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.

SmartGo Staple: a smart Mobile Suica solution for COVID era business travel

As more companies transition work style away from daily commuting to a central office to telework with direct business trips from home, there is less need for commuter passes but that means more corporate virtual paperwork and paper trails for filing and processing transit expenses. How nice it would be if Mobile Suica had a plug-in for SF expense reporting. It does actually: SmartGo Staple a co-venture between JR East and NTT Communications.

The service is straightforward: for a ¥1,000 (w/VISA card option) or ¥600 (w/o) per Mobile ID monthly service fee, SmartGo Staple provides live Mobile Suica ID SF transaction data of registered accounts to corporate management and accounting, who then calculate and reimburse employee on the go, or teleworking at home for corporate related Mobile Suica use, reducing the paperwork at all levels. The flexibility of Mobile Suica and Suica App which discretely attaches a credit card to a Suica card, allows users to set up a Suica card just for corporate use with a corporate credit card attached. This is the idea behind the SmartGo Staple prepaid VISA card option which management can ‘recharge’ remotely.

It’s a service for the COVID era but the interesting thing is that with more people doing without commuter passes, Apple Pay Suica and Mobile Suica easily covers nationwide transit and payment use. Commuter passes are the only reason for all those Japanese Transit IC cards. One Mobile Suica does it all. There are still weak spots, i.e. non SF Suica ID # attached services like smartEX and Shinkansen eTickets. Using a transit card ID number to attach separate services is flexible but corralling all the separate transaction histories into one expense report is still a chore.

Young employees tell the department manager to get with the times

The Super Suica Reference

The new features that make up 2 in 1 Suica are called many things. JR East calls it ‘Next Generation Suica’ and ‘2 in 1 Region Affiliate Card’. Yanik Mangan came up with a great ‘All-in-one Suica’ moniker in his limitless possibilities podcast. I call it, and will continue to call it, Super Suica because I see wider Suica platform initiatives built off the new FeliCa OS features used for 2 in 1 • next generation Suica. It’s a looser, fuzzier platform evolution definition compared to Yanik’s tighter all-in-one card solution focused one.

That doesn’t mean that Super Suica or all-in-one Suica will ever happen they way we envision it, but at least we have some convenient handles to discuss and categorize ongoing developments until something official comes along.

This is a list of announcements, launches and posts related to Super Suica as a platform. Announcements are italic with links to JR Group PR releases, launches are bold, color classifications are as follows:

🟩= Suica cards and Transit IC region extensions
🟧= Mobile FeliCa, Mobile Suica + derivations (Mobile PASMO, Mobile ICOCA)
🟥= FeliCa Standard SD2• New FeliCa OS
🟦= Cloud Suica and cloud account services

DateCategory • Announcement** • Launch*Estimated Start
September 2018🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 • FeliCa Standard SD2**2021
June 2019🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 for Tochigi**
🟧Rakuten Pay Suica**
2021~2
2021
September 2019🟩🟥Cross Region Commuter Passes for ICOCA-TOICA-Suica**2021
October 2019🟧Mobile PASMO** (rebranded Mobile Suica)2021
December 2019🟥🟧UWB Touchless Mobile FeliCa**2022~3?
January 2020🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Iwate Green Pass (Iwate)**
🟧Mobile PASMO**
2021
March 2020🟧Mobile PASMO for Osaifu Keitai*
🟦Eki-Net Shinkansen eTicket service*
May 2020🟧Garmin Pay Suica*
🟧Rakuten Pay Suica*
September 2020🟥FeliCa Standard SD2 cards with new FeliCa OS features*
November 2020🟧wena 3 (smartwatch+band) Suica *
October 2020🟧Apple Pay PASMO*
🟧Mobile ICOCA**
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Iwate**
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Hachinohe**

2023
2022
2022
November 2020🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Aomori**
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Akita**
2022
January 2021🟩Cross Region Commuter ICOCA-TOICA-Suica launch details** with TOICA and ICOCA region extensions (TOICA extensions explicitly for cross region pass support) March 2021
March 2021🟩🟥Cross Region Commuter Passes for ICOCA-TOICA-Suica*
🟩Cross region exit gates installed at Maibara and Atami stations*
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 totra and Iwate Green Pass*
🟧Fitbit Pay Suica launch
*
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Yamagata announcement**
🟩🟥Suica 2 in 1 Gunma announcement (Noblé)**




2022
2022
April 2021🟦🟩Cloud Suica with Suica region extension announcement**
🟦 Eki-Net reboot: more cloud based attached services and JRE POINT integration
2023
2021

🟩🟥Next Generation Suica cards
A new card for integrating Transit IC and region cards in new ways focusing on Suica 2 in 1 Region Affiliate transit cards and FeliCa Standard SD2 • FeliCa OS as the core development. JR Cross Region Commuter Passes included as I suspect they also use SD2 Extended Overlap and represent a step towards cross region through transit for Transit IC.

