The PASPY thing

HIroden, NEC and LECIP team up for the new system announcement that replaces IC smartcard PASPY in 2024 (Hiroshima Home TV)

PASPY announced today that PASPY transit IC card service ends March 2025. The official replacement has been announced, billed as the “the fist Account Based Ticketing system in Japan” (yeah right) and launches October 2024. Main PASPY operator Hiroshima Electric Railway Co.,Ltd. (Hiroden) has been thinking out loud since last May that they planned to go all in with a QR Code smartphone app. Twitter users complain, a lot, that QR will be an inconvenient pain in the butt over what they have now.

Here’s the thing, most people assume that killing PASPY card means Hiroden and Hiroshima region PASPY transit partners will rip out all the FeliCa readers and replace them with optical code readers. I don’t think so. FeliCa PASPY cards will disappear but not the transit IC readers. If you listen carefully to Hiroden’s bitching and moaning about having to shoulder PASPY system costs from the PASPY/FeliCa fare processing server side (that the PASPY partners don’t help us enough with…boo-hoo-hoo). Dump that and get out of the plastic card issue business, leave ICOCA / Transit IC readers where they are and let them handle their own fare processing, retrofit a QR scanner or install Denso Wave QR+NFC readers, toss out a QR PASPY app and the PASPY associates can call it a day.

PASPY had all the limitations of region transit cards: no e-money functions for store purchases to juice the recharge business side, slowly declining ridership, and the card could not be used on JR West ICOCA and larger Transit IC network…limitations that the Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate program resolves. Too bad JR West doesn’t have a similar program for the ICOCA region but it says something about JR West and local government relations that Hiroshima City and prefecture officials have kept quiet.

Nevertheless, there are way too many ICOCA and Mobile Suica users out there and Mobile ICOCA goes live 12 months from now. PASPY partners will want to keep those users riding no matter what Hiroden ends up doing. And local government transit subsidies will help keep the Transit IC readers in place. The whole point of transit is encouraging people to use it…right? And if it all works out, for QR based PASPY MaaS with Transit IC support, all the better.

Timeout: a very long transit card transit

It’s been a year since JR Central’s TOICA network was expanded to more stations making Suica-TOICA-ICOCA cross region commuter passes available for the very first time. Regular transit cards are still stuck with tapping out of one fare region and tapping in at fare region border stations in Atami (Suica~TOICA) and Maibara (TOICA~ICOCA). But even for regular transit cards, crossing IC fare regions is much easier thanks to special IC fare region specific exit gates installed with the TOICA expansion.

Transit YouTuber Wataru Watanuki took the fare region border crossing challenge with a 10 hour trip by regular trains from Tokyo to Osaka using his Suica card. A 556.4 kilometer trip. Try that with a transit card in any other country.

He could have used his Apple Pay Suica but used plastic Suica because it’s easier to get detailed Suica receipt printouts at mobile-unfriendly JR West station kiosks. In his video there are two IC fare region border crossings, one at Atami station from Suica to TOICA and one at Maibara station from TOICA to ICOCA. It’s a leisurely fun train travel video similar to videos that investigate transit IC fare loopholes.

Things would have gone smoothly for Wataru san but he was tripped up by a little known stingy TOICA tap-timeout rule, rumored to be within 3 hours from tap in before the card is invalidated for the trip and has to be reset by a station agent. There is no way to travel from Atami to Maibara by regular train in 3 hours, the shortest travel time is 5 hours 44 minutes, 3 hours barely gets one to Hamamatsu. JR Central supposedly does this to prevent ICOCA card abuse (Really? I suspect they just make it inconvenient so people ditch local trains and ride the Tokaido Shinkansen instead). JR East Suica appears to have much more lax timeout rules. JR West ICOCA limits IC transit on their regular lines to 200 km, though there are some interesting ICOCA loopholes.

Long distance travel with Suica and other IC transit cards isn’t a problem, any regular person would just take the Shinkansen using smartEX or Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets. Timeout doesn’t apply because the IC card SF balance ‘taps out’ when going through the Shinkansen entrance gate. But the video does point out a long standing weakness of Japanese transit IC fare systems: it’s a hassle for people living in fare region border areas and prevents them from using transit IC cards for local area cross border transit.

One example is the JR Central Minobu line. It does not have transit IC service yet because the line starts at JR East Suica region Kofu station. Suica users from Tokyo can only go as far as Kofu before switching to paper tickets for the Minobu line transfer.

