Will mobile ticketing go mainstream with new JR East Eki-Net?

Waku-waku for the new Eki-Net? JR East wants to make travel ‘waku-waku’ fun and romantic again like the Showa ‘Full Moon’ campaign era when JR Group ticketing was unified.

One unfortunate legacy of the Japanese National Railways (JNR) breakup and privatization in the late 1980’s was a fragmented ticketing system. The JNR paper ticket system worked very well. I was always impressed how you could go to any JNR Green Window ticket office and the all knowing agent would give expect advice and deftly punch up tickets to anywhere, in any configuration, even covering private rail.

The JR Group model fell apart in the internet era with online ticketing services, Suica and compatible Transit IC cards limited to separate JR Group regions. JR Group ticketing for paper, but not for mobile. What got broken doesn’t get put back together easily though it desperately needs to.

Last weekend the 20 year old JR East Eki-Net online ticket reservation system got the ‘renewal’ overhaul advertised back in March, that aims to reintegrate JR Group tickets into one slick consistent UI instead of a swamp of sub-menus. It also repositions Eki-Net from a limited ‘nice but I’ll stick with paper’ online purchase option to a standard way that JR East wants people to buy train tickets.

While eTickets have been in place since March 2020, Eki-Net 2 is the first serious step towards eliminating legacy mag-strip paper tickets and drastically reduce the number station ticket offices in favor of online mobile ticketing. The first stop for all JR East ticketing is now Eki-Net instead of lining up at a station ticket window.

There are 2 Eki-Net flavors: (1) the full comprehensive Eki-Net Web version optimized for desktop and smartphones offering mobile tickets, paper tickets, car rentals and tour packages like the classic 2nd honeymoon ‘Full Moon’ campaign for retiree couples, (2) Eki-Net App that only offers JR East eTicket and Ticketless mobile options.

What exactly is mobile ticketing?
To understand the aim of Eki-Net it’s important to know the basic ticketing categories:

  • Suica (Transit IC cards) pays the distance based fare using the Stored Fare (SF),
  • eTickets are cloud account Shinkansen ticket bundles that include the end to end distance fare plus the express • seat reservation charge, they are attached to the Suica or Transit IC card via the card number but do not use SF
  • Ticketless is a mixed mode that combines a cloud account express • seat reservation for regular express train seating used in combination with Suica SF
  • Touch and Go is a ticketless Shinkansen option that uses Suica and Transit IC cards for non-reserved seat Shinkansen travel in a pre-determined area, basically the whole JR East network

What’s new in Eki-Net 2?
Suica plays a central role in Eki-Net mobile ticketing. 2021 is also the 20th anniversary of Suica which has evolved beyond its commuter pass origins to encompass eMoney payments, mobile devices, Transit IC mutual compatibility and more.

In recent years Suica has gained another role as an all purpose mobile transit card hosting Shinkansen eTicket from JR East and SmartEX from JR Central. The challenge facing JR East is migrating the vast array of special ticketing and discount fares schemes from paper to mobile. Let’s take a look at the new banner features advertised for Eki-Net 2 and examine how JR East is doing this.

JRE POINT Integration
The integration of JRE POINT is the biggest new feature and illustrates JR East’s intention. The old Eki-Net point system was scrapped, good thing, there is finally point synergy and compatibility between Suica and Eki-Net. If you have any doubts that JR East is serious about mobile ticketing, take a look at the JRE POINT reward schedule:

Earning JRE POINT in Eki-Net, the VIEW PLUS Gold vs Regular 5% difference is obscene

Online paper ticket purchases give you basically zero points if you buy them with anything other than a JR East VIEW credit card, called ‘VIEW PLUS’ service which adds 3% or 8% more JRE POINT per ticket purchase amount depending on the VIEW card for a total of 5% (Regular VIEW) or 10% (Gold VIEW). JRE POINT can also be used for purchasing mobile only eTicket and Ticketless, and upgrading to Green Car and Gran Class seats. The upgrade exchange rate depends on distance and the train type, the new UI shows users all possible JRE POINT seat upgrades during seat selection.