🟧Mobile
The evolution of Mobile FeliCa to include UWB touchless and multiple secure element domains, Mobile Suica service expansion and re-branded assets for Mobile PASMO and Mobile ICOCA.

🟦Cloud
Cloud Suica: cloud based fare transaction processing and MaaS Suica payment services without a reader, cloud account attached services.

Mobile Suica Lite

With the proliferation of wearables JR East has been busy adding new devices to Mobile Suica. A timeline:

  • 2006: Mobile Suica for Osaifu Keitai
  • 2016: Apple Pay Suica for iPhone and Apple Watch
  • 2018: Google Pay Suica for Android Osaifu Keitai
  • 2020: Garmin Pay Suica, wena 3 Suica
  • 2021: Fitbit Pay Suica

The first hardware standard for Mobile Suica was Osaifu Keitai first on Symbian feature phones in 2006 followed by Android in 2013. This is the basic FeliCa chip in phone approach.

Apple Pay Suica in 2016 brought a new hardware model: a Apple custom embedded secure element (eSE) with licensed Mobile FeliCa for iPhone and Apple Watch. Pixel 3 and later models employ a somewhat similar arrangement using NXP multi-protocol NFC controllers with preinstalled Mobile FeliCa but Osaifu Keitai software is only activated on Japanese Pixel models.

A shortcoming of the Osaifu Keitai standard is that it only works on Osaifu Keitai ready Android smartphones. In 2016 Google released the HCE-F specification for Android 7.0. Japanese tech media at the time assumed HCE-F would become widespread for delivering FeliCa services to low-end Android devices without Osaifu Keitai support but that didn’t happen. As FeliCa Dude points out, “HCE-F is not useful for emulating existing FeliCa cards because the API has been needlessly crippled.” The HCE strategy is questionable and comes with security risks. In the pre-Apple Pay, pre-Google Pay era it seemed like a viable path, but things haven’t panned out in the embedded secure element era of today.

So how does JR East host Gamin Pay Suica, wena 3 Suica and Fitbit Charge 4 Suica wearables without Osaifu Keitai? The answer is what I call Mobile Suica Lite, a prepackaged service that supports some basic Mobile Suica features but has limitations:

  • New digital issue of regular non-registered Suica cards only, no transfer of plastic Suica cards.
  • No transfer of Suica to new devices
  • Deleting Suica from the device comes with a SF balance refund option (¥200 service fee + transfer to a Japanese bank account) but once the card is deleted it is gone forever.
  • No supplemental Suica services
  • Google Pay recharge backend

For wearables in the COVID era with teleworking and less reliance on commuter passes, Mobile Suica Lite is surprisingly useful despite the limitations. If you migrate to a new wearable simply run the SF balance down to zero, delete the old card, then issue a new digital card on the new device.

How exactly is JR East doing this? We know for certain that it is not Osaifu Keitai or HCE-F. My theory is we are witnessing Mobile FeliCa Cloud in action. According to FeliCa Networks Mobile FeliCa Cloud is:

…a service platform that connects NFC FeliCa Devices with Mobile FeliCa services. With Mobile FeliCa Cloud, the seamless provision of Mobile FeliCa services becomes possible regardless of OS or platform for smartphones and wearable devices…

What is a ‘NFC FeliCa’ device exactly? All NFC certified devices must support NFC-A, NFC-B and NFC-F. Any Global Platform certified secure element on a device also supports Mobile FeliCa. I suspect that any manufacturer with NFC and Global Platform certifications can pick Mobile FeliCa Cloud services à la cart from FeliCa Networks: i.e. I’ll have a Mobile Suica lite with a side order of Rakuten Edy but hold the iD.

