The Suica 2.0 launch in the Tohoku region on May 27 is not simply a launch. It marks the transition to a whole new business model for JR East. The future is Suica as a mobile payment and services platform that leverages JR East transit infrastructure. It has to be because the traditional business model of selling train tickets is declining along with the population of Japan. Fewer people, fewer trains. Lifestyles and work styles are changing too, as expected, but COVID has drastically accelerated societal shifts that planners expected to happen gradually such as doing away with work day commuting and the need for commuter passes.
And there is mobile. The ability of doing things with an app and a credit card instead of having to go to the station ticket office or kiosk has made a lot of station infrastructure irrelevant. Station infrastructure and ticketing systems built for the era of cash based kiosks for paper tickets, commuter passes is redundant in the Mobile Suica era, and maintaining local JR Green Window Ticket Offices in every station is expensive.
For example, long time JR East commuters have witnessed the gradual elimination of paper ticket kiosks in favor of pink Suica recharge kiosks. This is because over 90% of JR East Tokyo area transit users use Suica or PASMO and the reason why there are fewer expensive maintenance heavy IC + paper ticket gates and more inexpensive easy maintenance IC only gates at stations. Are there are more IC Card only exits in rebuilt stations especially with connecting shopping malls.
Open Loop Reality All of this is taking place while multiple transit companies are testing open loop transit for deployment as a way to increase revenue. One of the issues that people don’t discuss about open loop transit is the lack of integration on a large scale like closed loop Suica. Open Loop doesn’t travel well. When you examine the deployments around the world, it is limited to isolated systems with simple fare structures. That’s why I call the Japanese test installations transit boutiques. It doesn’t integrate well across complex fare structures and multiple transit connected companies. It doesn’t work for reserve seat Shinkansen and express train eTicketing. Complex transit ticket packaging and fare validation speed is where closed loop shines. In real world testing open loop isn’t an improvement over Transit IC. The mix and match transit gate environment, predictably, slows things down. Open Loop has its place in the transit mix, but I believe the return on investment will not live up to expectations.
Integration is the key The promise of Suica 2.0 boils down to creating a whole new level of integration. The current Transit IC standard is a strong one because it integrates cards across different transit regions with cross compatible eMoney purchasing. The integration of mobile with Suica took it to a whole new level as the world’s first transit payment platform, as did Apple Pay integration in 2016. By moving fare processing to the cloud, Suica 2.0 will integrate isolated Suica regions, integrate new flexible fares and new types of commuter passes while promoting local services in new ways. It will eventually incorporate QR ticketing as well. As cloud based transit IC systems are linked together, the integration will spread beyond JR East. Integration is the only way forward for the Transit IC platforms, Suica, PASMO and ICOCA, to evolve and survive and grow in the mobile era. It’s going to be a very interesting journey.
The Suica cross region problem, no thru transit going from the Suica area to the TOICA area for example, is a well known and criticized shortcoming of the Transit IC system. There has been some recent progress with cross region thru transit commuter passes but barriers remain for regular Suica use, a headache for both local residents and longer distance travelers. Despite all the fancy technology, the cheapest cross region thru transit fare choice is paper tickets.
A lesser known Suica barrier remains on the JR East network: Suica service region gaps. Currently there are 3 Suica regions: Tokyo, Sendai and Niigata. There are also some curious gaps between them illustrated below:
Fortunately this is all about to change for the better.
Filling the Suica gaps In 2019 JR East CEO Yuji Fukusawa said the company planned to have 100% Suica deployment by March 2022 but that didn’t happen. Why? Transit use killing COVID, the resulting red ink and redeployed resources are a big reason of course, but system development snags certainly contributed to the missed deadline. There was also a shift from a narrow focus of a lower cost Suica system to a wider focus of Suica 2 in 1, Cloud Suica and a cloud based central fare processing system. JR East’s Suica vision is evolving to a wider, transit service platform encompassing a range of technologies, with FeliCa as one component of a larger whole and flexible new system.
In October 2022 JR Central announced that TOICA is expanding to all JR Central lines and stations. The pressure is now on JR East to complete their delayed Suica rollout to all stations first. But there is something else: it’s an open secret that JR East hosts the TOICA system. JR Central would not make such a big TOICA commitment publicly unless JR East had a new system in place to facilitate the expansion. This new system, which I call Suica 2.0, starts operation on May 27 in the Tohoku region.
The launch brings Suica to 45 stations in the Akita, Aomori and Morioka regions but only 9 of these are fully automatic transit gate installations similar to what you find in Tokyo area stations (the same new QR equipped gates shown in the press announcement are installed in Yoyogi station). The rest, 36 in all, are Suica 2.0 validators. Performance is an obvious concern. Suica users are accustomed to the fastest transit gate fare processing speeds on the planet. Will Suica 2.0 performance satisfy an Suica 1.0 experienced customer base with high expectations? To understand how Suica 1.0 fare gates achieve speedy performance apart from FeliCa technology, we need to examine why Suica regions exist and how they relate to transit gate performance.