Using JRE POINT in Eki-Net

Improved UI for web and app
Basically the new design dumps the old way of selecting the JR line or train and streamlines everything into a single station point and date entry screen. Seat selection is the advertised UI improvement and it shows: it is much improved on the web side, discount ticket comparisons are easy to see as are JRE POINT seat upgrades.

QR Codes support for group ticket pickup
A nice paper ticket option so that one person can purchase all tickets and send a QR Code for group members to pick up their tickets at the nearest station kiosk. It’s more convenient and replaces the old insert credit card and enter PIN code method for paper ticket pickup.

Eki-Net ticket discounts
Paper tickets have traditionally been the cheaper option. JR East must offer good discount incentives to drive mobile ticketing uptake. Fortunately the new Eki-Net ‘Tokuda-ne’ discounts offer anywhere from 5% off for same day tickets to 50% off for 20 day advance tickets. Discounts combined with JRE POINT are good but we’ll only find out if they drive mobile ticket uptake when regular train travel returns. While these options have closed the discount gap between mobile and paper somewhat, the majority of discount ticketing is still paper only.

JR-EAST Train Reservation
The international flavor of Eki-Net is called JR-EAST Train Reservation. It’s a completely separate web only multi-lingual service that offers regional passes for inbound tourists that can be purchased online before coming to Japan, or at a passport reading station kiosk. JR-EAST Train Reservation passes are different from the paper only Japan Rail Pass in that a growing number of them can be attached to Suica. New features here include: (1) Expanded multi-language support (2) pass purchases after coming to Japan (3) using Suica to attach eTickets. For the later there is a new user guide and How to register your IC card section. You can use Apple Pay Suica • PASMO by registering the card number, get the number using Suica App or PASMO App.

Weak points and summary
The Eki-Net renewal is big, complex and getting mixed reviews from Japanese users. Some love it, others hate it calling it, ‘an improvement for the worse’. The biggest gripe for many is that only up to 4 Express Train • Shinkansen sections are supported for one trip purchase. If you are traveling from Kagoshima to Aomori, forget Eki-Net and go straight to your local station ticket office for paper tickets.

The iOS Eki-Net App remains a nice idea that needs work. It feels like a thin re-skinned version of the mobile web one without offering any obvious benefit, the Face ID•Touch ID login option still useless as you have to manually login once every 24 hours and complete a picture puzzle. And there is no Apple Pay in-app support.

My biggest gripe is the failure of the JR Group to get their mobile ticketing act together. Sure, we have JR Central EX and JR East eTickets, but these are locked in their respective service regions. This is 2021, JR Group ticketing should be cross compatible, streamlined and mobile ready. It doesn’t matter how great JR East makes Eki-Net, users can travel with just Suica on the Tokaido and Tohoku Shinkansen, but they have to buy 2 tickets using 2 different accounts and billing with 2 different ticketing systems. We should be able to travel anywhere on JR Group lines using one account to buy mobile tickets. In todays scenario this isn’t possible. The unfortunate legacy of the JNR breakup lives on.

‘New Eki-Net’ poster at the local JR East station. The overall impression of Eki-Net 2 is that less about going mobile and more about getting customers out of the ticket office to a station kiosk machine instead.

Reference posts
JRE POINT Beginners Guide
Suica App • PASMO App Guide
Apple Pay Suica Shinkansen

Suit Train Eki-Net

YouTuber Suit Train explains the ticketless Eki-Net way of transit ahead of the June 27 system renewal and great big 70% reduction of station ticket agents and service windows by 2025. There are some interesting bits: credit card only jR East ticket kiosks (1:20 mark), and Eki-Net Shinkansen eTicket purchase and gate entry (3:40~5:15). The whole point of his video is that paper tickets are going away. Nevertheless when a platform escalator stoppage prevents him from making a reserved train…paper tickets come to the rescue.