Mobile FeliCa Cloud doesn’t come with all the Osaifu Keitai bells and whistles, but it also streamlines and eliminates Osaifu Keitai support headaches with prepackaged services. A Mobile FeliCa lite option for lite wearables…I hope we see more of it on more devices with more services.

The truth is in the tap

The Nankai Visa Touch test launch launched endless Twitter discussions about slow EMV contactless tap speeds and performance issues compared with Suica and other Transit IC cards. EMV contactless transit in Japan is novel so this is expected. But suddenly people are also referencing Junya Suzuki’s 2016 pre-Apple Pay Suica launch era ‘Is Suica Over-spec?’ piece. This has long been a favorite theme in Japanese tech media: Suica is more than we need, EMV contactless is ‘good enough’ so let’s do everything with one card, life is more convenient that way. Be careful what you wish for.

The 2016 launch of Apple Pay Suica was a great success of course, that changed the Japanese payments market and opened the door for the proliferation of QR payment services you see everywhere now. The one card must do it all concept is old hat but Tokyo Olympics sponsors Visa Japan and SMBC are trying very hard to convince Japan that Visa Touch cards are the transit future.

My position was and remains that one size never fits all. It doesn’t have to be a EMV or nothing choice portrayed in tech media, nor should it. Different technologies complement each other for a better user experience. Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica combines the convenience of EMV cards on the recharge backend with the speed and reliability of FeliCa based Suica cards on the NFC front-end, for a best of breed closed loop transit user experience. One interesting thing I pointed out in my retweet of Suzuki san’s Nakai open loop launch piece was that QR Nankai Digital Ticket gate performance in the his video is faster than Visa Touch because it’s closed loop.

The comment touched off an odd but interesting set of tweets from Suzuki san and his followers about gate design, reader performance and walk flow that boils down to this: if the reader transaction speed is slow, increase the distance between the reader and gate flap to keep people walking instead of stopping.

His follow up piece deconstructs ‘FeliCa is faster’ as half misunderstanding transit gate antenna design and RF communication distance because EMVCo reader certification dictates a smaller RF distance, the result of using the EMV contactless supermarket checkout spec on transit gates it was never intended for. All I can say is the truth is in the tap. In theory all NFC flavors and protocols offer the same performance but in real transit use they don’t. Better to get next generation Ultra Wideband Touchless gates in service and dispense with the ‘redesign transit gates for slow EMV contactless/QR transit’ debate nonsense. Design things for the future not the past.

The current Transit IC local stored fare model does have weak points as suggested in FeliCa Dude’s tweet: discount ticketing, rebates and refunds. If you purchase a Mobile Suica commuter pass, you can easily get a refund back to the bank payment card used to purchase the commuter pass. This is because Suica extras like commuter passes and Green Seat upgrades are supplemental attached services that don’t use the SF purse.

Rebates and refunds via the SF (stored fare) purse are a bottleneck. Suica App has a mechanism for dealing with some of this called ‘Suica Pocket’ for JRE POINT exchanges and refunds back to the SF purse. Mobile Suica card refunds are another matter and can only be refunded to a Japanese bank account. Octopus Cards Ltd. (OCL) has a special Octopus App for Tourists that refunds a card balance back to original credit card used for the initial digital card issue. OCL also charges tourist users an arm and a leg for Octopus Wallet recharge and refunding. It would be nice if JR East could do the same…without the outrageous OCL surcharges.

For inbound discount ticketing JR East has adopted a similar approach they use for Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets: discount plans attached to plastic Suica cards. This is the whole purpose of the Welcome Suica + reference paper proving validity for inbound discount plan purchases at station kiosks. It would be great if JR East figures out a way to do the same thing on Mobile Suica.

Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket mess that is Eki-Net and similar services. Eki-Net itself is still in a slow motion transition towards a Transit IC/Mobile Suica orbit with some things transitioning to QR paper ticketing that replaces expensive mag-strip paper. Eki-Net App is still limited to Shinkansen eTickets and ticketless express train seat purchases. The Eki-Net web site is where you access all the bells and whistles although the experience feels like navigating the Transit IC interoperability chart. Discounts are starting to change somewhat with Suica 2 in 1, totra is the first Suica for disabled users but exclusive to the totra fare region. Hopefully Extended Overlap will see wider use not only for Suica but across all Transit IC cards for more special, and interoperable, discount services.