Transit IC only JR East Shinkansen eTicket reservations start today

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.

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The Mobile PASMO Super Suica Challenge

The recently announced Mobile PASMO has some serious limitations lucidly explained in FeliCa Dude’s ‘Mobile PASMO – something we shouldn’t need‘ reddit post. It shines a light on the unfortunate petty politics of Japanese business culture, a catch-22 that ends up killing the very opportunities Japanese companies work to create. Mimicchii is a good Japanese word for it: so obsessively stuck on pointless small details that one completely misses the big opportunity. The PASMO association knows they will loose out, eventually, but hang on to their one and only advantage, commute passes, in the hope they gain a better losers bargain in the end. But how much opportunity is lost by then?

As FeliCa Dude points out, Mobile PASMO is a pointless waste of money and system resources to replicate what Mobile Suica already does:

PASMO is inferior to Suica in many respects, the idea of deploying Mobile PASMO and removing the user’s ability to choose Mobile Suica is fairly short-sighted. Such a development likely cost many hours and much money, but is effectively a boondoggle and a monument to the stubborn failure of JR and the PASMO Association to sort out a way to issue commuter passes on each other’s cards.

Taken to an extreme each transit card player would build its own mobile service but this is impossible in an era of shrinking ridership and resources.

Come together into one mobile service please…

The next generation 2 cards in 1 Suica due in 2021 aims to fix the current state of affairs. Architecturally I expect the problems will be solved, but corporate politics are another matter. JR East will have to offer enough cost saving incentives and flexible extras for the other major transit card players to host their service assets on Mobile Suica: commute plans, Shinkansen eTickets and more. It’s certainly in everybody’s best interest to do so. Time to put aside the mimicchii politics and duplication. If Japanese transit companies can’t come together to build the future, everybody loses.

The Mobile PASMO announcement

Mobile PASMO was announced for Osaifu Keitai compatible Android devices running Android 6 or later, the service due to start in late March. There was speculation the service would launch at some point when the Mobile PASMO name was registered in late 2017. Here are a few quick observations based on the sparse announcement details.

  • Service is limited to the Mobile PASMO Osaifu Keitai Android app with a limited credit/debit card backend. Think Suica App without Google Pay or Apple Pay integration. You can register a single card for recharge hosted by the Mobile PASMO backend but users cannot mix and match cards like you can with Apple and Google digital wallets and Mobile Suica.
  • This announcement is cutting things awfully close for a March debut of a major service with a squishy start date and no user device profile due until just before launch. Japanese companies usually announce ‘coming this spring’ services 3~4 months in advance. This suggests testing is not very far along and not all PASMO rail operators are integrated for Mobile PASMO commute passes at launch. Long story short: we won’t see Google Pay or Apple Pay integration for a while, local Japanese reports are confirming this already.
  • Suica and PASMO systems are already cross integrated for auto recharge and commute passes at the transit gate and station kiosk level, we also have the next generation Suica format coming one year from now in early 2021. Reducing support costs for commute pass purchase and renewals by moving them online are a key target for both systems, growing integration of Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO is a given.

Summary and Update
Mobile PASMO is a classic Osaifu Keitai app similar to 2011 era Mobile Suica before Apple Pay and Google Pay integration. That level of integration will require more backend cloud support and qualification but this won’t come easy for PASMO by itself: unlike Suica which is run by JR East, PASMO is an association of large and small private rail operators, only a few of whom have deep pockets and IT resources. The real question is how much JR East Mobile Suica and Mobile PASMO will cooperate to deploy Mobile Suica resources and deep expertise to integrate the many different PASMO players and expand services for all. FeliCa Dude sums it up best in his essential Reddit post: Mobile PASMO – something we shouldn’t need.

Suica joins Coke ON IC, is it worth it?

Coke ON is one more point gimmick app that offers a free beverage for points, bottle top ‘stamps’, earned with purchases via FeliCa/Coke ON IC (Transit IC, Rakuten, nanaco, PiTaPa, WAON), credit cards and QR (LinePay, PayPay aka Line PayPayPay) linked via Coke ON. Up until now Suica was excluded from earning stamps but will join the other Coke ON IC cards starting January 14.

