Public tests for new JR East Suica/QR combo transit gate (Updated)

The new JR East Suica/QR gate design was unveiled back in December along with the new Takanawa Gateway station details. Test gate installations have been in service at Takanawa Gateway and JR Shinjuku New South exit these past few months but only for Suica and the QR reader covered up. If you have your heart set on trying one out, go to Takanawa Gateway where JR East officials will take the cover off the QR reader from September 15~29 (except for 9/24~27) for public tests.

QR will eventually replace mag strip paper tickets which are increasing expensive to recycle, and the new gates will gradually replace those ingenious paper ticket/Suica combo transit gates made by Omron. I have tried the new gate in Shinjuku and all I can say is…I’m glad I wear my Apple Watch / Apple Pay Suica on the right.

No moving parts is boring…but cheaper than intricate mag strip reading mechanisms

UPDATE: Conflicted Impressions
Junya Suzuki has posted a deeper dive into the QR reader design on the new JR East gates with his usual fascinating analysis. Suzuki san is very big on the evolution of Suica away from local processing to a centrally processed unique ID model that does away with stored fare.

His IT background experience really shines through as he makes a convincing argument that a centralized unique Suica ID approach greatly simplifies the IT system by reducing hot-list/off-list refreshes that have to be coordinated between local and central systems.

We’ll have to see how things pan out with next generation FeliCa and next generation ‘Super Suica’ in 2021. There will be a definite focus on cloud + local, but I have doubts that Suzuki san’s centralized everything vision is always the best approach.

Perhaps I am missing something in his analysis, but I think there’s a happy medium that leverages the strengths of both for a robust innovative transit fare payment system as the centerpiece of the transit business platform.

Here’s a recap of his observations and reader feedback:

Separate QR reader placement
In Suzuki san’s piece JR East tech leads explain that widely separate NFC and QR readers work much better than an all-in-one approach. NFC always reacts faster than QR and this creates problems with the all-in-one reader and smartphones when fast, clean, precise read times are required. The gate QR sensor is made by DENSO. If you have ever used a poky DENSO POS QR+NFC reader at store checkout, you can relate.

Security Invisible Ink
As FeliCa Dude points out, JR East is likely using IR transparent ink to create unique ID codes for security. Apparently this is already used for Okinawa Monorail Okica QR paper tickets.

Poor Walk Flow
One of the great things about the mag strip paper ticket gates is they pull the ticket into the machine and spit it out at the other end of the gate. This is clever guided incentive to keep walking to pick up the ticket. With QR code transit gates people stop and wait for the reader to do something. Another nice thing about mag ticket machines is they eat the used tickets. The QR paper ticket downside not mentioned by JR East or the media: where do people put their used tickets for paper recycle? Who and what collects them, a bin?

JRE POINT and Ekinet finally connect in 2021

In case you ever wondered what the QR Code reader on JR East station tickets machines is for: picking up online preordered JR East commuter passes, and nothing else. This will change in the Super Suica summer of 2021 along with a ‘renewed’ Ekinet service. Instead of entering a PIN code, users can flash a QR Code in the Ekinet App at station kiosks to pickup reserved paper tickets or pay for tickets at an ATM.

The biggest change is that Ekinet points are morphing into JRE POINT…finally. Just like you use JRE POINT for a free Suica recharge, you can use JRE POINT for ticket purchases, updates to reserved seats, Green Car seats, etc. The expanded Ekinet will support more Shinkansen eTicket discount options and Business Ekinet will be gaining Shinkansen eTickets for the first time. The press release says that the inbound only JR-EAST Train Reservation system will be getting an overhaul at the same time.

Let’s hope the renewed Ekinet is easier to use than the current one.

Transit Gate Evolution: tap speed matters more than ever in the COVID era

As COVID restrictions are eased and the world slowly goes back to work, school and hopefully slightly more normal life, avoiding crowds will be key in keeping COVID from becoming resurgent in the months ahead.

For commuters in Japanese metro areas avoiding crowds is no easy matter. Fortunately the Japanese transit gate infrastructure is a great help. FeliCa based IC transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) with fast transaction speeds combined with open gate flap design maximizes people flow: people walk through gates at normal pace. This is very important for Japanese stations that have to make do with large crowds in limited spaces and smaller gate areas.

It’s wrong however, to think that this only applies to Japan. The benefits of fast tap speed combined with intelligent transit gate design are relevant everywhere and very necessary in this day and age: fast gate tap speed is essential in keeping gate crowding at a minimum. It makes things safer not only for train operation, but also addresses crowd control health concerns in the COVID era.

A reader sent a link to a good discussion of NFC protocols and gate tap speeds that was apparently deleted when YouTube comments were turned off. I retyped the comment in the section below from a screenshot with some light editing for clarity. If I find the author I will link to the original. The videos have already appeared in other posts but it’s good have them in one place. A previous installment already covered QR transit code gate issues, this post will focus on NFC tap speeds.


