It all connects: JR East QR Eki-Net Tickets


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

By company:

JR East
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

JR West
Has been extending ICOCA with the final extensions coming to the Shimonoseki region in March 2023 along with the Mobile ICOCA launch.

JR Central
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.

The new cloud based gate validation system going online in March 2023 (on right) will certainly validate both Suica and QR

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.

Eki-Net already issues QR Codes for picking up paper tickets, this is what Eki-Net QR Tickets will replace.

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.

Looking Ahead
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.

Google Pixel Watch Suica…with limits

Now that Google Pixel Watch Suica is here, the obvious questions are: is it global NFC or is it limited to JP models, is Suica the only JP payment service? EMV is there of course, PASMO joined Google Pay recently with clear signs that Wear OS support is also in the works. At the very least we can expect PASMO in a future Pixel Watch update, but so far there is no mention of iD, QUICPay and other Google Pay FeliCa payment services on Wear OS.

On the global NFC side, things turned out exactly as predicted (copied below from May 2022). Pixel 7 Mobile FeliCa support is the same old ‘cheap instead of deep‘ story: all models have the same NFC hardware with Mobile FeliCa loaded, but Google only fully activates it for JP models, in other words they continue to kneecap NFC on non-JP Pixel phones.

Pixel Watch lists FeliCa on the spec page for all models and regions, it is global NFC…but is kneecapped in the initial Wear OS version. The Mobile FeliCa Cloud (aka Mobile FeliCa Lite) powered backend is the same used by Garmin and Fitbit that delivers a geolocation locked subset of Mobile Suica services; you get the stored fare balance (SF) functions and little else. All worldwide models support Suica but it can only be added on registered devices physically located in Japan, that is to say FeliCa support is limited by location not the device model. While not ideal, it does provide some highly useful digital payment functionality for inbound visitors with those devices.

Instead of limiting Suica by geolocation that Garmin and (Google owned) Fitbit do, Google kneecapped Pixel Watch Suica for some unknown reason, limiting Suica to JP models as Pixel Watch help documentation makes clear. It looks like a major fuckup for an expensive smart device from a leading tech company that can and should work the same everywhere.

Fortunately Google promises a Wear OS update that removes the NFC kneecap allowing all Pixel Watch users to add Suica when in Japan, just like Garmin and Fitbit. We shall see if Google keeps their promise. Pixel Watch Suica has other limitations similar to Garmin and Fitbit: no Suica commuter plans, no Suica plastic card transfers, no Suica Green Car Seats, no Suica Day Passes, etc, but you can register Pixel Watch Suica for extra services: JRE POINT, Eki-Net, Touch and Go Shinkansen.

In short, that state of Google Pay on Pixel 7•Pixel Watch is not the Apple Pay-like overhaul for robust native global NFC across the entire Pixel family many were hoping for. If Google delivers on their promise to remove the Pixel Watch NFC kneecap, all those users can at least use Suica. It does raise the question I asked back in May, if all Pixel Watches do Suica, why not Pixel 7? Pixel 7 is perfectly capable but Google is keeping that NFC kneecap in place. And there is the glaring Google Pay gap between Pixel 7 JP models which support all contactless JP payments from Suica to iD to Edy, while Pixel Watch only supports one: Suica.

Meanwhile Apple Watch remains the only full featured global NFC Suica wearable because Apple took the time and effort to do Apple Pay right…what else is new?

I’ll update this post with Pixel FeliCa details as they become available.


Will Pixel Watch finally deliver global NFC Google Pay? (May 2022)
Ever since Apple made global NFC standard on all iPhone and Apple Watch models in 2017, global NFC has become a litmus test of ultimate Apple-like user friendliness. When inbound devices can add Suica, it’s not only cool, but also necessary to get around. Garmin and Fitbit wearables do the global NFC thing, but Android remains stubbornly ‘buy a Japanese smartphone to do the Suica FeliCa thing.’

In the global NFC sweepstakes then, every Google Pixel release cycle is a game of ‘will they or won’t they’ finally deliver global NFC. Actually Pixel is already global NFC with Mobile FeliCa ready to go, but Google disables it on all non-Japanese Pixel models.

