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 into operation 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.

Road to Super Suica: 2 in 1 shared infrastructure and mobile transit card expansion update

The JR West Osaka Expo 2025 transit vision looks exactly like the Super Suica one

The October 21 announcement from JR East-Hachinohe City-Northern Iwate Transportation is the 3rd Super Suica local transit card and follows earlier Super Suica local transit card announcements for Utsunomiya Light Rail and Iwate Transit Co. Ltd. These fit neatly into the narrow definition of Super Suica as a local area ‘2 in 1’ transit card within the JR East region that hosts different transit company commute plans and reward points on a single card. New FeliCa chips announced in September have new features like ‘Extended Overlap Service’ to support the ‘2 in 1’ model.

The real test of Super Suica is the wider definition and how it plays with both private transit companies inside and outside of the JR East (JRE) region, JR Group companies and what infrastructure resources JRE is sharing to eliminate needless duplication and save costs for all players. In the COVID era of constrained public travel, reducing costs while maintaining good service is more important than ever.

On the mobile front I think we can safely say that Mobile PASMO is an unannounced joint effort between JR East and PASMO Association. Mobile PASMO service and software is Mobile Suica dressed up in PASMO colors, the penguin character swapped out for a robot. The JR West announcement of Mobile ICOCA one week after the Apple Pay PASMO launch is no coincidence. The Super Suica mobile template is in place and road tested, PASMO and ICOCOA are the first 2 customers.

Who’s next? Junya Suzuki pointed out that Suica and PASMO together account for 80% of Japanese transit card issue, ICOCA added in makes that 90%. The next largest market and logical choice is manaca, the Nagoya area equivalent of PASMO. Forget about the Kansai area PiTaPa, the credit card as transit card concept was a bust and will likely never go mobile unless it’s repositioned as just a credit card. JR Central’s TOICA has deep pockets, and it’s said that TOICA runs on Suica servers, but JR Central has a sibling rivalry thing with JRE that might get in the way.

I’m taking a wild guess but I think manaca will be the next mobile service announcement with the Kyushu area transit cards (SUGOCA and nimoca) following soon after. The next development to keep an eye on is the ‘2 in 1’ Super Suica local transit card model and if other major JR Group members offer a rebranded version of it in their respective transit regions.

From a western perspective people wonder ‘why not just have one national transit card and be done with all this nonsense’. A national transit card has been discussed by various Japanese governments from time to time, and gone nowhere. The shared infrastructure Super Suica model that aims to lift all boats certainly plays more to the traditional Japanese business mindset. In these challenging times that can be a good thing.

Mobile ICOCA announced for early 2023 launch

Mobile ICOCA Announcement

That didn’t take long. When Mobile PASMO was announced in January this year with Apple Pay PASMO launching October 6, it was clear that a basic shared ‘Super Suica’ mobile infrastructure was coming together for a larger transit card rollout for ICOCA and other cards.

JR West announced Mobile ICOCA today for a March~April 2023 launch. Details follow the service outline of Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO and I think we can expect the same kind of rollout: Android Osaifu Keitai first, closely followed by Apple Pay ICOCA and Google Pay. Kansai commuters will rejoice when they finally have the choice to add their ICOCA to a digital wallet. ICOCA is the Kansai region ‘Suica’.

It will be interesting to see if other transit cards like manaca will make an announcement soon. Suica and PASMO account for 80% of Transit IC card issue who have gone mobile, adding ICOCA would nudge that number to 90%. The next biggest card yet to go mobile is the Nagoya area manaca.