Suica stands for “Super Urban Intelligent CArd” (but there is also ‘IC’ in the name for integrated chip) and was designed for heavily used urban transit as a smart card recreation of visually inspected paper commuter passes. JNR (pre JR East) researchers wanted to eliminate the time it took urban commuters to pull their magnetic commuter pass out of a wallet or case and feed it into the ticket gate slot. This clogged up major station gates at rush hour. The researchers also wanted a centrally processed card system but the networks and processing power of that time could not deal with the rush hour traffic volume. So the Suica architecture was built around locally transit gate processed stored fare (SF) balance from the card. Instead of centrally processed payments, fares are processed at the station level and synced with the central server, said to be about 6 times a day.
Transit gates have very little memory, most of it dedicated to their main task of local processing Suica fare at the exit point. Low overhead is a necessity. They can’t hold massive fare tables, hot card lists, dead card lists and so on. Only the bare minimum information required to do the local processing job is periodically synced with the central server. Limiting fare processing to specific heavy use regions is a necessary strategy in keeping the local fare processing overhead low and speedy. This is why a Tokyo Suica/PASMO region transit exit gate only processes the fare from a Suica or PASMO (or any Transit IC card) that started the journey in the same region. It’s also the reason why Transit IC cards are generally limited to 200 km point to point trips in their respective local regions, though there are some interesting loopholes.
It’s the same situation writ large with different transit IC card regions. Border stations like Atami (Suica and TOICA) have 2 sets of exit gates: one for travelers from the Suica region, one for travelers from the TOICA region. Suica/TOICA cross region thru transit is limited to special cross region commuter passes and those are limited to specific cross region stations, again to keep the local processing overhead low.
It’s important to note however that IC coverage extensions to border stations with 2 sets of different gates and cross region commuter passes, are very recent 2021 developments. This is the JR Group companies laying the foundation to remove IC transit barriers in the near future. Because Suica 2.0 can process any and all Transit IC fare configurations, transit gate memory limits for local processing are no longer a concern. The barriers will come down when gate hardware•firmware is updated and Suica 2.0 cloud servers are in place.
Conceptually, Suica 2.0 is simply going back to what the creators of Suica originally envisioned: centralized fare processing. Specifically the Suica fare processing hockey puck is moving from the station level to centralized cloud servers. The Suica card itself is exactly the same as it is now, the transit gates still handle all mutual authentication read~write functions. Hopefully Suica 2.0 performance will be just like it is now:
The original aims of Cloud Suica with lower costs and flexibility are still there, the JR East Suica 2.0 press release builds on those with emphasis on a distributed server processing system for both Suica service expansion (more stations and no region barriers) and service functions (all kinds of cloud linked services). Let’s examine the new kinds of services JR East is promising to deliver with Suica 2.0.
① Barrier Free Suica transit with no more region gaps. A main goal of Suica 2.0 and bigger than it might seem. Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets are already ‘barrier free’ with Suica, through clever use of Shinkansen transit gates, but Ticketless Limited Express trains are stuck with Suica barriers such as the Tokyo to Sendai Hitachi and Tokiwa Limited Express trains. Suica users have long complained that service gaps forces them to travel with paper tickets, or they are forced to pay in cash at the exit gate because they tapped in with Suica in Tokyo and forgot the Suica barriers. This problem, and many more barrier Suica gap issues will be eliminated.
② Automated Fare Discounts Part 1: Commute Plan Lite. This is similar to the recently launched Off-Peak Commuter Passes, think of it as short term ‘commute plan lite’ with tons of options. You buy a discounted fare option for certain routes, use times or frequency and it’s automatically linked with your Suica. And unlike the current Suica App method, the items are added in the cloud, not written and stored on the card itself.
③ Automated Fare Discounts Part 2: Fare Discount Gift Coupons. In a similar vein, fare discount reward coupons for store purchases with Suica can be automatically gifted with a tap at the payment terminal. Kinda like the old free parking ticket with store purchase gimmick only far more useful.
④ Linked MaaS services. JR East has been experimenting with MaaS programs like RingoPass but linking MaaS services with Suica 1.0 is a real pain. Suica 2.0 should make bundling much easier, it’s also an opportunity to clean up the current mess of apps.
Reality check and missing pieces Glossy JR East press releases are one thing but reading between the lines of the Suica Service Roadmap there are hints of missing pieces. Suica 2.0 is all about eliminating physical transit barriers but in the mobile app era there are lots of software barriers that need to be addressed too. Right now JR East online services are hosted in a bunch of apps that don’t fit together very well. It’s a maze of walled gardens: lots of service apps each with different accounts and login, making them work together is a real pain. The real problem is there is no one app to see and manage all the services and tickets attached or linked to your Suica.
A few things need to happen to make Suica 2.0 truly useful.
The current version of Suica App lives a double life: one half pulls things off the Mobile Suica cloud, one half does local housekeeping attaching Commute Plans, Green Car Seat Tickets and recharges to Suica card. Meanwhile Shinkansen eTickets, MaaS and other online services live in different apps with different accounts IDs. Wouldn’t it be nice to have all these services living in one cloud savvy Suica App that shows and manages everything attached to your Suica? Absolutely yes please.
