The Great Big Nankai VISA Touch Transit Boutique

VISA Japan has been busy this year marketing VISA Touch contactless cards with the SMBC group, leveraging the SMBC-GMO-VISA co-venture stera payment platform that launched on July 6. We have already seen a few VISA Touch stera powered ‘transit boutiques’: smallish inbound tourist centric transit companies that don’t support Transit IC cards like Suica and PASMO. This could be changing.

Nankai Electric Railway along with VISA Japan, SMBC and QUADRAC Co., Ltd., a SoftBank and hedge funded systems company that develops VISA Touch and QR fare systems among other things, announced a co-venture test of VISA Touch and QR Code open loop fares for ‘inbound tourists’ on Nankai transit gates in 2021. ‘Test’ not ‘rollout’. The wording of the press announcement is vague with photo ‘images’ of what it might look like. It reads more like a VISA PR release than a Nankai one.

To understand why Nankai is testing this it helps to know a few things. Nankai lines service Kansai International Airport that up until COVID hit had a lot of inbound tourists from China visiting Universal Studio Japan in Osaka, amoung other things, the AliPay thing being the most important.

The other thing to know is that Kansai area transit companies (Hankyu, Keihan, Nankai, Hanshin) never developed a PASMO like transit card for non-JR group transit companies. PiTaPa is a failure because it’s a post-pay transit card, a SMBC managed credit card with credit card checks and unsuitable for the commuter pass masses without credit cards. This is why Hankyu ‘borrows’ the JR West ICOCA card for issuing commuter passes. It’s a mess. But it also means that transit companies in the PiTaPa SMBC orbit are in a weaker position, open to SMBC pressure and loan incentives to try VISA Touch open loop (not really open loop when it’s an exclusive VISA Touch arrangement and nothing else right?).

The Japan Transit IC map. Post-pay PiTaPa based transit cards are in a weaker position than regular prepaid transit cards

It also helps to know that stera Panasonic JT-C60 NFC readers are the slowest transit Suica compatible readers I have every used. These same readers are used in VISA Touch transit boutiques and we all know that EMV contactless is slower than FeliCa.

So what is Nankai testing exactly?

(1) Transit gate friction. Transit IC card tap speed is less than 200 milliseconds (ms) while legacy mag strip paper ticketing is 600 ms. The stera Panasonic readers are far slower than 600 ms, if that’s what they end up using for the test…it’s hilarious to imagine Nankai retrofitting a bulky slow Android based NFC reader on a Omron transit gate.

(2) Fare system overhead. How much does the centralized fare processing and linking to VISA and AliPay cost and how does it perform versus local stored value transit IC cards.

The eventual rollout plan will be based on hardware and system cost balanced against the estimate of capturing more inbound transit revenue. There are also transit gate layout issues to consider, is it better to go with slow and fast lane transit gate layout, or retrofit every gate as cheaply as possible. Does any of this make sense in the COVID era when tap speed is more important than ever?

The Real Friction Point: Inbound
We’ll see how it works out but since the advertised point of this effort is for the benefit of inbound tourists, I’ll come out and say it: one of the best things about COVID is the elimination of inbound tourists and their luggage on commuter trains in heavily trafficked areas like JR East Yamanote.

Large groups of people with lots of luggage riding commuter trains during rush hours without following common sense etiquette is a huge stress point for regular commuters. When doors are blocked by luggage and tourists who don’t know, or don’t care about other people using the train, it’s trouble in the making.

The hallmark of any good transit system is safety and reliability, a finely tuned balance of servicing all customers and wisely investing in infrastructure. All too often the grab for inbound tourists ignores this balance at the expense of daily riders. Nankai must keep this in mind. If they do not it will end up being a ‘do less with more’ money losing proposition for Nankai, but not for VISA, SMBC and QUARDRAC.

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.

Hankyu Goes ICOCA

Hankyu Corporation announced in January they would sell ICOCA cards for commuter pass use starting March 1. The switchover is interesting on many levels. ICOCA is the JR West transit IC card and PiTaPa is the transit IC card for Kansai area private lines (Hankyu, Keihan, Hanshin, Kintetsu, etc.). They are both FeliCa cards, offer commuter passes and are compatible for transit use under the Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project specification.

There is one big difference: ICOCA is prepaid while PiTaPa is a postpaid credit card/transit card hybrid that can never really be mainstream because it has credit checks. ICOCA can be bought by anyone at a ticket machine. The Hankyu/Hanshin switchover to prepaid ICOCA for the masses follows the JR West arrangement that Kintetsu and Keihan already have in place. There is just one last little detail that JR West needs to work out however: get ICOCA on mobile digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay. Super Suica should take care of that in 2021.