While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.

The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this following video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit:

It may seem like a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, tap times really matter.

Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa. A comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan below:

Open Loop NFC ticketing in its current form is based on EMVCo Contactless specifications adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec. All of these use ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro where normal walking speed is never supported.

But as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes. Here are walk flow comparisons for Tokyo and London, and MTA OMNY Open Loop performance:

Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki tests OMNY transit gate speed…
and reliability

One hopes the NFC Forum works to increase NFC speeds and global specifications to “improve the overall user experience for NFC users.” Improving the NFC user experience is what it is all about. With the addition of Ultra Wideband to Mobile FeliCa and Mobile MIFARE now is the time for the NFC Forum partners to revisit the global NFC ISO 14443 and ISO 18092 specifications.

EMV is payment technology created for leisurely supermarket checkout, not whizzing through transit gates at rush hour. It doesn’t address the needs of transit and never will in it’s current format because it is controlled by credit card companies. NFC Forum partners need create a single faster more reliable NFC standard encompassing NFC A-B-F and other wireless technologies, a new standard that improves and expands the NFC user experience on mobile devices for digital transit, digital keys and payments, while making it all future-proof.

Related
Transit Gate Evolution: Do QR Codes Suck for Transit?

Catching up with Apple Watch Suica

Like most people staying at home I’m trying to put downtime to good use, catching up on review videos. I came across the Apple Watch Journal channel on YouTube and highly recommend it to any Apple Watch user with some Japanese ability. It covers all kinds of tips and functions with a keen focus on smart efficient use. The delivery is tight, simple, well organized and wonderfully narrated. Videos covering Japan only services like Suica, Line and dPoint are well worth the time investment.

The standout is the Apple Watch Suica video, rightly called ‘the killer Apple Watch app.’ I cannot agree more especially in these COVID-19 social distancing times. Suica on Apple Watch is stress free without the hassle of using Face ID Apple Pay with face masks. I even learned a few new things like Suica auto charge works without a network connection. It’s hard to believe that after all these years the competition has yet to match Suica on Apple Watch. Apple Watch Octopus will be a killer app for Hong Kong users when it arrives there, hopefully soon. The 12 minute video covers:

0:46 Apple Watch版「Suica」の基本的な使い方 (Apple Watch Suica Basics)
2:27 Apple WatchとiPhoneで併用する際の注意点 (Gotchas using Suica on both iPhone/Apple Watch)
4:16 Apple Watchがロック状態、Suicaは使える?(Using Suica when Apple Watch is off wrist)
6:46 Suicaは画面側でタッチしなくても使える!(Apple Watch Suica and wrist positions)
7:45 Apple Watch単体(オフライン)でも使える!(Apple Watch Suica works without network)
8:45 JR東日本の新型改札、Apple Watchの使い勝手は?(Using Apple Watch Suica on the new JR gate)
11:08 Apple Watchを「右手」で使う方法 (Using Apple Watch on the right wrist)

The new JR gate section is particularly interesting and fully covers what is sure to be a sore point with many left wrist Apple Watch users: the reader is on the right hand side and the slanted position makes it impossible to comfortably reach over with the left wrist. After running through many left wrist use cases, the narrator simply concludes, ‘let’s learn to wear Apple Watch on right wrist, it’s not that hard,’ and devotes the last section with some right wrist tips.

Another video does an excellent job of covering the recent Wallet addition of dPoint contactless point card. All the Lawson POS systems options are explained with some very helpful tips dealing with dPoint and PONTA point cards on Apple Pay Apple Watch.

UPDATE
For the very first time ever Apple Watch Suica could be in for some serious competition next month with the planned release of Garmin Pay Suica. If you need any proof that Suica is the smartwatch killer app for Japan, this is it. Any smartwatch without it is a nonstarter. It’s an encouraging sign that Garmin is advertising Google Pay for the Garmin Suica recharge backend for linked Android devices and suggests they might have larger FeliCa ambitions than Japan. We’ll see if the competition is truly catching up to Apple Watch Suica in May.

JR East Shinkansen eTicket Service Launch (Updated)

March 14 marked the end of Mobile Suica Shinkansen ticketing in Suica App and the start of a new open IC transit card eTicket Shinkansen service. It doesn’t have name. It’s just one of many ticket options available in the good old JR East ‘Eki-net’ (Station-net) online ticket reservation service, well known and not loved by many. A Japanese friend said it best, “You would think that a top tier Japanese company like JR East with many smart employees would create something better than Eki-net or pay somebody to do so.”

