peak transit point return, (2) a less expensive Suica Off-Peak commuter pass without off-peak transit points, (3) no commuter pass with repeat transit points.

As my work place pays commuting expenses based on regular non-commuter pass transit fare, going with the less expensive off-peak commuter pass lets me pocket the difference. So my choice basically comes down to off-peak commuter pass or no commuter pass with repeat transit points, depending on which one gives better JRE POINT returns, better purchase price savings, or both.

Here is a comparison of the price increases for my 6 month commuter pass between JR East Asagaya and Tokyu Ikegami. The route is Chuo-Yamanote-transfer at Gotanda-Ikegami. The JR East portion covers 11 stations and 15 kilometers of track. Tokyu covers 12 stations and 11 kilometers of track.

Right away we can see that the JR East fare increase basically adds the barrier-free tariff, a 1.4% increase. The Tokyu fare increase is more than just the tariff, a lot more at 13.8%, likely including electricity price increases, salary increases, and what not. Tokyu also does not offer an off-peak option.

Now that we have the new commuter pass prices for both JR East and Tokyu, let’s run a simulation to find which configuration has the best JRE POINT returns. For the latter I used the very handy JRE POINT simulator, highly recommended for running reward point numbers. Remember, that off-peak and repeat points only apply to JR East fares.

As my work place covers the regular fare price, old and new regular fare difference is set at zero. Off-Peak points are calculated for 6 months based on 2022 returns. Repeat and recharge points are calculated on 20 round trips between Asagaya and Gotanda a month x 6 months for old and new fares. The return is the purchase difference plus JRE POINT with 1 point = 1 yen.

The simulation results are pretty much in line with my expectations. Suica Off-Peak commuter passes do give you the best value, by a little bit, especially when your company is reimbursing you at regular fare rates, which many companies seem to do. You also get the best value when your commute is exclusive to JR East lines as JR East has not raised fare increases, only adding the barrier-free tariff. The return drops when including connecting non-JR East lines but still give the best overall return. One thing is for certain: if you ride JR East lines regularly with Suica and are not registered with JRE POINT, you are throwing money away.

Gird yourself for the March 18 Suica Off-Peak launch because there will be a online crush of people like me, cancelling and refunding regular passes, and purchasing new off-peak passes. And don’t forget that date is also the launch of Mobile Suica passes for high school and junior high school students. Don’t be surprised if Suica App has a meltdown from the stampede. Good luck with simulations and finding the best way to save on transit costs.


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 expanding 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.

Eki-Net Mobile Ticket Quick Guide

Sections

JR East Mobile Ticket Basics
Eki-Net Discounts
JRE POINT Integration

Registration
Ticket Purchase
eTicket and Ticketless Use


Mobile Ticket Basics
The JR East online train ticket reservation system comes in 2 flavors: multi-lingual JR East Train Reservation for inbound visitors, and Japanese Eki-Net for domestic users. Both of these differently branded services share the same basic system, internet domain name and similar account registration process. However the accounts are not compatible as ticket menus, discounts and related services are different. Japanese Eki-Net is a sprawling travel service portal that covers everything from train tickets to package tours and car rentals, far too large to cover here. This guide is limited to setting up and using eTicket and Ticketless services of the Eki-Net Japanese web site and app, and using them with Apple Pay Suica which gives you the best value with JRE POINT integration.

To understand how and when to use Eki-Net, it helps to know the basic categories of JR East mobile ticketing:

  • Regular Train Lines
    • Suica (Transit IC cards) pays the station to station distance based fare using the Stored Fare balance of the card (SF).
    • Eki-Net Ticketless: Limited Express reserve seat mobile tickets (Narita Express, Azusa, Kaiji, Odoriko, etc.) used in combination with Suica to pay fare.
  • Shinkansen Lines
    • Touch and Go: a ticketless non-reserve Shinkansen option that uses Suica • Transit IC card SF for non-reserved seat travel on JR East Shinkansen lines. It works exactly the same as Suica for regular transit, no discounts but there are JRE POINT transit rewards for Suica. Free pre-registration required.
    • Eki-Net eTicket: a Shinkansen mobile ticket that bundles Shinkansen distance fare + Limited Express seat reservation in one eTicket attached to a Suica or Transit IC card. Eki-Net eTickets do not use the Suica SF balance but attaching an eTicket to Apple Pay Suica for example, makes for extremely convenient and seamless local train to Shinkansen connections with just iPhone or Apple Watch.

Eki-Net Tokudane discounts
One of the nice things about Eki-Net is that it offers the same discount rates to all Eki-Net users unlike the 2 tiered EX service which has smartEX with tiny discounts and EX-Press Reserve with large discounts.

Eki-Net discount eTicket and Ticketless are called ‘Tokudane’ and are reserve seat only. Tokudane eTickets are also limited in number for each each train and can disappear quickly. The general rule of thumb is, the bigger the discount, the faster they disappear. Tokudane Tickeless are limited to reserve seat capacity of the train and are easy to get at the last minute.


Eki-Net • JRE POINT Integration
Eki-Net is highly integrated with the JR East JRE POINT system and just like any ‘mileage club’ out there, ticket purchases come with JRE POINT rewards that can be turned around and used for ticket purchases and Green Car seat upgrades. Basic point rewards are earned with any Eki-Net registered credit card purchase. JR East VIEW CARD purchases earn extra JRE POINT rewards.


Eki-Net Registration
Registering and managing an Eki-Net account can only be done via the web site.

The Eki-Net registration YouTube video has a quick visual explanation of the steps:

Steps 3~5 (0:33~0:53) enter email address to receive the registration URL.
Step 6 (1:07) register name, address, phone number, account ID and password.
Step 7 (1:29) register a credit card. Foreign issue credit cards can be registered if 3-D Secure compliant.
Step 8 (1:50) register Mobile Suica or plastic card ID numbers (up to 6).
Step 9 (2:17) sign up or decline Eki-Net promo emails, confirm info and tap register (2:48).


Eki-Net Ticket Purchases
You can either use the Eki-Net website or Eki-Net app to search trains and purchase eTicket and Ticketless train tickets. You can bypass manual login with Eki-Net app that supports Face ID / Touch ID login, download Eki-Net from the Japanese App Store.

It’s helpful to know to know a few basics.

Step 1~2 (0:37) enter station points, date, departure time, number of people and tap search.
Step 3 (0:51) select the train.
Step 4~5 (1:05) select the seat type: eTicket non-reserve, Tokudane discount (reserve), Green Car, JRE POINT Green Car upgrade, etc., then select having a seat assigned or select via the seat map.
Step 6 (1:49) select your credit card, enter security code and purchase you eTicket.
Step 7 (2:27) link eTicket with Apple Pay Suica or other registered IC Transit cards.

Here are screenshots of the steps using Eki-Net iOS app.

Using eTickets
Apple Pay Wallet and Suica App do not have any of your mobile ticket information and you do not need to launch an app to use eTickets or Ticketless. Just get on your train.

Eki-Net eTickets with Apple Pay Suica are extremely convenient

The only notification you will receive is a reminder email from Eki-Net before departure. You can confirm your mobile ticket in Eki-net app or website but you do not use them for transit or validation. Your eTicket is linked to Apple Pay Suica, all you do is tap the Shinkansen transit gate and go through, seen here using Apple Pay Suica on Apple Watch.

Using Ticketless
Once you have your Ticketless seat reservation, simply get on assigned train car and take your assigned seat. Conductors already have your seat information and do not check or validate your seat assignment.

(Updated 2023-03-10)