The Contactless Payment Turf Wars: PiTaPa Pitfalls

  1. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Transit Platforms
  2. >Contactless Payment Turf Wars: PiTaPa Pitfalls
  3. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Why Oyster is missing from mobile
  4. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Tapping the potential of TAP
  5. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: Apple Card and the Prepaid Innovation of Apple Pay Suica
  6. Contactless Payment Turf Wars: EMV closed loop transit dumb cards
Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association Map
The Japan Transit IC Mutual Use Association project started in 2007 and achieved transit and e-money interoperability in 2013. It continues to evolve and incorporate other transit smartcard systems into a single standard. Wikipedia

PiTaPa is the perpetual outliner of the major Japanese transit smartcards: Suica, ICOCA, TOICA, SUGOCA, Kitaca, PASMO, manaca, Nimoca, Hayaken. Starting in 2006 the major transit cards were stitched together into one common national platform for mutual transit and e-money use achieved by 2013. The result is the fertile ground that Apple Pay Suica is growing and thriving in. Apple Pay VP Jennifer Bailey recently said that Apple Pay is doing well in Japan. The Apple Pay Japan story is all Suica and transit reamains the golden uptake path for contactless payments on smarphones.

And then there is PiTaPa. PiTaPa is the main transit smartcard for non-JR ‘private’ rail companies in the Kansai: Hankyu, Keihan, Nankai and Hanshin. The excellent Japanese Transit IC map graphic on Wikipedia perfectly captures the problem of PiTaPa incompatibility and isolation: the background blue is transit only compatibility, the red is transit and e-money compatibility.

The PiTaPa Story
PiTaPa has an interesting history but not a particularly happy or successful one. It’s the perfect case study of what happens when banks and credit card companies call the shots on transit ticketing system infrastructure instead of letting transit company management make those decisions. It’s also a story of how most Japanese transit companies, except for JR East, failed to see the coming revolution of mobile digital wallet platforms.

The PiTiPa founding members originally planned to build a transit IC smartcard system just like Suica: pre-paid stored value (SV). Then Sumitomo Mitsu stepped in with a seemingly good idea: a Sumitomo Mitsui credit card + transit card post-pay combo card to save transit users from having to recharge the transit card smartcard at all. A credit card transit card for transit and shopping. What could go wrong? The Kansai area is home town for Sumitomo Mitsu, the Kansai banking indsutry Godzilla for over a hundred years, how could transit companies, Sumitomo Mitsu borrowers all, resist?

And so PiTaPa was born in 2004 as a Frankenstein credit card grafted with a transit card appendage that was supposed to do it all, but never delivered the benefits of either one. Sumitomo Mitsui imposed all the hoary old credit card conventions on the shiny new creation: credit checks and spending caps. It immediately shrunk the PiTaPa user base from everybody to people with good credit ratings who passed Sumitomo Mitsui credit checks. Compare this to Suica where everybody from kids to retirees with a ¥1,000 bill can buy Suica card at a station kiosk. That’s the beauty of stored value cards, simple immediate purchase and use.

The original PiTaPa did not sit well with a lot of transit users so a ‘PiTaPa lite’ card with deposits instead of credit checks, without the e-money function, was added in 2007. Unfortunately since PiTaPa was post-pay, PiTaPa didn’t work with the Japanese Transit IC e-money standard and was shunned by payment networks and merchants. Good luck trying to use PiTaPa credit outside of its core transit ghetto at 7 Eleven, other convenience stores or anywhere else.

If you want to know how well PiTaPa is doing in 2018 all you need to do is check the commuter pass pages of the PiTaPa member railroads: Keihan and Osaka Metro offer ICOCA commuter passes. Not only that but Osaka Metro and Keihan have moved away from PiTaPa commuter passes for general issue and use ICOCA instead.

No Future
The decision to let Sumitomo Mitsui call the shots instead of transit management killed any viable future for the PiTaPa system. PiTaPa uses the same FeliCa technology behind the highly successful Mobile Suica and Apple Pay Suica, but the unique one-off system architecture, limited user base and transaction volume mean PiTaPa will never be hosted on any mobile digital wallet platform. PiTaPa transit partners don’t want to spend resources to build a cloud and host mobile service because there is too much cost for such little return. And Sumitomo Mitsu will certainly never foot the bill to clean up the mess they created.

Now that JR East and Sony have announced ‘Super Suica’ for April 2018 that will incorporate all Japan Transit cards into one card system for transit, e-money and mobile, the PiTaPa participants face a choice: junk the old PiTaPa and get onboard the Super Suica express or be left behind in isolation with no future.

Transit payment platforms
The basic unsolvable problem is that banks and credit card companies want different things than transit companies. Banks and credit card companies want credit checks and caps, transit companies need as many people going through the transit gate as efficiently and safely as possible. These fundamental business differences will never be resolved, there will always be tension. That is why banks and credit card companies should never be in charge of running transit gates. They simply want to take their credit card cut and run, leaving the scene of crime, and the cleanup bill, to others.

You can see the similar things playing out on other transit systems such as Hong Kong’s Octopus system with AliPay and other QR Code ‘virtual banks’ putting pressure on operators to change transit ticketing system infrastructure to suit their needs, all paid by the transit operator of course.

It’s wasteful nonsense and who needs it? It’s last century credit card vs. smartcard, open loop vs. closed loop thinking. Digital wallet platforms like Apple Pay and Google Pay conveniently collapse the differences of open loop vs. closed loop rendering the whole argument pointless while offering a whole new game. Build a transit payment platform instead, in the long run it’s a win-win for transit companies and the banking industry.

It’s very simple: transit companies and a finance industry that stick with the old ways of thinking will miss the major unique new business opportunities offered by transit payment platforms hosted on digital wallet platforms, opportunities that build on transit but also extend it to exciting new places, a transit platform that grows and benefits everyone.