The BBC asks the question, yet again: “London’s Oyster card: Are its days numbered?” It’s no secret that Transport for London has been trying to get rid of Oyster ever since 2011 when TfL, eyes firmly locked on the London Olympics, decided to put their resources into the emerging EMV contactless standard:
The current Oyster system, though very popular, is expensive and complex to administer. Contactless bank cards use existing technology, responsibility for issuing cards would lie with the banks rather than TfL, and the operating costs should be lower.
In 2017 there was a push to nudge people away from their Oyster cards and towards contactless. One announcement rang out all over London’s tube stations: Why not use your contactless bank card today? Never top up again, and it’s the same fare as Oyster.
Contactless cards use, plastic and digital, surpassed Oyster card use in mid 2018, but this doesn’t mean TfL is killing Oyster. Not everybody has a smartphone or bank payment card, or wants to use them for transit and public transit, by it’s very definition, has to offer everybody the means to buy a ticket with cash at a station kiosk.
Another problem is that the EMV digital transit closed loop model isn’t a cure all solution, just one more piece of a complicated service puzzle. And so TfL’s Mike Tuckett states the obvious: “I can’t imagine a situation where everyone either will have a bank account and card suitable to pay and wants to…it’s about letting people naturally migrate towards it.” A new Oyster system is said to be coming on line later with year with weekly caps that match EMV contactless card caps.
The second, less obvious reason for keeping Oyster cards around is ‘the float‘, there’s more than half billion pounds sitting on unused Oyster cards (I’ll bet you there is more than that) which TfL earns interest on, then use to “improve the transport network“. In this sense it’s a shame that TfL didn’t go with the MIFARE stored fare model for digital wallets instead of going all in with EMV. They could be earning more interest on their float to build a transit platform business instead of giving it away to banks, but that opportunity passed in 2011.
If TfL really launches a digital EMV closed loop Oyster card similar to the digital Opal one being tested in Sydney, no guarantee that will happen, the debate might subside a little. At any rate the ‘kill Oyster it’s dead already’ debate will continue, along with stories reaching the same conclusion of the BBC piece. It’s less debate than it is entertainment, the real debate being: will public transit use ever recover to pre-COVID levels.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
My JR-EAST, like a lot of JR East software services, is a nice idea, poorly implemented. It’s an attempt to unify scattered account login IDs for various JR East web services that evolved independently but need to work together as one in the mobile app era: Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-Net, View-Net.
The mess was brought home to me recently when I helped a co-worker register his Apple Pay Suica card for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTicket service because the eTicket discounts are attractive. He created a Eki-Net account, which you can only do via the webpage, not the app.
Him: Where do I get the Suica ID? You need Suica App for that. One download later it took him 2 tries to register the Suica ID because Suica App copies the entire ID string but Eki-Net cuts off the last 2 numbers as the first 2 sting letters have to be manually selected from a pull down menu. Dumb.
Him: I want to use Green Seat upgrades. You have to login to Suica App to do that. Can I use the Eki-Net ID to login? No, you have to sign up with Mobile Suica. Can I buy Tokkaido Shinkansen eTickets too? No, you have to sign up with the JR Central EX service.
And so it went and that’s the mess of JR East software services: each one has a separate registration process and login. On the MY JR-EAST webpage users can register a single ID and PW then login and link other services. One MY JR-EAST ID/PW for Mobile Suica, Eki-Net, JRE POINT, View-Net, except it doesn’t work. Oh wait, it does work for webpage login but not apps. Suica App supports MY JR-East login but JRE POINT and Eki-Net apps do not. View-Net doesn’t even have a mobile app. If JR East wants customers to use their services, why do they make it so hard? This doesn’t jive with the company’s stated intent of reducing in-station service staff and encourage customers to use online resources instead.
It should work like this: the JR Group companies accept online reservation accounts from each other, b better yet they mutually host each other’s online reservation system. I shouldn’t need a separate ID account and registered credit card just because I want to buy a Tokaido Shinkansen eTicket. Let me do that in Eki-Net. The same goes for EX (JR Central) and e5489 (JR West) which are already compatible with each other. Ditto JR Hokkaido and JR Kyushu. Use the sign in with Apple ID model to make all these services work seamlessly with each other and give your customers a break. They might actually start liking JR software services, a first.
All JR Group online services were created back in the era of ISDN internet and iMode handsets. If the JR Group companies want travelers to return after the COVID vaccination program winds down, they have to get their mobile act together and build for the future.