The QR Code JR Gate Equation

The new Takanawa Gateway station transit gate pictured in the JR East press release

Every year my office sponsors a company trip. This ‘company spirit’ building practice used to be standard in Japan but the custom has eroded considerably since the end of the bubble era. It’s the first ‘unnecessary expense’ item inbound hedge funds always cut when they get a say in Japanese company management: it’s much easier to let staff go when said staff hasn’t spent any time getting to know each other outside of the company setting.

The Group Ticketing Experience
Most of the company trips are by Shinkansen but the tickets are group tickets arranged through a travel agency who negotiate with JR East/Central/West depending on the final destination. Group tickets are paper tickets with no mag strip on the back. A group ticket or similar paper only items like special discount passes for the disabled have to handled by a station gate agent booth. The standard transit gate layout for JR East stations is a mix of Suica only ‘IC’ gates, mag strip paper ticket + Suica gates and a single gate agent booth.

Gate agent booths are choke points. Because they can only handle one special task at a time, one person with a problem holds everybody up. Our company group nearly missed a Nagoya station Shinkansen transfer connection on the return leg when a Chinese woman tied up the one and only station agent for 10 minutes with a problem that could have been taken care of at a ticket sales window, not a gate agent.

The next generation Suica architecture (aka Super Suica) in 2021 will solve many problems but it won’t solve everything. Group ticketing, special passes for disabled users, and other one-off tickets don’t fit in the Suica box, or even the regular mag strip paper ticket box. This is one problem I suspect the new Takanawa Gateway station Suica + QR Code transit gates are designed to fix. Disposable paper tickets with a QR Code solve group ticketing very nicely: the travel agent can print them out instead of going to the JR station, they can be reprinted in case someone loses one. An app version is certainly possible but only an extra option for people with smartphones (think school children on a day trip).

It’s not about speed, Suica or smartphones. It’s all about freeing up those increasingly rare and harried transit gate agents from the mundane task of validating one off paper tickets so they can take care of transit users who really need their help. I can’t think of a better use case for putting QR Code readers on JR East Suica transit gates.

The Regular Mag Strip Ticket Question
The only question remaining in my mind is what strategy JR East will chose to retire regular mag strip tickets. Those intricate, and fast, OMRON mag strip ticket machines are an engineering marvel. However, even though QR Codes and central processing are slower, the front end machine is much less expensive and easier to maintain. We will find out what JR East is really planning when the new Shinkansen eTicket system launches next spring, just about the time that Takanawa Gateway station goes into operation.

Omron states the speed of their mag strip gate machine is within 600 Milliseconds, but how long will they be around?

Right now JR East has 2 basic ticketing systems:

  • Suica
    Fast, less expensive fare tier for regular transit, Mobile Suica support for Apple Pay and Google Pay credit/debit card recharge, Shinkansen eTickets and discounts, Green Car upgrades, commuter passes, etc.
  • Paper Tickets
    Slow, more expensive fare tier for regular transit, cash purchase only for local travel, credit card purchase for express train and Shinkansen tickets

I think the next step of migrating mag strip paper ticketing to QR Code is pretty clear. I’m sure JR East will continue to offer the same basic choice: faster cheaper Suica with a wide range of attached services and discounts vs. slower more expensive paper tickets with few services and discounts. They will probably offer an app with QR Code support as but I see it as a simple extension of QR Code paper tickets, i.e. it won’t get the less expensive Suica fares or services. And don’t forget the ultimate Suica advantage: touchless walkthrough gates.

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Another week, another new JR East gate design

JR East sure has a lot of irons in the fire. We have Super Suica, the new eTicket system, the Touchless walkthrough gate, and now we have yet another new gate design mentioned in yesterday’s press event release for the new JR Takanawa Gateway station due to open in spring 2020.

This 2nd design is supposed to be wheelchair friendly with the Suica reader on the right hand side rather than on top. It’s not as wheelchair friendly as the touchless walkthrough gate and downright hostile for left hand Apple Watch users which Japanese users have tweeted and complained about.

And it has a QR Code reader on the front. Don’t hold your breath because it is only for “testing and evaluation” purposes in a new station with initial low passenger traffic. There are still one-off paper ticket variations without mag stripes that don’t work on the current Suica architecture or on ticket gates and have to be collected by a station agent.

Those low volume specialty tickets would fit well with QR Code as JR East migrates away from paper ticketing all together. Osaka Metro have said they plan to test other technologies such as face recognition. I have no idea if those systems will work any better than Face ID for face mask wearing hay fever and flu suffering transit users. It doesn’t sound fun.

