The railway station barrier-free fee system is “a Japanese railway fare system established with the aim of promoting barrier-free railway stations in urban areas” by leveraging a fee on urban railway users. A barrier-free station tax, if you will.
From 2023-03-18 most railway companies in Japan, both JR Group and non-JR, will be raising transit fares in urban areas to pay this barrier-free station tax. Here is the breakdown for the Greater Tokyo area focusing on JR East.
While barrier-free stations are good thing and not a big tax to pay for all that new infrastucture, the timing is bad. With living costs rising across the board, these little increases add up. To help ease the pain, JR East is offering Off-Peak Suica Commuter Passes (plastic)/Commute Plans (Mobile Suica), that offer a 10% discount with the following condition: Off-Peak passes can only be used outside the designated peak time of the commute plan entry station, otherwise your Suica will be charged at the regular IC fare rate. Suica Off-Peak Commuter Passes basically replace the convoluted Suica Off-Peak JRE POINT Campaign that ends March 31.
Apple Pay Suica users will be able to buy Off-Peak commute plans in an upcoming version of Suica App (v5.2.1), but you must purchase a new pass. Regular commute plans can only be renewed as regular commute plans, they cannot be migrated to off-peak plans. School commute plans and passes will not be charged the barrier-free tax which is good news. Another bonus: high school and jr. high school students can add and use Mobile Suica school commute plans staring March 18.
PASMO The situation for PASMO private rail and other non-JR East rail operators is varied. Keio and Toei Subway have not announced fare increases while Seibu, Tokyu, Tobu, Sotetsu, Odakyu, Tokyo Metro are all raising fares and commuter passes similar to JR East but there are differences. And there are no off-peak commuter passes. Be sure to check how fare increases apply to your commute situation.
Suica App user reviews are relentlessly bad, rip after rip of ‘this software sucks’. Never a good thing to say. Here’s the thing however, when you dig into the reviews most of them have little to do Suica App. It’s also really weird that many reviewers/users seem to think they need Suica App for using Suica at the transit gate. They don’t.
Why are people even using Suica App anyway? You don’t need it to add Suica to iPhone, you don’t need it to recharge Suica. All these things can be done in Wallet app. And now that people are working remotely, there is much less demand for purchasing commuter passes, the biggest reason for using Suica App in the first place. But there is one good reason for using Suica App: setting up Auto-Charge. Set that and you’ll never have to use Suica App.
There’s an important difference to know about Auto-Charge vs. regular recharge in Suica app and Wallet app: auto-charge is locally processed via the transit gate Suica NFC reader. It’s instantaneous and doesn’t care about your iPhone network connection.
Wallet and Suica app recharge are processed via the iPhone (or Apple Watch) network connection. Apple Pay talks with iCloud and Mobile Suica, the transaction is processed online and relayed back to Apple Pay, the recharge amount is added to Suica card. Many network hoops.
There is a message the Mobile Suica twitter account puts out regularly: make sure your smartphone has a robust network connection and don’t use free WiFi when recharging Suica or using Suica App. A bad WiFi connection fools Suica App users into thinking their iPhone is connected to the internet when it is not. This is a particular problem with carrier Wi-Fi SIM auto-connect that bypasses a solid 4G/5G connection and automatically connects to an extremely unstable or overloaded carrier WiFi instead. WiFi on trains and in stations is never reliable and should be turned off when using recharging Suica in Wallet or using Suica App.
Which brings us to an interesting Suica App user review titled “It’s a real urban legend” which explains all the crap talk about Mobile Suica boils down to people trying to recharge at rush hour in transit gate areas with a crapped out carrier or free WiFi connection…the perfect Suica App killer situation. The reviewer recommends “recharge in a calm place at calm time,” to which I heartily agree. Or better yet, ditch network recharge altogether and use Suica NFC Auto-Charge. It will never fail you.
More fallout from the VISA JP Apple Pay agreement: JR East announced they will implement 3D Secure in iOS Suica App, requiring authorization for all non-Apple Pay in-app purchases.
Suica App is convenient because it works hand in glove with Apple Pay and app registered Japanese issue credit cards, giving users the widest possible card coverage. Since 2016, Suica App was the only work around solution for using VISA JP cards for Apple Pay Suica recharge.
We’ll see a Suica App v3.0.4 update when 3D Secure is in place, likely after the new Eki-Net launches June 26. PASMO App already uses 3D Secure for registering cards but not for in-app purchases.
With direct Wallet addition of Suica cards starting with iOS 13 coupled with last year’s migration of Shinkansen eTicket functionality to Eki-Net, and the addition of VISA JP Apple Pay in-app support, Suica App is less essential than ever. The only reason for using it now is new commute plan purchases, Auto-Charge setup (which remains the 3D Secure free way to recharge) and receiving Suica Pocket recharge rewards.
UPDATE July 20, 2021 3D Secure is now required for registering credit cards in Suica App. So far there are no reports of 3D Secure confirmation required for Suica App in-app recharge or Green Car Seat upgrades. This matches my own limited testing. I’ll update this post if anything changes.
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. SmartGo Staple 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 involves the extra step of corralling the separate transaction histories into one expense report.
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.
Domestic discount ticketing and passes are still the glorious, mostly paper ticket maze 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.