The entire video is 45 minutes long but everything after the 17:46 mark later is him explaining the details on a white board in his patented spontaneous ‘one take, no overdub’ video style. And even then he still gets 100,000 views in less than 12 hours. Not even out of college he already has a career…and a gold VIEW card.

UWB Touchless Express Transit and Apple Pay for iOS 15?

A recent sudden surge of hits from Hong Kong accessing my December 2019 UWB Touchless Mobile FeliCa post seemed odd. I dug around and it appears that Hong Kong MTR, like JR East, is making noises about incorporating UWB technology in next generation transit gates.

iOS 14.5 added a new PassKit call for Bluetooth and the U1 chip integration since iPhone 11 and Apple Watch 6, coupled with global FeliCa support certainly puts Apple ahead of the game. I have no idea what WWDC21 will deliver but more UWB integration is a given.

Apple only mentioned UWB Touchless at WWDC20 in connection with digital car key without showing anything because the Car Connectivity Consortium Digital Key 3.0 spec was a work in progress. Now that the spec is in-place with BMW said to deliver car models incorporating UWB Touchless this year, will Apple show it in action? I think it’s highly likely, but since Car Key is a ‘Wallet Card’, and Wallet app Express Cards come is 3 types: Transit, Student ID, and Car Key, the more interesting question is…will Apple also show Touchless Transit and Student ID Express Cards? And what about Apple Pay?

People think Touchless is a completely new thing for ‘keep smartphone in pocket’ transactions, and they worry about security. You can’t blame them because marketers are selling the in-pocket payment experience. However, Touchless is simply long distance NFC without NFC. All UWB Touchless does is describe the frequency to use Bluetooth instead of NFC. The background stuff, secure element and so on, is exactly the same. This means user interaction is the same. For walking through transit gates and security doors, or unlocking your car, the convenience of Touchless is easy to understand: no more NFC tapping, just keep moving.

What about Express Card payments? The current Apple Pay Suica payment checkout experience: the user taps Suica on a touchscreen, or tells the clerk “Suica” then holds the device to the reader. The user has to give consent before the transaction is activated by checkout staff or the self checkout reader. For Apple Pay EMV transactions users have the extra step of confirming a transaction by Face ID/Touch ID to complete it.

Realistically however, in what situations does Touchless make store checkout more convenient and faster? Drive thru certainly, supermarkets…maybe, but most stores will probably not want to invest in Touchless without a good reason when the NFC readers they already have installed get the job done. There is one more interesting role that Apple has planned for UWB however, one that promises to improve the entire Apple Pay and Wallet experience: communicating with the reader before transaction to select the right Wallet card for the job, at a distance, for a truly smart Wallet app. With national ID cards, passports and more coming to Wallet at some point, UWB could be the Wallet reboot we really need.

And then there is EMVCo. The problems with UWB Touchless for EMVCo are that: (1) Touchless only works with devices with batteries, á la AirTag, and doesn’t work with the current plastic card model, (2) UWB + Bluetooth level the digital playing field with FeliCa and MIFARE, no more ‘real’ vs ‘who cares’ NFC hardware flavors to split hairs over. The plastic card NFC limitation is probably a bitter pill for everybody but especially for EMVCo members and issuers as plastic card issue is big business, and many customers are more comfortable with plastic cards. For those reasons I think EMVCo will be the last to support UWB Touchless, if they do at all. On the plus side Touchless does give digital wallet platforms an edge to create smart aware wallets, digital does NFC and Touchless, plastic only does NFC. We’ll find out about Apple’s UWB Touchless roadmap at WWDC21.