Which brings us to Pixel Watch which got a sneak peek at Google I/O 2022. The buzz on Japanese Twitter was basically: I want one, but not if it does’t have Suica support. Fair enough, I bet a lot of people are thinking that and not only in Japan. After all, Hong Kong users would love having a Pixel Watch that supports Octopus.

The good news is that Suica appears to be coming to Google Pay for Wear OS. Various Suica string have appeared in recent Google Pay APKs. This is expected: it would certainly be very awkward if Pixel Watch doesn’t support Suica when Fitbit devices do.

But this begs a bigger question. Wouldn’t it be extremely awkward if Pixel 7 doesn’t support Suica out of the box when Pixel Watch does? I would say so. But then again one hopes The Android Ready SE Alliance is working to fix all that, and do away with the limitations of Android HCE nonsense once and for all.

State of Suica 2022

Now that the 1st wave of Suica 2 in 1 card launches is complete, it’s a good time to review the ‘State of Suica’. And it’s always interesting to examine the cultural differences too, when it comes to labeling trends as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Westerners for example invariably say, what’s the point of having so many Suica card flavors? It’s a waste, better to have just one. It’s a classic double standard professing to want but insisting that life should revolve around single kind of credit card. Japanese don’t seem to care much as the culture is adept at ‘振り分け’: this thing for doing this, that thing for doing that. And the region affiliate users getting Suica for the first time seem pretty excited and all Suica varieties work the same for transit and e-Money purchases.

As of now we have the following plastic Suica card flavors beside the regular Suica available at station kiosks: Rinkai Suica, Monorail Suica, Welcome Suica and Suica Light. On the Mobile Suica side we have: Osaifu Keitai, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Fitbit Pay and Garmin Pay, along with branded Mobile Suica for Rakuten Suica and au Suica on Osaifu Keitai and Mizuho Suica on iOS. Last but not least we have 11 new Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit cards that are the keystone of JR East’s MaaS strategy.

What exactly are the differences? It comes down to commuter passes or points. For Suica 2 in 1 cards specifically, it is both. This is a small but very important difference. All the other non-regular Suica outside 2 in 1, come with specific features and limitations. Rakuten and KDDI au users can recharge those Suica with those outside point systems but they can’t add commute plans. Welcome Suica expires in 28 days, Rinkai and Monorail Suica exist for commuter passes and nothing else, and so on.

Suica 2 in 1 doesn’t have limitations and does more than any other Suica: it can hold 2 different commuter passes (one from JR East, one from the region affiliate) and it supports 2 different point systems: messy JRE POINT which is an optional account setup manually linked to the Suica card number, and local government subsidized region affiliate transit points which are automatic and stored on the card itself. The only thing the user needs to do is use the appropriate card for transit to earn and use transit point discounts.

In a mobile payment era where everybody is distinguishing themselves with increasingly complex reward point schemes, the simplicity and flexibility of Suica 2 in 1 transit points, think of it as locally processed transit point stored fare, can go places that old Suica cannot. Imagine how many more people would use Suica transit in Tokyo if it came with transit point discounts. There are other 2 in 1 features not yet supported by regular Suica: disabled and elderly transit user discounts. These are coming to Tokyo area plastic issue Suica, and PASMO too, this October though I suspect those won’t come to Mobile Suica until it gets an upgrade.

Mobile FeliCa hasn’t been updated to the next generation ‘Super Suica’ FeliCa SD2 architecture yet, but once updated we should see Suica 2 in 1 on mobile and new Suica features, along with more Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate cards. All in all the new Suica 2 in 1 card format tells us where JR East wants to go.

There are some interesting numbers from the JR East FY results. All things transit took a huge hit in FY 2021 from the COVID pandemic, Suica included, but are now recovering though still below pre-covid transaction levels. Another surprise is the popularity of Eki-Net eTickets, a 39% usage rate is not bad for a service that only started in March 2020. One of the smarter things JR East did with Eki-Net eTicket discounts is making them simple and available to all Eki-Net users and credit cards. The JR Central EX system has 2 different Shinkansen eTicket tiers (EX-Press and smartEX) with larger EX discounts limited to select credit cards.