The Coke ON app is not particularly user friendly. It wants your data, your location and your Bluetooth to connect to Bluetooth enabled Coke vending machines. And it seems overly aggressive, at least according to a very long Twitter thread. I’m not sure what exactly the issue is for the user but it seems related to location services and suspect card reads.

Japanese users have complained about Apple Pay Suica location based transaction notification details since the default feature appeared with the iOS 12.2 Suica make over. I have no problems using Apple Pay Suica on iPhone 11 Pro to buy drinks without Coke ON. The problem described in the tweet thread could be a Coke ON incompatibility with Mobile Suica despite Suica compatibility listed on the vending machine side. Hopefully this is fixed for the Coke ON Suica debut, however I don’t plan on giving away my iPhone data to collect Coke ON app bottle top stamps.

The QR Code JR Gate Equation

The new Takanawa Gateway station transit gate pictured in the JR East press release

Every year my office sponsors a company trip. This ‘company spirit’ building practice used to be standard in Japan but the custom has eroded considerably since the end of the bubble era. It’s the first ‘unnecessary expense’ item inbound hedge funds always cut when they get a say in Japanese company management: it’s much easier to let staff go when said staff hasn’t spent any time getting to know each other outside of the company setting.

The Group Ticketing Dilemma
Most of the company trips are by Shinkansen but the tickets are group tickets arranged through a travel agency who negotiate with JR East/Central/West depending on the final destination. Group tickets are paper tickets with no mag strip on the back. A group ticket or similar paper only items like special discount passes for the disabled have to handled by a station gate agent booth. The standard transit gate layout for JR East stations is a mix of Suica only ‘IC’ gates, mag strip paper ticket + Suica gates and a single gate agent booth.

Gate agent booths are choke points. Because they can only handle one special task at a time, one person with a problem holds everybody up. Our company group nearly missed a Nagoya station Shinkansen transfer connection on the return leg when a Chinese woman tied up the one and only station agent for 10 minutes with a problem that could have been taken care of at a ticket sales window, not a gate agent.

The next generation Suica architecture (aka Super Suica) in 2021 will solve many problems but it won’t solve everything. Group ticketing, special passes for disabled users, and other one-off tickets don’t fit in the Suica box, or even the regular mag strip paper ticket box. This is one problem I suspect the new Takanawa Gateway station Suica + QR Code transit gates are designed to fix.

Disposable paper tickets with a QR Code solve group ticketing very nicely: the travel agent can print them out instead of going to the JR station, they can be reprinted in case someone loses one. An app version is certainly possible but only an extra option for people with smartphones (think school children on a day trip). QR Codes might work well as a replacement for inbound paper Japan Rail Passes.

It’s not about speed, Suica or smartphones. It’s all about freeing up those increasingly rare and harried transit gate agents from the mundane task of validating one off paper tickets so they can take care of transit users who really need their help. I can’t think of a better use case for putting QR Code readers on JR East Suica transit gates.

Regular Mag Strip Ticket Costs
The only question remaining in my mind is what strategy JR East will chose to retire regular mag strip tickets and reduce costs. Those intricate, and fast, OMRON mag strip ticket machines are an engineering marvel. However, even though QR Codes and central processing are slower, the front end machine is much less expensive and easier to maintain. The magnetic strip paper itself is also expensive and less environmentally friendly than other paper. We will find out what JR East is really planning when the new Shinkansen eTicket system launches next spring, just about the time that Takanawa Gateway station goes into operation.

Omron states the speed of their mag strip gate machine is within 600 Milliseconds, but how long will they be around?

Right now JR East has 2 basic ticketing systems:

  • Suica
    Fast, less expensive fare tier for regular transit, Mobile Suica support for Apple Pay and Google Pay credit/debit card recharge, Shinkansen eTickets and discounts, Green Car upgrades, commuter passes, etc.
  • Paper Tickets
    Slow, more expensive fare tier for regular transit, cash purchase only for local travel, credit card purchase for express train and Shinkansen tickets

I think the next step of migrating mag strip paper ticketing to QR Code is pretty clear. The real question is will JR East continue with the same transit tiers they have now: cheaper Suica IC fares vs. more expensive paper ticket fares. They will probably offer an app with QR Code support as but I see it as a simple extension of QR Code paper tickets, i.e. it won’t get the less expensive Suica fares. And don’t forget the ultimate Suica advantage: touchless walkthrough gates.