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.
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.
One glaring weakness of Japanese Transit IC cards is the fare region wall. There’s a Japanese word for it, ‘matagaru’ which means through passage without dismounting…as in dismount in the middle of a journey and pay full fare in cash at the gate because the transit IC fare region is different from the entry station. 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.
The core cross transit regions are Numazu (Shizuoka)~Odawa (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. Shinkansen commuters gain the most benefit as the new rules are aimed to open up transfer stations to Transit IC cards for Shinkansen commutes. Suica FREX commuter passes cover local Numazu to Mishima transit→Shinkansen to Shinagawa/Tokyo transit→local transit in the Suica/PASMO area. Toica and 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 still big 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).
There’s a new gate installed at Atami station with a blue color. This is a Toica exit gate that accommodates regular Toica (non-commuter pass) transit. Entrance gates have not changed as they already accommodate any Transit IC card including Apple Pay Suica•PASMO. 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.
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.
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.
The new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service debuts March 14, but 30 day advance ticket reservations mean it kinda starts today. The best explanation, Japanese only at this point, is the Eki-net online guide that outlines the new reservation, purchase and seat assignment process for PC and smartphone web pages. I find the smartphone online version more streamlined than the PC one but they are straight forward if you are familiar with Eki-net. The basic Eki-net process is the same until step 7, the section where you assign the eTicket (s) to your registered transit IC card (s). The differences from smartEX are interesting:
You can register up to 6 different transit IC cards to a single Eki-net account: Suica, Mobile Suica, PASMO, Kitaca, ICOCA, TOICA, manaca, PiTaPa, nimoca, SUGOCA, Hayaken
A single Eki-net account can reserve/purchase up to 6 Shinkansen eTickets then assign tickets and seats to registered transit IC cards
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are geared for family travel in a way that smartEX, EX-Press and the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTickets ending March 13 are not. Other systems can only attach a single IC transit card per account. The flexibility opens up some interesting possibilities, since Apple Pay Suica is just another transit IC card, one person can buy and assign eTickets up to 6 difference Apple Pay Suica devices. The downside is that transit card linking is completely manual and up to the user to update information when a new card is issued or the Apple Pay Suica ID number changes (less common than before but still happens). There are bound to be some very short trips that end with a transit gate error. Some other observations:
eTickets require a Transit IC card (paper tickets can be issued in the event of a lost transit card)
eTicket reservations are currently limited to Eki-net online but Eki-net app will gain eTicket support when the service launches March 14
As Suica App is tied to Apple ID and the Mobile Suica cards registered to it, I don’t see Shinkansen eTickets being integrated back into Suica App anytime soon
I don’t see QR Code ticketing support coming until after the transit IC eTicket system is complete and necessary gate infrastructure in place, a few years down the road at best
Eki-net eTickets are limited to JR East operated Tohoku, Yamagata, Akita, Hokkaido, Joetsu, Hokuriku Shinkansen lines. The next obvious question is when will other ticketing be migrated to Transit IC, and what kind of discounts will be offered?
Discounts, incentives and ticket system silos Most Japanese don’t buy express train or Shinkansen tickets at regular prices. The whole point of Eki-net, smartEx, and all the other account based ticketing systems are the discounts and incentives to get people out of the ticket office line and online. Each operator has their own complex set of discount schedules which they guard and control carefully because it is their business engine.
For this reason I am not optimistic we will see an all-in-one train ticket app. Sure, there is some integration of JR East eTicket and JR West e5489 because they share Hokuriku Shinkansen operations, and there might even be an app than integrates many different ticket systems, but I don’t see it offering all the discounts of stand alone apps like Eki-net, EX, Odekake-net, etc. I also don’t see multi-lingual support in the mix, at least not in time for Tokyo Olympics. The fun starts March 14 with many things still coming down the pipe, from next generation Suica to new transit gates. It will be an interesting time.
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.