There are lots of things that JR East needs to do longterm, more Suica day passes, Mobile Suica recharge that is available 24/7, phasing out legacy mag strip ticketing and UWB touchless transit gates. In the short term we have Cloud Suica and Mobile ICOCA coming online in March 2023, the end of the current fiscal year. At the very least it should be an interesting time for JR West ICOCA users, and one more nail in the PiTaPa coffin.


How much does Smart Navigo HCE suck?

It’s interesting parsing app reviews that say ‘this app sucks’. How does it suck and why? As I’ve said before, the overwhelming negative App Store reviews for Suica App are not about the app but about poor network connectivity kills a connectivity critical service app. The poor connectivity is due to a variety of factors: carrier auto-connect and free WiFi or overloaded mobile connections messing with Mobile Suica recharge and other online functions. People assume the WiFi and cellular icons at the top of the phone screen indicate a healthy internet connection, which they decidedly do not.

Most users see Suica App as the software that controls everything Mobile Suica AND iPhone NFC hardware. It does not of course but people dump all blame on Suica App anyway. Fortunately most of what Mobile Suica does is done without an internet connection. The only time it needs one is recharge time with a credit card in Apple Pay Wallet app or Suica App.

Yet all that complaining over online Mobile Suica app services however, tells us something important about mobile internet connections in station areas, on trains and subways: they suck. Despite ubiquitous 4G LTE~5G cellular and WiFi coverage, reliable internet is notoriously fickle in those famously busy Japanese train stations. This is the real reason behind all those ‘this app sucks’ Suica App reviews. Interestingly enough, this is the same performance gripe with the mobile myki system in Victoria. Like Mobile Suica this became a problem because mobile internet connections weren’t up to the job of delivering reliable, trouble free ‘anytime, anywhere’ recharge/top-up, which people tend to do in transit.

Which brings us to Smart Navigo, the Île-de-France Mobilités (IDFM) Paris region transit card for mobile that is going wide on Android smartphones this year. IDFM has spent a lot of time and expense working with Calypso Networks Association (CNA), the transaction tech used for Navigo, to implement the less secure network dependent Calypso HCE ‘cloud’ secure element approach as the default mobile transit tech for Android devices in 2022.

It is very unusual that IDFM chose HCE as their go to mobile strategy on Android when the more secure hardware embedded secure element (eSE) is standard on all smartphone NFC devices, and does the job without internet connections. HCE is very different from eSE in that both NFC smartphone and the reader need a connection to talk with a server. HCE was also conceived for leisurely supermarket checkout, not the challenging transit enviroment. How does Calypso HCE compare to the network-less eSE experience? CNA says:

For security reasons, transactions using the personalization key or the load key are not possible through the NFC interface, and must be done with a secure connection to a server.

Only the Calypso debit key is stored in the HCE application for validation on entrance and control during travel, coupled with a mechanism of renewal of the Calypso Serial Number (CSN) to mitigate the risk of fraud : a part of the CSN contains date and time of validity of the debit key which shall be checked by the terminals.

Thales says: poor mobile network coverage can make HCE services inaccessible. In short no internet connection, no mobile transit service. Let’s compare the basic mobile transit card features of Mobile Suica with Calypso HCE:

It’s too bad IDFM didn’t study Mobile Suica shortcomings, they could have learned a few things. Most certainly they understand HCE shortcomings but chose it anyway for unknown reasons. Perhaps there are challenges getting Calypso retroactively installed on the eSE on many different Android devices and HCE was the only way to rollout Smart Navigo quickly. The Android platform reputation for keeping devices up to date with the latest software is lousy due to the slow manufacturer response.

