JR companies move Transit IC goalposts for easier cross region commuting

Traffic News photo of JR Central Numazu Station plastered with ‘TOICA cards cannot travel beyond Atami in the Suica region’ warning signs

One glaring weakness of Japanese Transit IC cards is the 200 km fare region wall. There’s a Japanese word for it, ‘matagari’ which means dismount…as in dismount and pay full fare in cash at the gate. Suica for example only works for transit in the Suica/PASMO region, users cannot travel across 2 different regions. This means Suica users traveling into the JR Central TOICA area or vice versa have 2 choices: (1) paper tickets for the whole trip, (2) buy a paper exit ticket with Suica at the exit gate fare adjustment kiosk.

This is very inconvenient for Shinkansen commuters who live in the Numazu~Mishima JR Central region and commute into the Suica/PASMO Tokyo region. Suica and TOICA commuter passes are worthless, old fashioned mag strip commuter passes are the only option. A similar situation exists for cross region commuters in the TOICA~ICOCA regions. Fortunately the JR Group companies (JR East, JR Central, JR West) have worked to ease this problem and have new commuter pass operating rules starting March 13. I posted about it earlier, but it’s worth explaining again and covering the limitations.

Moving Transit Region Goalposts
Basically the JR Group companies are moving transit region commute pass goalposts slightly inside their respective regions. This is not difficult to do as commuter passes are simply commute plans attached to a transit card with an ID number. For Suica users the new rules mean Suica commuter passes work beyond Atami, all the way to Numazu, and Toica commuter passes work though Odawara.

Shinkansen commuters gain the most benefit and the new rules are designed to open up transfer stations to Transit IC cards. Suica FREX commuter passes cover local Numazu to Mishima transit→Shinkansen to Shinagawa/Tokyo transit→local transit in the Suica/PASMO area. Toica and ICOCA commuters have similar benefits. Regular commute pass users also gain the ability to ride the Tokkaido Shinkansen area covering Tokyo~Shin Iwakuni for ticketless non-reserve seating, similar to JR East ticketless Touch and Go Shinkansen.

There are still many limitations: (1) plastic cards only: no Mobile Suica/Apple Pay Suica support because ICOCA and Toica are not on mobile yet, (2) regular non-commute pass transit not included: this still operates under the current region limitations.

These changes are baby steps. I hope the limitations gradually disappear after the next generation Suica card architecture is in place and shared by all Mutual Use Transit IC Association members with the major players on mobile. These are challenging times for public transit all around the world, Japanese transit companies need to hurry up and seriously cooperate.

There’s a new gate being installed at Atami station with a different color. Rumors are flying that this might be a Toica gate that accommodates interchange between Toica and Suica regions for regular (non-commuter pass) transit. All will be revealed March 13.


JR East station entrance tickets go ticketless
In a separate service announcement also starting March 13, JR East stations will accept Suica/Transit IC cards, Apple Pay Suica included, for non-transit station entrance ticketing. These cost ¥140 (Kanto district station malls)~¥150 (everywhere else), are good for 2 hours, and cover all Suica gated stations (flap gate stations). Non-JR East stations, JR East stations off the Suica grid and Shinkansen gated areas inside JR East stations are not supported.

The origin of station entrance tickets was for tearful platform farewells seen in old classic movies, but in this era it’s all about enticing people to shop and use facilities in station malls. Ticketless is nice but I wish JR East had also figured out a way to waive the fee with Suica purchases over a certain amount, kinda like free parking vouchers. That would be the ultimate station mall shopping motivation.

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.

JR Central Online EX Ticketing Extends to Kyushu Shinkansen in 2022

JR Central/JR West/JR Kyushu issued a joint PR release that JR Central’s EX Shinkansen eTicket system, encompassing both EXPress Reservation and smartEX services, will be adding JR Kyushu Hakata~Kagomashima Shinkansen ticketing in spring 2022.

2022? If it’s going to take that long why bother announcing it now? I am sure that part of the reason for the long lead time is the next generation Suica card architecture (Super Suica) and FeliCa OS update coming in spring of 2021. All nine of the Suica sister transit IC cards under the Transit IC interoperability umbrella will need to switch over to the new transit card format to maintain compatibility: Suica, Toica, ICOCA, SUGOCA, Kitaca, PASMO, namaca, Hayaken, nimoca.

Right now Mobile Suica is the only transit card on mobile, and mobile offers service extras like downloadable Shinkansen eTickets. The next generation Super Suica format will likely extend mobile capability and mobile service extras to all nine cards. At the very least JR Central will have to retool the EX system for the new card architecture while maintaining compatibility with the current card architecture. It makes sense to upgrade the current EX system areas first and add Kyushu Shinkansen ticketing last.

Meanwhile, JR East is due to rollout a new eTicketing system in spring 2020.

File:ICCard Connection en.svg
Japan Transit IC Map, outside white area cards are due to join Super Suica in 2021

Suica, Toica, ICOCA integrating commuter pass regions staring in March 2021

Big things sometimes come in small packages. JR East, JR Central, JR West issued a joint press statement on September 20 that starting in April 2021, Suica-Toica-ICOCA commuter pass regions will be enlarged into one continuous virtual commuter region. This will cover regular rail lines and Shinkansen lines, and address current transit region ‘gotcha gaps’. The press release comes almost exactly one year after the JR East, Sony, JREM ‘Super Suica’ next generation transit card announcement, the start date coincides with the new transit card rollout.

This has big implications and fits with the scenario outlined in the Super Suica piece. The press release does not mention Mobile Suica, and only shows current style IC transit cards, but it’s important to remember that Super Suica is a next generation transit card architecture with a next generation FeliCa OS for both IC cards and mobile.

For Apple Pay Suica users this means that starting in 2021 all commuter passes for those IC card regions can likely be covered by one ‘Super Suica’, however details are few at this point. I hope to post an analysis of these developments soon. There is a lot to look forward to as Japanese transit companies prepare for the big, long term migration to the next generation transit card architecture.

This press release only covered the JR Group side, some grey areas remain. Now that the JR Group have an agreement in place to integrate their trunk line commuter pass regions, I expect that we will hear something similar for PASMO and other private rail IC transit card commuter regions at a later date.