The best thing would be JR East and JR Central cooperating so that IC fare tables work both ways and integrate for cheaper through IC fares instead of 2 separate trips. Most Minobu line stations are unmanned, the trains already equipped with paper ticket fare boxes at the front door exit. Adding a IC card reader is the next logical step and work exactly like buses and some JR West ICOCA equipped train lines do: tap in at the entrance, tap out at the exit. Small improvements would like this would go a long way to solve cross border IC card hassles and make transit easier for local residents. Transit cards only become useful when they integrate with everything from transit to purchases, that in turn, encourages mobile for transit use.

Riding 272km on 42km ICOCA fare

The ICOCA IC fare region extensions that went into effect March 13 have opened up some interesting transit possibilities. ICOCA has a 200km travel limit but the exit gate fare is calculated by the shortest route possible. YouTuber yasu who specializes in finding convoluted transit IC travel options, posted a video that details his very long transit from Kyoto to Osaka in three sections as a single trip using Apple Pay Suica.

Section 1: Kyoto to Wadayama via Fukuchiyama (Sanin and Fukuchiyama lines)

Section 2: Wadayama to Himeji on the Bantan line

Section 3: Himeji to Osaka on the Sanyo line

This is a 272.6km trip that costs ¥3,410 but ICOCA only charges the shortest possible distance of 42.8km that costs ¥570 when exiting the Osaka station gate. Yasu stayed ‘inside the gate’ the whole journey but there is an in-station gate point at Himeji station between the Bantan and Sanyo lines. This is where the ICOCA system could calculate a correct fare but JR West doesn’t do so.

Yasu points out that this ‘over the limit’ travel is covered in section 16 of the ICOCA terms and conditions and his trip is not breaking the rules. He contacted JR West before the trip and they confirmed this is possible and not breaking the rules, but this kind of loophole can disappear in the wink of an ICOCA system update.

It’s a 40 minute video but has great scenery and JNR era diesel-electrics still in service on the Bantan line with distinctive traction motor sounds, sights and sounds that are disappearing fast, captured like an O. Winton Link recording. The food at Himeji station also looks delicious. If I was still living in the Kansai, I’d gladly spend a day traveling this route on a single ¥570 Apple Pay Suica fare. It would be a fun journey.

JR Group moves Transit IC goalposts for easier cross region commuting (Updated)

Traffic News photo of JR Central Numazu Station plastered with ‘TOICA cards cannot travel beyond Atami in the Suica region’ warning signs

One glaring weakness of Japanese Transit IC cards is the fare region wall. There’s a Japanese word for it, ‘matagaru’ which means straddle passage…as in straddle two regions instead of dismounting in the middle of a journey to pay fare in cash at the region boundary gate because the next transit IC fare region is different.

Suica for example only works for transit in the Suica/PASMO region, users cannot travel across 2 different regions. This means Suica users traveling into the JR Central TOICA area or vice versa have 2 choices: (1) paper tickets for the whole trip, (2) buy a paper exit ticket with Suica at the exit gate fare adjustment kiosk. This is the way it has worked for all cross region transit.

This is very inconvenient for Shinkansen commuters who live in the Numazu~Mishima JR Central region and commute into the Suica/PASMO Tokyo region. Suica and TOICA commuter passes are worthless, old fashioned mag strip commuter passes are the only option. A similar situation exists for cross region commuters in the TOICA~ICOCA regions. Fortunately, the JR Group companies (JR East, JR Central, JR West) are working to ease this problem and have new ‘matagaru’ cross region commuter pass service starting March 13. I posted about this development earlier, but it’s worth explaining again in more detail and covering the limitations.

Cross Region Transit
Basically the JR Group companies are moving transit region commute pass goalposts slightly inside their respective fare regions. The TOICA region is expanding slightly to include boarder stations: Atami, Kozu (JR East/JR Central) and Maibara (JR Central/JR West). ICOCA is expanding to include Kameyama (JR Central/JR West). For Suica users the new rules mean Suica cross region commuter passes work for transit into the TOICA fare region, and vice versa for TOICA commuter cross region passes in the Suica fare region.

In theory this should not be very difficult to do as commuter passes are commute plans attached to a transit card with an ID number but the press release suggests some transit card architecture differences: (1) the 200 km transit limit for ICOCA and TOICA has been extended to 300 km covering 2 transit IC fare regions, (2) older passes must be reissued on a new card in order to be upgraded. The new issue requirement, along with JR East making the soon to be released ‘Super’ Suica 2 in 1 card available for cross region commuter passes does strongly suggest the new FeliCa SD2 card architecture is used for cross region transit.

