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.


Real world Eki-Net impressions

I finally had the chance to use Eki-Net app, aka Eki-Net 2, eTickets (JR East Shinkansen) and Ticketless (JR East Express Trains) reservations on several trips recently, a real world workout. After a shaky launch in March 2020, followed by a major system upgrade in June of this year, the foundation is in place and JR East is going all out to promote Eki-Net for the year-end travel season that will see a considerable uptick compared to last year’s ‘stay home’ and stew regimen. I posted an Eki-Net 2 overview in June that covers the basics, this post is a short followup of impressions.

Using Eki-Net eTickets at the transit gate is clean and easy as the JR East promo videos. The messy part is creating an Eki-Net Japanese online account that is completely separate from your Mobile Suica account and your JRE POINT account. They all link together but are all separate with separate login names and passwords. This is the weak point of using JR East online services, there is no single master login system ID service like Apple ID or Google Account.

Once the Eki-Net online account is setup, with a VIEW credit card duly registered for maximum JRE POINT, using the bare-bone iOS Eki-Net app is a snap. Japanese user reviews of the Eki-Net app are overwhelming negative, but I found the app covers the basics well enough for what it is designed for: finding a discount reservation for your travel date, choosing a seat, purchasing the eTicket and assigning it to a designated Apple Pay Suica (or PASMO) card, or cards if your are purchasing for more than one. Group eTicket purchase and Transit IC card assignment are very convenient features.

My only real quibbles of using Eki-Net boil down to two feature requests.

  • Apple Pay Support: back in the Suica App Shinkansen eTicket days, you could purchase tickets using Apple Pay or the Suica App registered credit card. Both were convenient. Eki-Net does not support in-app Apple Pay. You make purchases with the app and have to confirm the purchase with the registered card CVV number for security purposes…a pain in the butt, pull out the physical card every time because I never can remember the code. Apple Pay in-app purchase would be great to have and it should be easy enough to arrange the backend so that Apple Pay VIEW purchases earn JRE POINT automatically.
  • Notifications: in the current version of Eki-Net (v2.1.5) train time notifications are basically email only, once when you make the reservation, another email before train departure and a final email notification when the assigned Apple Pay Suica card or equivilant goes through the Shinkansen gate. There is a link to add the ticket train boarding day/time as a calendar event that does in a pinch, but I would also like to have regular and robust native iOS notification support. For me there is nothing so handy as Apple Watch haptic notifications.

Eki-Net works well enough as is, but having Apple Pay in-app support and iOS notifications would significantly improve the app experience. There is a lot of room for other improvements: it would be great to have smooth integration with other eTicketing services for private rail and other JR Group companies (EX, etc.). Suica is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year, Eki-Net is at anniversary #21. The current state of Eki-Net App and eTicketing makes it clear the mobile ticketing journey is just beginning.

JR East Eki-Net overview: will mobile ticketing go mainstream with new Eki-Net 2.0 reboot?

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, older than Suica, got the ‘renewal’ overhaul advertised back in March. The main aims are to reintegrate JR Group tickets into one slick consistent UI instead of a swamp of sub-menus, and integrate JRE POINT that replaces the old cumbersome Eki-Net point system. The overhaul 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 all train tickets, both paper and mobile.

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.

The Eki-Net web site covers every ticketing feature, the mobile app is limited to mobile tickets.

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 purchase for regular express train seating used in combination with Suica or Transit IC cards for basic fare.
  • 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.

My JR-EAST mess

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.