The Art of Train Announcements

This morning the conductor made an announcement as the Yamanote train pulled into Meguro station: “This train is not a waste basket, kindly fold newspapers and take reading material with you when you leave,” and went on to kindly remind passengers to hold backpacks in the front, put them on the rack or on the floor.

Train announcements used to be an human art that has largely been replaced with recorded machine announcements. It takes great skill to convey important information on the fly in an easy to understand way. There’s pitch, speed, volume and clarity delivered in a focused train of thought, channeled with personality and humor. Surprisingly there are a few JR East conductors on the Yamanote line who go out of their way to practice this lost art, and a rare select few who manage to combine those qualities in magical voice announcements for train manners and other gentle reminders. It’s a treat to hear a lovely low clear live voice announcement calmly cutting through the clutter of noise, calling out the next station and reminding us to be civil to our fellow passengers.

Apple Pay Clipper (updated)

Apple announced Clipper Card for Apple Pay today on a special page, Apple Pay Express Transit is finally coming to Apple’s San Francisco Bay Area home turf. Clipper is due to launch on Google Pay the same time. There are few details other than it works on all Bay Area transit and since open loop isn’t a thing there, it will be the same MIFARE card on Apple Pay that we saw with SmarTrip, TAP and HOP.

Unfortunately the Apple Pay Clipper image does not show an ‘Add Money’ button, it’s on a reader after all. Apple carefully crafts images to show card features. To me Apple not including an image showing the ‘Add Money’ button could mean that users reload/recharge the Clipper stored fare card balance with an app, like Apple Pay Ventra and Apple Pay HOP, instead of directly in Wallet like Apple Pay SmarTrip.

This could be a problem for Apple Watch users as they would have to use an iPhone Clipper Card app to reload and basically chains Apple Watch to iPhone. A Clipper app doesn’t exist yet but has to be in place on iOS and Android for a mobile Clipper service.

Some transit agencies stupidly keep the recharge backend locked in their app instead of leveraging the convenience of Apple Pay Wallet reload which makes the digital transit card less flexible and useful than it could be.

Let’s hope for the best launch day outcome. Meanwhile Apple Pay Suica remains the first and best implementation of a native mobile transit card on the Apple Pay platform, the best role model for a transit company to follow.

UPDATE 2-23
Good news. Apple Pay Clipper testers report on Reddit that direct Wallet reload/recharge is supported. Apple Watch transit users can rejoice. Both plastic Clipper card transfer and direct Clipper card creation in Wallet are supported and just like Suica transfer, the plastic card cannot be used afterwards. Could be a iOS Clipper app won’t be necessary for basic housekeeping after all.

UPDATE 2-18
There were a number of interesting and thoughtful Twitter threads in connection with the Apple Pay Clipper announcement.

> lordy if only we had suica in north america

>> Imo, successes like Suica is a testament to solving back-end issues (fare integration, product partnerships beyond transit, UX) and using the front-end tech to unleash full potential…Apple/Google Pay for local transit cards in the US is just not that level of breakthrough

> Yeah, exactly; the frontend technology can only be as useful as the backend system allows.

Thread

It’s heartening to discover comments that ‘get it’, that is a great mobile transit platform leverages a great front-end to unleash the potential of back-end while adding new services and product partnerships beyond transit. If only North America had Suica indeed, folks would really enjoy Apple Pay Express Transit for purchases too.

I know you’re on the closed loop side of this but imo it depends on relative power of transit vs. credit cards. In Japan CCs are not as popular so Suica was ready to take over contactless (and back integrating into CC top-up. In London both are popular so they got both…but most in US don’t use transit enough to justify a top-up card, so I’d prefer NY’s open loop over SF asking frequent travelers to switch from Clipper to Apple Pay Clipper, despite all the limitations in riding experience.

Reply

Popularity doesn’t matter, solutions matter. For years London TfL used EMV open loop in an attempt to get rid of Oyster cards but open-loop cannot replace closed-loop cards, only complement them. So now we have open-loop 2.0: EMV closed-loop cards that hide the slow and dumb limitations of a EMV front-end with a beefed up back-end. This is the Cubic + Mastercard transit solution coming to Cubic managed transit fare systems near you. Enjoy.

JR Central EX-Press Reserve eTicket upgrade ditches Shinkansen IC cards for Transit IC cards (updated)

EX-Press Reserve service upgrade, no more double card tap

EX-Press Reserve (also called EX-Press Ride) is the sister service of smartEX that uses the same EX app and system with deeper discounts aimed at Japanese business travelers. It also comes with a special EX Transit IC card just for Shinkansen gates with a unique ‘double card’ tap (EX IC card + regular Transit IC card). Mobile Suica and Apple Pay Suica users with a View card also have the unique and slightly different Express View service by registering for EX-Press Reserve in Suica App for JR Central Shinkansen eTicket travel EX Transit IC.

Fortunately JR Central is streamlining the complex service to bring it in line with the simple smartEX approach: instead of the special IC card for Shinkansen gates, members register a plain old Transit IC card (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, Toica, etc.) and use that. Shinkansen IC cards can still be used of course but most people will probably just use Transit IC cards, including Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO.