Suica~TOICA cross region commuter pass stations

The core cross transit regions are Numazu (Shizuoka)~Kozu (Kanagawa) for Suica and TOICA, and Hikone (Shiga)~Ogaki (Gifu) for ICOCA and TOICA. The cross region commuter pass details state that passes cover up to 300 km over 2 regions. This means a Suica commuter can use their pass starting in the Suica region and ride all the way to TOICA region Numazu station. TOICA commuters can use their pass all the way to Kōzu station in the Suica region.

Shinkansen commuters gain the most benefit as the new rules are aimed to open up transfer stations to Transit IC cards for Shinkansen commuters. Suica FREX commuter passes cover local Numazu to Mishima transit→Shinkansen to Shinagawa/Tokyo transit→local transit in the Suica/PASMO area. TOICA~ICOCA commuters have similar benefits. Regular commuter pass users also gain the ability to ride the Tokkaido Shinkansen area covering the entire Tokyo~Shin Iwakuni for ticketless non-reserve seating, similar to JR East ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen.

There are some limitations: (1) plastic cards only: no Mobile Suica/Apple Pay Suica support because ICOCA and Toica are not on mobile yet, (2) regular non-commute pass transit not included: regular transit cards still operate under the current region and 200 km limitation (TOICA and ICOCA fare regions only as the Suica fare region does not have any distance limit), 3) Suica FREX commuter passes are limited to Shinkansen→Tokyo (non-Tokaido line) Suica/PASMO line transfers.

There are new cross region exit gates installed at Atami and Maibara stations. Atami station Suica region travelers exit via the green Suica gate lanes, TOICA region travelers exit via the blue TOICA gates. Both gates accommodate regular Transit IC card (non-commuter pass) transit. Entrance gates have not changed as only the exit gate matters for the fare region calculation (Suica fare or TOICA fare). There is a similar setup at Maibara station for TOICA and ICOCA users. This simple addition of extending the TOICA region and adding TOICA exit gates really shows how much JR Central has left TOICA on the back burner. They could have done this years ago.

An excited TOICA user travels from Numazu to Atami using the new TOICA exit gate.

These changes are baby steps. I hope fare region limitations gradually disappear after the next generation Suica card architecture is in place and shared by all Mutual Use Transit IC Association members with the major players on mobile. These are challenging times for public transit all around the world, Japanese transit companies need to hurry up and seriously cooperate.


JR East Suica station entrance tickets
In a separate service announcement also starting March 13, JR East stations will accept Suica/Transit IC cards, Apple Pay Suica included, for non-transit station entrance ticketing. These cost ¥140 (Kanto district station malls)~¥150 (everywhere else), are good for 2 hours, and cover all Suica gated stations (flap gate stations). Non-JR East stations, JR East stations off the Suica grid and Shinkansen gated areas inside JR East stations are not supported.

The origin of station entrance tickets was for tearful platform farewells seen in old classic movies, but in this era it’s all about enticing people to shop and use facilities in station malls. Ticketless is nice but I wish JR East had also figured out a way to waive the fee with Suica purchases over a certain amount, kinda like free parking vouchers. That would be the ultimate station mall shopping motivation.


UPDATE
New gate entrance/exit layouts are in place at the new Transit IC card region exchange points for Suica, TOICA, ICOCA. A twitter posted the station notice for Maibara, the new exchange point for TOICA~ICOCA commuter passes. There is a ‘TOICA’ gate. A similar gate is in place at Atami station for Suica~TOICA transit. It doesn’t eliminate the Transit IC region boundary limitation but the new arrangement improves the transfer point experience for Shinkansen users, especially smart EX/EX-Press Reserve users.

ICOCA Widens Transit Footprint

One glaring weakness of the Japan Transit IC system is that it’s not universal even on the very rail networks that built the system. Suica for example is mostly absent in stations outside of Tokyo, Niigata and Sendai metro regions, roughly half of JR East stations. It comes down to cost: hard wiring every station is expensive. This cost problem is one that JR East plans to address by rolling out a cloud based low cost ‘simple Suica’ for all stations. They already missed a 2020 deadline and need to deliver on their promise if Suica is remain a viable payments competitor in the hyper competitive Japanese market.

JR West meanwhile is busy expanding ICOCA coverage on the their rail network with Fukuchiyama and Kisei line additions going online March 13, 2021. JR West also added ICOCA connecting commuter passes for Osaka Metro in December, the kind of arrangement that Suica and PASMO have had in place for years. It makes sense for JR West to expand now in preparation for the Mobile ICOCA launch in 2023.

The Kisei line is somewhat unique in that smaller stations are unmanned and local trains are one man operations with passengers getting off at the front for ticket verification. ICOCA readers are located at car exit points, passengers tap out similar to using a bus. This kind of operation would fit well on similar ‘one man’ operations like the JR Central Minobu line which are still limited to paper tickets.