Will mobile ticketing go mainstream with new JR East Eki-Net?

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 got the ‘renewal’ overhaul advertised back in March, that aims to reintegrate JR Group tickets into one slick consistent UI instead of a swamp of sub-menus. It 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 train tickets.

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.

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 for regular express train seating used in combination with Suica SF
  • 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

JR East eliminating 70% of ticket offices by 2025 in ticketless push

In the run-up to the June 27 Eki-Net reboot next month JR East released a nice looking PR release with the first 2 pages promoting a ticketless future. On page 3 they dropped a bomb: JR EAST will eliminate ‘up to’ 70% of their ticket offices by 2025, just 140 stations or so on the entire JR East rail network will have the honor of having a ticket office manned by real people:

JR East has been planning this for years and report that in 2019 only 30% of JR East ticketing was purchased at a JR East Ticket Window (Midori-guchi). In 2020 that number declined to 20%. Could it be people were so tired of waiting in long slow ticket office lines they bought tickets elsewhere? Let’s be real though, the COVID pandemic has hit transit so hard all expenses that can be cut will be cut. You will going ticketless whether you like it or not.

So yes, we have Mobile Suica and Eki-Net Ticketless for regular express trains, Touch and Go Shinkansen, Mobile Suica and Shinkansen eTickets. By 2025 I suspect QR tickets will have replaced mag strip tickets. The Cloud Suica system coming in 2023 is said to power QR ticketing as well. All is good, I guess. Except for when you need help at the transit gate for some weird ticket problem, a smartphone that died before you got to the last station because you were too wrapped up playing games on it. What do you do? Press a button for an online station agent:

JR East says real station agents will be available to offer real assistance for disabled customers and such. We shall see. If JRE wants people to use Suica as much as possible they need to get Suica disability discount fares in order and working on mobile. Right now they are only working in the 2 in 1 totra Suica region. They need to work everywhere.

Eki-Net getting reboot with multilingual support

Well, finally. JR East Eki-Net is getting the makeover I complained about when Shinkansen eTicket service and the mobile app launched just a year ago. On June 27 Eki-Net gets a badly needed re-boot with multi-lingual support, JRE POINT support, more Shinkansen eTicket discounts, inbound discount ticket support, a new UI and more. Here’s a quick look.

JRE POINT Integration
There are so many goodies in the update it’s hard to find a starting place. For many people the integration of JRE POINT is big, it replaces the old separate Eki-Net point system and greatly expands the usefulness of JRE POINT with reward points with ticket purchases and point exchanges for eTickets, upgrades, etc.

Cloud attached ticketing
JR East migrated Mobile Suica Shinkansen tickets to the new eTicket service in 2020 that uses the same Transit IC card number attachment scheme of smartEX. JR East also uses it to attach inbound discount ticketing and passes to Welcome Suica. Expect more Eki-Net domestic discount ticketing and pass options for purchase and attachment to any registered Transit IC card. Drawbacks that I see: (1) yet another account and credit card registration process in a long cluttered line of separate JR East account services (Suica App, JRE POINT, Eki-Net, etc.), (2) Outside of Suica App there is no Apple Pay in-app support for ticket purchases, (3) As always, if your Apple Pay Suica ID number changes you have to re-register it.

QR Code for group ticket pickup
This is a handy feature for group or family travel. Mom can buy tickets online, mail the QR code to the kids, kids pickup the tickets at the station kiosk and travel home for college breaks, etc. At least that’s the idea when we all start traveling again, whenever that is. Seriously though I think this will be convenient and greatly appreciated.

Multilingual and JR East Train Reservation support
English, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Korean, French, German, Spanish, Thai, Indonesian are the supported languages. Inbound discount tickets and passes can already be purchased and attached to Welcome Suica and Suica and it appears that more options are on the way. The press release is short on details but it looks like most JR East Train Reservation functions will be migrating to Eki-Net (note the graphic shows making reservations via the desktop, not with an mobile app). And if Eki-Net is going multilingual, Suica App is close behind.

UI Improvements
One of my biggest grips was the funhouse horror of using Eki-Net desktop. So many options, so poorly arranged and hidden. The current mobile browser Eki-Net is already better and it’s going to get better still with improved eTicket reservations, seat maps, ticket price comparisons, etc. The Eki-Net app is getting improvements too but I suspect the app functions will remain limited to Shinkansen eTickets and Express Train ticketless seat reservations.