The problem is not that Eki-net doesn’t work. It works, but throwing everything new (IC transit card eTickets) and old (email tickets and paper tickets) in same Eki-net shoebox is a cluttered unwieldy package, a confusing and messy UI not nearly as convenient as JR East wants us to believe. Instead of a sleek new Shinkansen eTicket service, we get the same stodgy paper ticket service with a new hard to find eTicket option.

JR East would have been better off making a clean break by rebranding the new eTickets as a completely different service with a new spiffy name and separate multi-lingual app, just like JR Central’s SmartEX with the addition of new eTicket options over time. The less is more SmartEX approach focuses exclusively on Shinkansen eTickets and eliminates local line travel options because those are covered by Suica/ICOCA/Toica, etc. Eki-net on the other hand makes a big deal of ‘big trip’ options covering everything from Shinkansen and regular express trains to tour packages and car rentals.

The Eki-net approach does have one advantage over the 2-tier JR Central/JR West SmartEX (free membership with small discounts) and EX-Press Reserve (annual membership fee/special IC card/bigger discounts): Eki-net is ‘flat’ with free membership, offering the same discounts to all members in one service. Shinkansen eTickets are only available at launch from the online Eki-net site. I recommend the more streamlined smartphone online browser version. JR East has announced an updated Eki-net App for App Store/Google Play with eTicket support that should be coming March 21 (now postponed to an unknown future date). The new eTicket service is also available to JR West e5489 ticket reservation service members as JR West shares Hokuriku Shinkansen operations with JR East.

The end of Mobile Suica eTickets in Suica App means a mandatory app update that strips out the retired service. Users must update to the new 2.6 version by March 18. After this date older Suica App versions stop working. The migration from the old Mobile Suica Shinkansen eTicket service has good and bad points:

Good Points
JR East Shinkansen eTickets are compatible with all major transit IC cards. This finally opens JR East operated Shinkansen lines to plastic and mobile transit cards, the old system was limited to Mobile Suica. An interesting new twist is that up to 6 transit IC cards can be attached to one account for family or group travel.

Bad Points
The migration from the Mobile Suica Shinkansen/Suica App system means no more Suica App/Apple Pay in-app purchases, you must register an Eki-Net account, yes another JR East service, and a credit card. The current Eki-net system is designed around the account registered credit card for paper ticket pickup at station kiosks using the card PIN code, this effectively eliminates Apple Pay/Google Pay as an in-app purchase choice. Last but not least the new Shinkansen eTicket service is Japanese language only.

New IC/QR gates at JR Takanawa Gateway Station opening March 14

Shinkansen eTickets are only the first step in a long term migration away from mag strip paper tickets. Mag strip ticket gates are more expensive than transit gates with NFC or QR readers with higher maintenance costs, there is also the increasing cost of recycling the special mag strip paper.

Paper tickets for all transit will remain a cash purchase at station kiosks, as they must, these will be QR codes instead of mag strip. The tricky parts are: 1) how much ticketing can be ported over to the transit IC card side 2) what local transit fare tiers apply to QR. Since Shinkansen eTickets are simply one time purchase options attached to a transit IC card number in the cloud, theoretically any purchased option can be attached to a transit IC card number. Local transit has fare tier for cash tickets and a less expensive one for transit IC cards.

I see local transit cash fare tiers staying in place for station kiosk purchased QR paper tickets, but I don’t see smartphone app QR Codes for one time local transit. The cheaper fare tier incentive for reusable transit IC cards will likely remain in place. This leaves smartphone app QR Codes for express trains, limited use tourist/season/campaign passes and group travel.

Mag strip tickets have served us very well for the past 30 years. The final migration to Mobile/NFC/QR will be interesting but I’ll miss those marvelously mechanical ticket gates from Omron.


UPDATE
Eki-net app v1.2 is out and supports Shinkansen eTicket reservations. The reservations process is straight forward and similar to SmartEX: choose the Shinkansen line, set stations points+date+time, select a Shinkansen train. The next step is departs from SmartEx because the Eki-net eTicket service supports up to 6 transit IC cards (plastic, Mobile Suica, Mobile PASMO), you select the transit IC card to attach the eTicket. The final step is ticket purchase with the Eki-net account registered credit card. A big difference with the old Suica App Shinkansen service is that Apple Pay in-app purchases are no longer supported.

I hope that JR East restores Apple Pay in-app purchase at some point. Setting up a new account and registering cards for every new JR East service, (Mobile Suica, JRE POINT, Eki-net, etc.) is also a huge pain and practically impossible for occasional users. Sign in with Apple ID and Apple Pay support for on the spot purchases is a much better deal for people who don’t want to juggle multiple accounts, passwords and credit cards. Last but not least Eki-net is Japanese language only, and account creation/management requires a trip to the awful Eki-net web site. Please fix this JR East, with so few people riding trains right now you have the free time to do it.