For Apple Pay Suica users this means Suica App Ex-Press Reserve service ends March 6, which also means a Suica App update that removes the menu item should be landing soon. From that date Apple Pay PASMO users can register their card number for EX-Press Reserve use. Keep in mind that EX-Press Reserve membership costs ¥1,100 a year and is limited to JR Central/JR West issue Express Card, JR East View Card, and certain Japanese issue credit cards.

Other EX-Press Reserve system improvements on March 6 include group ticket purchases for Transit IC card use instead of paper, and the ability to change reservations via the EX App or web site in case of Shinkansen delays.

UPDATE
Sister service smartEX (inbound version only) also has some improvements the biggest one being Ticketless boarding service using QR code, in addition smartEX (both Japanese and inbound versions) gains the same group ticket purchase and reservation change service, similar to EX-Press Reserve.

Suica off peak commute campaign misses the mark

The COVID crisis has changed many things, none more than public transit. As companies transition away from daily work commutes to teleworking at home with occasional trips to the office, transit companies are forced to come up with incentives that entice people to use public transit. To that end JR East announced the off peak JRE POINT reward campaign back in November and released details this week for their Suica off peak commuting and repeat transit JRE POINT campaign.

The off peak campaign runs from March 15, 2021 ~ March 31, 2022, the repeat transit campaign starts March 1 and is open ended. It looks complex at first but is simply a matter of registering and keeping an eye on your commute start time.

Off Peak Commute Point Campaign
This campaign is for Suica commute pass/commute plan users. Limitations: (1) limited to a greater Tokyo area commute zone, (2) limited to ‘early’ and ‘late’ commute times that are different for each station, (3) limited to Suica commute plans (Mobile Suica or Apple Pay Suica) and Suica commuter passes (plastic) registered for JRE POINT (4) users must also take the extra step of signing up for the off peak campaign via the JRE POINT web site.

The off peak commute region shown above covers JR East lines in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama. The tricky part is that you must start your commute and enter the gate during the designated off peak time that is different for each station, split in 2 separate ‘early’ (15 point) and ‘late’ (20 point) hour blocks. An example for the Chuo line: Hachioji station off peak hours are ‘early’ 5:35~6:35 and ‘late’ 8:05~9:05. For Chuo line Asagaya the hours are ‘early’ 6:20~7:20 and ‘late’ 8:50~9:50. Off Peak times will be posted at each station, JR East also released a PDF that lists all off peak station times.

Repeat Transit Point Campaign
This campaign is geared for working folks who use Suica to go to the office but don’t commute enough to invest in a pass. Ride the same route 10 times a month and earn a free ride. If you ride the same route more than 10 times in the same month, each transit earns 10% of the transit fare in JRE POINT.

The repeat transit region is much larger than the off peak campaign one and covers all Suica fare JR East lines, all stations with Suica gates in greater Kanto, Niigata and Sendai. There is nothing transit users need to do other than have their Suica registered for JRE POINT. If you have already done that it’s all automatic. Think of it as a Suica replacement of paper ticket booklets, the reliable ‘buy ten and get one free’ transit institution that has been around forever but is quickly disappearing.

Not nearly enough
Frankly I think these JR East campaigns are not nearly enough, though they are better than nothing. There are many innovative things JR East should be doing: leverage Suica smarts for a accumulated mileage calculated reward point campaign tailored for each user, offer a yearly commuter pass at a half year price that corporate customers would eagerly snap up, repurpose empty JR East hotels at Shinkansen friendly regional stations for telework satellite offices that help build regional business.

Instead of innovation however, we get stale stingy ‘Tonosama’ business style marketing campaigns from a big old stodgy company used to having its way with customers. The big COVID era transit crisis demands big bold ideas. Japanese transit companies must truly innovate to make transit essential and safe again. Anything less is a waste of time and infrastructure, use it or lose it.


Resources
The first step is registering your Suica in JRE POINT. For repeat transit points there is nothing more to do, JRE POINT are added automatically if you make the same trip 10 times in the same month. For off peak points you must have a JRE POINT registered commuter pass/commute plan Suica that is also entered for the off peak campaign, and start the commute during designated station off peak times.

Suica coming to Fitbit Charge 4 devices in March

JR East announced Suica on FitBit Charge 4 service starting in early March, likely just before the March 13 Suica transit tweaks go into effect. It’s exactly the same Mobile FeliCa Cloud powered package used for Garmin Pay Suica and wena Suica services that launched in 2020, with the same limitations: no plastic card transfers, no commuter pass support, credit card recharge limited to Google Pay.

These limitations are not deal breakers. With many company people teleworking during the COVID crisis there is less need for commuter passes. For users who want the complete Mobile Suica service on a wearable, Apple Watch is still the only game in town. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition for many Android users in Japan.

The Fitbit JP page has yet to be updated with Suica information. Hopefully we’ll soon know if Fitbit Charge 4 is a global NFC device…or not. It’s too early to tell if this development has anything to do with Google finally closing the Fitbit acquisition or if this is the first step towards supporting major FeliCa payment services like iD, QUICPay, Waon, etc. Robust seamless global NFC support across Pixel and Fitbit devices from anywhere would be the first real challenge to Apple Pay Suica on iPhone and Apple Watch.