There is lots more to dig into when time allows. I’ll be very interested to see the online reaction to Eki-Net discounts and reward point schedules posted at the end of the press release. Japanese customers are ruthlessly efficient at mining the good values and dumping on the junk. This is just the first pass and there will be much more as June approaches. Eki-Net will be down from June 26 20:00~ June 27 5:00 for the big refresh. Expect launch day snags and delays like the recent Mobile Suica refresh. The only thing I don’t look forward to: updating JR POINT Guide for the new point exchange functions.

The Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate Transit Card

The Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate transit card ‘totra’ launches today, the first card based on the September 2018 joint JR East/Sony Imaging Products & Solutions/JR East Mechatronics announcement. The joint roles are defined as: (1) JR East for promotion, coordinating and supporting the implementation process with local transit companies, (2) Sony for developing new FeliCa additions necessary for 2 in 1 and supporting ICT (Information Communication Technology) transit card developments, (3) JREM for issue, testing and qualification of 2 in 1 cards.

Based on information released by the totra partners, the end product closely aligns with the 2018 announcement:

  • 2 in 1 Commuter Passes: a JR East Suica commuter pass and a region affiliate commuter pass
  • 2 in 1 Points: JRE POINT and region affiliate transit points
  • Other region affiliate services: a totra card for disabled users with special discount fares/subsidies, welfare points (starting April 2021) for elder and disabled transit users

…all in one Suica card. This is more important that it seems and solves some long standing problems. Let’s look at the situation with the wonderfully useful Transit IC card chart created by Wiki user ButuCC.

Transit IC interoperability chart

The core square contains the 10 mutual use ‘Transit IC’ cards with many IC arrows pointing to region transit cards outside of the square. This means the core Transit IC cards work on those local transit systems but only one way. There are no IC arrows pointing in towards the core region because there are no regional transit cards mutually compatible with all core Transit IC cards…until now: totra Suica is the first region transit card that works nationwide.

2 in 1 Suica combines the ‘outside the square’ region card with the core Suica card. totra is a Suica card, mutually compatible with all Transit IC, but also a local transit card with new services built on Suica infrastructure. One example: the first transit IC card for disabled users that automatically gives them the local region discount fare and subsidy, but only for the totra fare region, not outside it. Disabled fares are highly regional with local prefecture and city governments providing transit services and fare discounts. It’s a trade off but it does provide a transit IC card option for disabled users instead of paper tickets with a ID card for the first time.

Super Suica or something else?
So is this Super Suica or not? The totra Suica logo explains some of what is going on inside the card. There is a ‘+’ mark which indicates ‘Suica plus affiliate’ that combines Suica with an attached financial service like credit card recharge. This is the Suica plus mark you see on all Mobile Suica cards including Mizuho Suica (iOS) and Rakuten Suica (Android).

There is also a ‘••’ mark which indicates FeliCa Pocket services, FeliCa applets on a physical card or Osaifu Keitai card that provide different services in a single card (transit, points, ID, etc.). You can see the ‘••’ Suica logo on Rinkai Suica and Monorail Suica and the both marks on the Suica/credit card combos like VIEW. The Rinkai Suica design also looks like totra which uses a similar blue left instead of right trapezoid.

FeliCa Dude points out in an interesting Twitter thread with treastrain that 2 in 1 is a new kind of Suica plus affiliate card issued outside of JR East with no financial service attached to it. As treastrain notes, it’s weird that Suica plus is being used for a rechargeable ¥500 deposit Suica with no attached credit card, but we are in uncharted territory with new features to come.

Suica 2 in 1 is the first Suica based on the new FeliCa Standard SD2 card. We can’t see exactly how FeliCa SD2 is used to deliver 2 in 1 functionality but FeliCa Dude gives us an excellent rundown of 2 important additions: Extended Overlap Service (points and passes) and Value Limited Purse Service (purse). These are tools for JR East and the other Transit IC operators to integrate services in new ways, implement their own version of 2 in 1, raise the balance limit and more. The new FeliCa SD2 features have big implications. Like all things the Super part of Super Suica depends on what JR East and the other CJRC members (Congress of Japanese Railway Cybernetics) mutually accomplish using these new FeliCa and Suica parts. The more region transit cards that migrate and merge inside the Transit IC square while addressing regional needs, the better.

totra Suica 2 in 1 has 2 issue numbers for JR East and the region transit card operator. JR East owns the SF (stored fare) purse, which means they own the float.
Suica 2 in 1 extensively uses the new FeliCa Standard SD2 Extended Overlap Service

What about mobile?
It’s important to remember that 2 in 1 Suica extends Transit IC coverage, including Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO, into new transit areas. 2 in 1 Suica is limited to plastic issue at this point so those users do not have a mobile option. 2 in 1 Mobile Suica service depends on resolving 4 things:

  • Will Mobile FeliCa be upgraded with the new FeliCa SD2 functions?
  • Will Mobile FeliCa be updated on Osaifu Keitai and Apple devices?
  • Will JR East manage Mobile Suica card issue for outside transit companies
  • Is there an (local 2 in 1 Suica transit card) app for that?