Japan’s new economic zone: Rakuten

The April 30 addition of iPhone 12 lineup to Rakuten Mobile marked the transformation of Rakuten Mobile into a first tier carrier on the same level of Docomo, KDDI au and SoftBank. Now that SoftBank is taking Rakuten to court over allegedly stolen SoftBank corporate secrets, I think we know who is feeling the pressure. It is the end of an era. SoftBank was the first carrier to launch iPhone in Japan back in 2007 when NTT Docomo refused and KDDI au could not (the Verizon iPhone problem). They cleverly used iPhone to leverage their position from an industry also-ran into a serious first tier carrier grabbing marketshare for the other majors.

Rakuten Mobile is now playing the hungry upstart with fresh ideas and aggressive plans: pay for what you actually use instead of paying for a monthly allotment just like the good old land line days…how original. Nevertheless SoftBank feels threatened not only by Rakuten Mobile but the total weight of the Rakuten Empire: Rakuten Pay which encompasses Rakuten Edy and Rakuten Suica, and most of all, Rakuten Point.

SoftBank has similar parts, PayPay and TPoint/TMoney, but they are not well integrated across the SoftBank empire and more importantly, they don’t have the synergy of Rakuten. That’s why people in their 20~40’s are sometimes referred to as living in the Rakuten economic zone, leveraging Rakuten Point as currency ‘plus’ to make their real money go much farther for all of their needs.

But there’s one more thing. Now that Rakuten Mobile has the full iPhone lineup, it’s only a matter of time before Rakuten Edy and Rakuten Suica join Apple Pay. That is SoftBank’s true nightmare.

BIC CAMERA VIEW Suica reward point math

If you use JR East regularly a BIC CAMERA VIEW card is the best investment you can make. So I was pleasantly surprised when the Crecolle (credit-kore) site posted a very useful piece about using Bic Camera VIEW card and Apple Pay. I love it when Japanese credit card sites analyze every reward point possibility in detail. The deep dives are always surprisingly useful.

BIC CAMERA VIEW is a dual function card that grafts a VIEW credit card with a Suica. The Suica part works just like any plastic Suica. The only difference is that users can setup the VIEW card part to auto-charge the Suica part at a VIEW kiosk, they can also setup the VIEW to auto-charge a completely separate plastic Suica, very handy. BIC CAMERA VIEW is also a BIC CAMERA store point card. When you add it to Apple Pay only the credit card function is added as QUICPay. The card comes in VISA and JCB credit flavors, mine is JCB so I can recharge my Wallet Suica with Apple Pay.

To test BIC CAMERA POINT reward rates, the Crecolle staff ran 4 purchase patterns with the same battery item:

  1. Apple Pay BIC CAMERA VIEW QUICPay
  2. Apple Pay BIC CAMERA VIEW QUICPay + showing the plastic card for BIC CAMERA reward points
  3. BIC CAMERA VIEW (plastic credit)
  4. BIC CAMERA VIEW (plastic Suica)

The return rates printed on the receipts showed the following:

  1. 1% BIC CAMERA POINTS
  2. 8% BIC CAMERA POINTS
  3. 10.5% BIC CAMERA POINTS
  4. 11.5% BIC CAMERA POINTS

So the lesson here is that if you want maximum points when buying at BIC CAMERA, use the plastic VIEW Suica. Why the big differences? The 8% vs 10% difference is the Apple Pay margin. The #1 and #2 difference between Apple Pay VIEW QUICPay by itself and showing the plastic card is simply that the BIC CAMERA point card is not hosted on Apple Pay as a NFC VAS rewards card. If it was you could do what you do at LAWSON: say ‘Apple Pay’ so that the purchase amount is rewarded via NFC VAS to a dPOINT card or PONTA card in Wallet. The #3 and #4 difference is the benefit of using Suica SF and the JR East Suica float in action bypassing the credit card companies. This last difference is the same force driving endless QR Code payment app campaigns, QR players bypass credit card network margins and pass the benefits to customers.

There is one pattern the Crecolle staff did not test: Apple Pay BIC CAMERA QUICPay and showing the BIC CAMERA App barcode point card, this gives the same 8% but without showing any plastic.