Right out of the gate Smart Navigo HCE won’t support power reserve NFC transactions even on Android devices that support it for regular eSE NFC. In total, there are 6 core Smart Navigo features that are internet connection dependent vs 1 Mobile Suica feature. 6 more things to complain about when they don’t work…in other words the Smart Navigo HCE suck index is 6 times greater than Mobile Suica. If Suica App is anything to go by, there are going to be a lot of bad Google Play reviews for the HCE version of the Île-de-France Mobilités App.

iPhone and Apple Watch users can be thankful that Apple Pay Navigo will use eSE (as Samsung Pay Navigo already does), and avoid this mess when the service launches in 2023, matching the Mobile Suica experience, feature for feature.


2022-10-17 UPDATE

Navigo HCE does not support Express Mode, Android users have to wake-unlock-tap to validate. This is the price of using HCE instead of a secure element.

IDFM launched Smart Navigo HCE that does not support an Express Transit mode. Android users have to wake-unlock-tap to validate…the price of using HCE instead of an embedded secure element (eSE). That IDFM and Calypso went with HCE, despite the downsides and the fact that modern NFC capable smartphones all have eSE as standard, is very interesting and speaks volumes about the state of Android NFC and licensing fee headaches. Assume that Mobile Calypso don’t come pre-installed on smartphone eSEs, unlike EMV, then imagine the nightmare of: (1) dealing with all the Android manufacturers to retroactively update their devices so they are compatible with eSE Navigo (such as currently found on compatible Samsung Pay devices), and (2) getting Google Pay on board. Going the HCE route likely avoided a lengthy messy delay getting Navigo on mobile for the Android masses which is by far the majority in France.

This is exactly the mess that Apple Pay takes care of behind the scenes so users don’t see or deal with any of it. That’s the value of having a gatekeeper, better UI and security encourages users to use NFC payments and Apple Pay use far exceeds any other digital wallet…this is the benefit that Apple Pay delivers to developers. Too bad it’s going away for EU users that the EU is forcing Apple to give up their NFC gatekeeping role, which is very sucky indeed.

USA transit fare system evolution

Reece Martin posted an interesting video, So you built the wrong transit system, that examines the American penchant for building cheap light rail systems that don’t make long term sense. Public transit is a waste of money to Americans with money, so cheap is only way to fund and build public transit infrastructure. The problem is this cheap short term thinking costs more money in the long run. It’s a ‘one size fits all’ mentality.

But as Reece points out, systems can evolve from humble beginnings. Many private Japanese rail lines started out as street trams (that evolved from horse trams) but evolved into the heavy duty regional rail lines we have today. Fare system have evolved too, from paper, to mag strip, to IC smartcard and now mobile devices.

Transit fare systems in America suffer from the same short term cheap thinking, on full display on the MTA OMNY system, the world’s first EMV only open + closed loop fare system. When it’s completed in 2023, barring more delays, MTA will have farmed out every aspect of their fare collection and OMNY transit card issue to banks.

Not to rehash points I already made about OMNY, but Reece’s wrong transit system analogy struck a chord. And unlike rail system evolution, once the transit fare system in locked into the bank payment card infrastructure, from technology (EMV) to payment network processing (VISA, mastercard, AMEX, etc.), it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible to change anything later on.

But why is America so short sighted when it comes to public transit, never investing in a long term self-sustaining viable business model? I ran across an interesting take that explains it neatly. The USA will never have a transit platform business because public transit is a welfare and jobs program, not a self-sustaining business model:

Public transportation in the US is generally very bad and very heavily subsidized. It’s cheap because extremely little service is being run, and the government picks up most of the bill.

Public transportation in the US is less of a way normal people get around, and more of a welfare program and jobs program. Even in places where public transportation is a way normal people get around, e.g., NYC, it is run more like a jobs program than an essential public service.

Reddit user Sassywhat

Open loop fare systems are also vulnerable in new ways nobody predicted: imagine the mess if payment networks go down in a cyberwar, à la the Moscow metro when digital wallets and bank payment card networks were suddenly and omniously turned off. In the case of OMNY where, unlike Moscow metro, everything is EMV payment networked…there is no backup in-house payment settlement system, there is no plan b.

In other words not only is OMNY EMV one size fits all, it’s all or nothing.


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