After posting about the surprise rise of Mobile Suica payment use it occurred to me that I failed to take the corporate transit angle into consideration. COVID has been hard on transit companies in many ways, especially now that there is much less need for commuter passes. But it has also been kind to Mobile Suica in unexpected ways, the appeal of Express Mode for transit and purchases that doesn’t care about face masks is undeniable, and Transit IC mutual compatibility lets Suica work as a national transit card. Japanese corporations are leveraging this last point as Mobile Suica takes care of nationwide corporate transit needs, and takes care of the travel expense accounting.
While there isn’t a need for dedicated commuter passes for people working remotely, companies still need to reimburse employees for travel they still need to do. Calculating and reimbursing plastic transit cards is a pain as it is for paper tickets. Mobile Suica as corporate transit card has several advantages here, it works nationwide for regular transit, for Shinkansen eTicketing (EX, Eki-Net eTickets, Touch and Go), for travel incidentals (taxi, meals, etc.), and it is much easier to pull itemized travel details online from Mobile Suica accounts.
The biggest advantage of Mobile Suica is SmartGo Staple and SAP Concur online integration with live JR East Suica transaction records for much easier corporate travel expense accounting. SmartGo is particularly compelling as it matches Mobile Suica account expense reporting with a corporate VISA prepaid card option, removing the need for monthly employee reimbursement. This matchup of SAP, SmartGO and Mobile Suica has made Suica the default transit tool for COVID era corporate Japan.
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.
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 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:
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.
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 EX App v6 was released March 6 with Transit IC card support and QR options. EX-Press Reserve members have the option of setting a EX-IC or Transit IC card for Shinkansen boarding and can add up to 5 Transit IC cards to the account for group ticket use. Both EX-Press Reserve and SmartEX JP members have a QR Pick-up code option for paper ticket pickup at ticket vending machines. Inbound SmartEx account holders have the extra QR Code boarding option at QR marked Shinkansen gates, though JR Central recommends printing it out as one-time passcode entry is required to display it on the smartphone screen. For inbound transit users Apple Pay Suica • PASMO is the easiest single card option for Tokkaido Shinkansen + regular transit.
JR East is launching their new eTicket service starting March 14 via the eki-net app for iOS and Android, a refresh for the venerable online eki-net service will be coming as well. The new service is more of a start line than a new start. The eki-net app and website are what we have not changed much these past few months, the change will a gradual ramp up to replace both the old-style online eki-net Shinkansen ticket service and the current Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service, and migrate to ticketless transit on JR East lines with the major JP transit cards. As anticipated the basic concept is similar to the JR Central SmartEX service and app that registers any major transit IC card for Shinkansen eTicketing. JR East is taking it a few steps further with regular express train eTickets but it’s not clear yet how or if this works outside of Suica.
The proof will be in the pudding when new eki-net Shinkansen reservations start on February 14. We should also expect a new Suica App updated for the new eTicket system that includes both Shinkansen and hopefully, regular express trains. Let’s hope it’s the nice valentine present JR East wants it to be.
new eki-net membership is free
All major transit IC cards (ICOCA, Toica, PASMO, etc.) can be registered and used for eki-net Shinkansen eTicketing
All JR East Shinkansen ticketing and regular express trains ticketing are covered but it’s not clear yet how regular express eTickets work with Mobile Suica
Narita Express eTickets are finally easy to reserve and use with Mobile Suica
Multi-person eTickets purchases
Major credit cards/debit cards accepted (confirming, if non-JP issue cards are a problem this will go in the Bad/Ugly slot)
The iOS eki-net app supports Face ID/Touch ID login
It appears that JR East will not be following the JR Central approach of different services with different discount
The new eTicket service is still called eki-net
Account creation and updating can only be done online, not in the eki-net app
Since the new service has not started yet eki-net app is the same old eki-net online service in a smartphone app with a better UI. The app is not multilingual which does not bode well for a multilingual Suica App in time for the Tokyo Olympics, but we’ll see how things pan out when the new backend system goes online
2022? If it’s going to take that long why bother announcing it now? I am sure that part of the reason for the long lead time is the next generation Suica card architecture (Super Suica) and FeliCa OS update coming in spring of 2021. All nine of the Suica sister transit IC cards under the Transit IC interoperability umbrella will need to switch over to the new transit card format to maintain compatibility: Suica, Toica, ICOCA, SUGOCA, Kitaca, PASMO, namaca, Hayaken, nimoca.
Right now Mobile Suica is the only transit card on mobile, and mobile offers service extras like downloadable Shinkansen eTickets. The next generation Super Suica format will likely extend mobile capability and mobile service extras to all nine cards. At the very least JR Central will have to retool the EX system for the new card architecture while maintaining compatibility with the current card architecture. It makes sense to upgrade the current EX system areas first and add Kyushu Shinkansen ticketing last.