Mobile Suica already hosts Suica ‘+’ cards (Mizuho Suica and Rakuten Suica) and FeliCa Pocket services are designed for physical cards and mobile. 2 in 1 is a new card so the first hurdle is upgrading Mobile FeliCa to support SD2 card features and pushing that update to devices.

FeliCa Dude posted some tweets that suggest Mobile FeliCa 4.x on Android devices can be updated but industry practice on the Android side so far has been doing a pre-install and leaving it at that. If users want newer Mobile FeliCa features, get a new device. Apple can certainly update Mobile FeliCa on their custom embedded secure element, but will they?If nothing else I think the recent addition of Garmin Pay Suica and Fitbit Pay Suica indicates that FeliCa Networks is getting better at pushing new services from Mobile FeliCa Cloud.

The app question is another hurdle and a bit complicated. The whole 2 in 1 concept means 2 different managed services are bundled in a single card. Who manages what? While it makes sense to add 2 in 1 Suica non-JR East local commuter routes for purchase and renewal in Mobile Suica and Suica App, local area transit point account management needs to be handled in a separate app. Does each 2 in 1 Suica locale handle that? That approach makes sense but JR East could certainly help with coordinating support and leveraging common resources and infrastructure to eliminate redundancy.

Summary
2021 is only the start line for 2 in 1 Suica with totra and Iwate Green Card. 2022 will see 6 more 2 in1 Suica cards, probably more, it will be the real coming out year. By then Mobile ICOCA will be on the horizon, I think we’ll know if 2 in 1 is the start of Super Suica…or not. If the other Transit IC partners simply copy what JR East is doing with 2 in 1 region cards, that will be super enough for the people who live, work and go to school in those regions.

Public tests for new JR East Suica/QR combo transit gate (Updated)

The new JR East Suica/QR gate design was unveiled back in December along with the new Takanawa Gateway station details. Test gate installations have been in service at Takanawa Gateway and JR Shinjuku New South exit these past few months but only for Suica and the QR reader covered up. If you have your heart set on trying one out, go to Takanawa Gateway where JR East officials will take the cover off the QR reader from September 15~29 (except for 9/24~27) for public tests.

QR will eventually replace mag strip paper tickets which are increasing expensive to recycle, and the new gates will gradually replace those ingenious paper ticket/Suica combo transit gates made by Omron. I have tried the new gate in Shinjuku and all I can say is…I’m glad I wear my Apple Watch / Apple Pay Suica on the right.

No moving parts is boring…but cheaper than intricate mag strip reading mechanisms

UPDATE: Conflicted Impressions
Junya Suzuki has posted a deeper dive into the QR reader design on the new JR East gates with his usual fascinating analysis. Suzuki san is very big on the evolution of Suica away from local processing to a centrally processed unique ID model that does away with stored fare.

His IT background experience really shines through as he makes a convincing argument that a centralized unique Suica ID approach greatly simplifies the IT system by reducing hot-list/off-list refreshes that have to be coordinated between local and central systems.

We’ll have to see how things pan out with next generation FeliCa and next generation ‘Super Suica’ in 2021. There will be a definite focus on cloud + local, but I have doubts that Suzuki san’s centralized everything vision is always the best approach.

Perhaps I am missing something in his analysis, but I think there’s a happy medium that leverages the strengths of both for a robust innovative transit fare payment system as the centerpiece of the transit business platform.

Here’s a recap of his observations and reader feedback:

Separate QR reader placement
In Suzuki san’s piece JR East tech leads explain that widely separate NFC and QR readers work much better than an all-in-one approach. NFC always reacts faster than QR and this creates problems with the all-in-one reader and smartphones when fast, clean, precise read times are required. The gate QR sensor is made by DENSO. If you have ever used a poky DENSO POS QR+NFC reader at store checkout, you can relate.

Security Invisible Ink
As FeliCa Dude points out, JR East is likely using IR transparent ink to create unique ID codes for security. Apparently this is already used for Okinawa Monorail Okica QR paper tickets.

Poor Walk Flow
One of the great things about the mag strip paper ticket gates is they pull the ticket into the machine and spit it out at the other end of the gate. This is clever guided incentive to keep walking to pick up the ticket. With QR code transit gates people stop and wait for the reader to do something. Another nice thing about mag ticket machines is they eat the used tickets. The QR paper ticket downside not mentioned by JR East or the media: where do people put their used tickets for paper recycle? Who and what collects them, a bin?