The vague JR East press release wording, and the wheelchair specific design suggests these gates will not be universal at Takanawa Gateway station. They will probably be installed in the manned booth areas to free up station agents to deal with more important business.

The Suica Part

The arrival of Apple Pay Express Transit on Transport for London this month is getting a lot more press than the debut of Apple Pay Express Transit and Suica in October 2016. Local coverage at the time was focused on the arrival of Apple Pay in Japan, Express Transit was barely mentioned. TfL is also getting more press than the debut of Express Transit on the New York MTA OMNY system earlier this year. Apple even created a special page highlighting its arrival.

I suspect there are a few reasons for the brouhaha. The Oyster IC transit card has been around since 2003, open loop EMV contactless cards service started in 2012, Apple Pay support arrived in 2015. MTA on the other hand only started OMNY with very limited open loop transit service in late May. The majority of MTA users still do the MetroCard manual swipe thing. In short TfL users are very familiar with Oyster transit IC cards, contactless bank cards and Apple Pay. They are well aware of the Express Transit difference. The same is true for Apple Pay users in areas like Sydney with a similar transit card system.

MacRumors did a good job of reporting the initial Express Transit on TfL test ramp up before the official debut. Joe Rossignol’s explanation of Express Transit mode support in “parts of Japan” is rather odd though. Which parts does he think don’t work?

The Suica part covers JR East, but since Suica is part of the Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association this means that Apple Pay Suica works with the PASMO, ICOCA, manaca, nimoca, Pitapa, Toica, Sugoca, Kitaca and Hayaken parts. The Okinawa part will be joining in April 2020. Maybe Rossignol means the parts outside of the blue square mutual transit use area? Most of these are already transit compatible with Apple Pay Suica (the ones with IC arrows pointing at them). This leaves the ones without IC arrows, which will be joining with Super Suica in 2021.

With the exclusion of the soon to join Okinawa OKICA, Apple Pay Suica already covers all the major transit parts in Japan. I have no idea which Apple Pay Suica incompatible parts Rossignol is referring to. The Minobu line? The Oigawa Railway? It is a mystery.

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map, outside white area cards are due to join Super Suica in 2021

One down, two to go on Apple Pay Express Transit 2019 'coming later this year' list

Apple Pay Express Transit arrived on the Transport for London system over the weekend, some 6 months after it was announced. The other 2 remaining Apple Pay Transit cards announced for later this year are Chicago Ventra and Hong Kong Octopus. I already wrote about Octopus not launching this year. The Ventra odds seem a little better. On the bright side Ventra is run by Cubic, the same folks who operate the TfL and New York OMNY systems and already have EMV Apple Pay Express Transit support up and running. Also the Ventra Chicago Twitter account did mention Apple Pay Ventra as ‘coming later this year’ in a Nov 30 tweet.

On the not so bright side, Apple Pay Ventra is the native MIFARE transit card, the first native transit card that Cubic has ported to a digital wallet and a big complicated transit system at that. Nevertheless, Ventra is telling users that Apple Pay is coming this year. Let’s hope for a successful 2019 launch in the next few weeks.

Last call for Apple Pay Octopus 2019 launch

Apple Pay Octopus was announced in July as ‘coming soon’ with no official indication from Octopus Cards Limited when coming soon would happen. Today is the last day of November, on December 1 an updated Octopus Schedule and Fees Guideline went into effect. From December 1 all Octopus issue switched over to a new 3,000 HKD stored value limit and users can upgrade older cards to the new limit:

Starting from 1 December 2019, the stored value limit of all newly issued Octopus products – including On-Loan Octopus, Sold Octopus, Bank Co-Brand Octopus, Smart Octopus and Octopus Mobile SIM etc., will be HK$3,000.

From a technical standpoint it makes sense to host a new service when the system is ready to automatically upgrade older physical Octopus cards to the new stored value limit when transferred to smartphones. However, I seriously doubt the new stored value limit is a factor in the Apple Pay Octopus launch delay. The protests in Hong Kong that started just before the OCL July announcement are a much bigger factor. I suspect the protests were also a factor in OCL suspending Smart Octopus in Samsung Pay services without any explanation.

The Apple Pay Octopus launch has been on a long damn winding road since beta testing started a year ago. The clock is ticking, if a launch doesn’t come in the next 2 weeks or so, Apple Pay Octopus is a no show for 2019. My take is it will happen in 2020.