Local Processing Fail-Safe?
We all know that cloud and mobile services fail. Stuff happens. Safe railroad operation requires fail-safe design. Japanese IT journalists like to pooh-pooh FeliCa and Suica reliability, heaping praise on how ‘fail-safe’ the Transit for London open loop Oyster system is. But London transit doesn’t have to deal with major earthquakes, tsunami, typhoons, torrential rain and flooding, train communication cable arsonists, communication cable damaging trackside fire disasters, not to mention sarin gas and cable cutting terrorists. Japanese tend to take safety and security for granted but these infrastructure risks are very real. They have all happened. Suica 2.0 will be a highly centralized system, the higher the centralization, the higher the associated risks when it fails.
Does Suica 2.0 have a fail-safe backup? Here’s a possible, and from emerging details, likely scenario. We all know programmers don’t like using a new API for mission-critical programs unless they have to. They like to stick with what they already have for compatibility with a smooth gradual transition strategy to the new API. Same for Suica 2.0. Automatic Suica transit gates could be upgraded with both the Suica 1.0 ‘Suica Region local processing API’ and the new Suica 2.0 ‘Region-Free central processing API’. If something goes wrong with the Suica 2.0 central servers, the exit gates switch to reliable local processing Suica 1.0 API mode to keep passengers moving with station level fare processing or perhaps regional level fare processing depending on the JR East distributed server setup. Long story short, If this backup is not in place we can expect this to happen.
Suica 2.0 rollout and the QR Eki-Net Connection We’ll find out how well Suica 2.0 works on May 27…hopefully it will be a happy marriage of ‘truth in the card’ Suica Stored Fare balance + central fare processing. The important point is that all Transit IC card barriers will eventually go away when Suica 2.0 is deployed across the entire JR East system. People can travel anywhere on the transit IC network not having to think about barrier nonsense, just like paper tickets. Sounds great but when does it happen?
JR East says the Suica region barriers will drop by 2026, at the latest, when Suica 2.0 is rolled out across the entire JR East network. Suica 2.0 starts in Tohoku May 27, Tokyo gets the Suica 2.0 update this summer (2023), Sendai is next, followed by Niigata. At the same time all Suica gaps will be filled, all stations currently without Suica will be wired. We will find out if Suica 2.0 is really faster than Suica 1.0 but the 3 year rollout, roughly 1 year per current Suica region, certainly looks like a lot of system optimization work is padded into the schedule.
An interesting point here is that QR Eki-Net service starts in the very same Suica 2.0 Tohoku launch region which means that QR Eki-Net uses the same Suica 2.0 fare validation system. Suica 2.0 does QR too. When Suica 2.0 goes wide, so does QR. It’s one package with 2 parts as shown in the Suica Service Roadmap: the Suica 2.0 Platform and a ‘new’ (and unnamed) Ticketing system, which might be the venerable (and earthquake hardened) JR Group MARS system updated for the mobile transit era.
And when does seamless cross region IC transit for Suica, TOICA, et al. happen? Hopefully the JR Group is coordinating so that the Suica 2.0 rollout is mirrored by the other JR Group companies. The JR Central TOICA announcement certainly suggests so. Slight differences are already apparent: JR East prefers cloud connected Suica 2.0 validators at unmanned stations. JR Central and JR West prefer the bus style approach of having on board enter and exit validators for rural lines with unmanned stations. Either way is fine, just get it done as quickly as possible. Let the Transit IC barriers drop away into the past where they belong. Because with Suica 2.0 in place and barriers gone, the way is also cleared for fare capping, automated discounts, specialty ticketing and lots of new cloud based transit services.
This post was originally published 2023-02-27 and was reposted with the latest information from JR East on 2023-04-04.
The new features that make up Suica 2.0 are called many things. JR East calls it ‘Next Generation Suica’, Yanik Mangan came up with ‘All-in-one Suica’ moniker in his limitless possibilities podcast. I call it Suica 2.0 because there are wider Suica platform initiatives based on the cloud and the Suica 2 in 1 FeliCa SD2 architecture.
It’s a catch all definition for the many parts that make up the Suica platform evolution to gives people easy to understand concepts for discussing ongoing developments until something official comes along.
This is a list of announcements, launches and posts related to Super Suica as a platform with links to JR Group PR releases, color classifications as follows:
🟩= Suica cards • Suica region extensions 🟧= Mobile FeliCa, Mobile Suica + derivations (Mobile PASMO, Mobile ICOCA) 🟥= FeliCa Standard SD2• New FeliCa OS 🟦= Cloud Suica (transit fare) • JESCA-Cloud (e-Money payments) 🟪= ID-PORT Services
🟩🟥Next Generation Suica 2 in 1 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 FeliCa • Mobile Suica The evolution of Mobile FeliCa to include UWB touchless and multiple secure element domains for digital ID, Mobile Suica service expansion and hosting Mobile PASMO and Mobile ICOCA.
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