Siri Adds Japan Transit Directions

I’m not exactly sure when Siri added Japan Transit directions, but it didn’t work 3 weeks ago. I had basically given up hope on this Apple Maps wish list item, but had some free time today to kill with Apple Watch and viola. Transit directions. Transit is tricky because place names, especially Japanese place names and directions, depend on the context. For example when I asked iPhone Siri for the ‘next train to Gotanda’, I got a few route options to a place in Iwate prefecture. When I asked for the ‘next train to Gotanda station‘, iPhone Siri got it right. Apple Watch Siri however got it right every time.

Based on Siri tests in JP language mode so far, it seems like a solid service addition that users will find useful. I suspect it will be a very nice fit with AirPods Pro and will give it the noisy station acid test. It will be interesting to see online reactions and analysis from Japanese users. It will also be interesting to see if or when Apple announces transit directions for Siri. Traffic has been showing for months in Apple Maps Japan with no official listing on the iOS feature availability page.

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Mandatory Suica App update on March 14

As predicted, a new version of Suica App is coming in tandem with the new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service launch on March 14. Suica App users must update to v2.6 by March 18, after that date older versions can no longer login to Mobile Suica.

A new Eki-net app that supports the new eTicket service should be coming at the same time. The old Suica App Shinkansen eTicket service ends March 13.

New JR East Shinkansen eTicket service is a bumpy transition

Three new Suica App system notices spell out the end of old style in-app Shinkansen ticket purchases ending March 13 for the new JR East Shinkansen eTicket service launching March 14. The switchover is going to be bumpy and clear as mud. A quick list of things to be careful of:

The Bad Ugly

  • Automatic Apple Pay Suica ID# linking is dead
    You have to manually enter your Apple Pay Suica # in the fugly Japanese only Eki-net online site (not the iOS app). Unfortunately copy/paste from Suica App does not work well because the first 2 letters of the string must be entered via pull down menu (macOS) or scroll wheel (iOS) and the entry field cuts off the final 2 digits of the string. This is stupid UI design in the smartphone era.
  • Suica App Shinkansen in app purchases are dead, new eTicket Shinkansen reservations/purchases have to be made online in Eki-net. The current version of iOS Eki-net has not been updated yet and is only for old style ticket reservations and purchases.

The Good

  • All major transit IC cards can be registered for JR East Shinkansen eTickets on the Eki-net site.

The Missing
From a system standpoint it’s clear that locally processed Shinkansen tickets directly downloaded to Apple Pay Suica/Mobile Suica are over. All JR systems will use the same smartEX approach of soft-linked transit IC card numbers with the eTicket information stored on the cloud.

We are losing Suica App Shinkansen in-app integration, iOS Eki-net app is not plugged in with Shinkansen eTicketing, taken together with backend system changes I guess JR East is breaking eggs to make a new omelette. Will things end end up bigger and better?

JR group cooperation is a classic cat herd, Shinkansen lines might be connected but they don’t appear to be cooperating on a deep level to integrate eTicketing systems, at least not from the outside. This needs to change. The JR East press releases details the Shinkansen eTicket system merger with JR West which operates the Toyama~Ishikawa section of the Hokuriku Shinkansen. There are a few minor updates on the JR Central EX system, details on the EX site (Japanese), but nothing that indicates more interoperability.

The challenges of operating a massive ticketing system smoothly while rebuilding it must be huge. It will be a longish migration of many moving pieces and even though we know what is going away, it’s not exactly clear what the finished service will include. Let’s hope JR East is up to the job when the real fun starts on March 14, and stay focused while aggressively fixing the inevitable bugs and problems during the transition.

UPDATE
Right on cue JR East Eki-net and JR West e5489 systems have been experiencing occasional credit card processing problems for Shinkansen ticket purchases. These 2 systems are being integrated for Shinkansen eTicket service.

The QR Code JR Gate Equation

The new Takanawa Gateway station transit gate pictured in the JR East press release

Every year my office sponsors a company trip. This ‘company spirit’ building practice used to be standard in Japan but the custom has eroded considerably since the end of the bubble era. It’s the first ‘unnecessary expense’ item inbound hedge funds always cut when they get a say in Japanese company management: it’s much easier to let staff go when said staff hasn’t spent any time getting to know each other outside of the company setting.

The Group Ticketing Dilemma
Most of the company trips are by Shinkansen but the tickets are group tickets arranged through a travel agency who negotiate with JR East/Central/West depending on the final destination. Group tickets are paper tickets with no mag strip on the back. A group ticket or similar paper only items like special discount passes for the disabled have to handled by a station gate agent booth. The standard transit gate layout for JR East stations is a mix of Suica only ‘IC’ gates, mag strip paper ticket + Suica gates and a single gate agent booth.

Gate agent booths are choke points. Because they can only handle one special task at a time, one person with a problem holds everybody up. Our company group nearly missed a Nagoya station Shinkansen transfer connection on the return leg when a Chinese woman tied up the one and only station agent for 10 minutes with a problem that could have been taken care of at a ticket sales window, not a gate agent.

The next generation Suica architecture (aka Super Suica) in 2021 will solve many problems but it won’t solve everything. Group ticketing, special passes for disabled users, and other one-off tickets don’t fit in the Suica box, or even the regular mag strip paper ticket box. This is one problem I suspect the new Takanawa Gateway station Suica + QR Code transit gates are designed to fix.

Disposable paper tickets with a QR Code solve group ticketing very nicely: the travel agent can print them out instead of going to the JR station, they can be reprinted in case someone loses one. An app version is certainly possible but only an extra option for people with smartphones (think school children on a day trip). QR Codes might work well as a replacement for inbound paper Japan Rail Passes.

It’s not about speed, Suica or smartphones. It’s all about freeing up those increasingly rare and harried transit gate agents from the mundane task of validating one off paper tickets so they can take care of transit users who really need their help. I can’t think of a better use case for putting QR Code readers on JR East Suica transit gates.

Regular Mag Strip Ticket Costs
The only question remaining in my mind is what strategy JR East will chose to retire regular mag strip tickets and reduce costs. Those intricate, and fast, OMRON mag strip ticket machines are an engineering marvel. However, even though QR Codes and central processing are slower, the front end machine is much less expensive and easier to maintain. The magnetic strip paper itself is also expensive and less environmentally friendly than other paper. We will find out what JR East is really planning when the new Shinkansen eTicket system launches next spring, just about the time that Takanawa Gateway station goes into operation.

Omron states the speed of their mag strip gate machine is within 600 Milliseconds, but how long will they be around?

Right now JR East has 2 basic ticketing systems:

  • Suica
    Fast, less expensive fare tier for regular transit, Mobile Suica support for Apple Pay and Google Pay credit/debit card recharge, Shinkansen eTickets and discounts, Green Car upgrades, commuter passes, etc.
  • Paper Tickets
    Slow, more expensive fare tier for regular transit, cash purchase only for local travel, credit card purchase for express train and Shinkansen tickets

I think the next step of migrating mag strip paper ticketing to QR Code is pretty clear. The real question is will JR East continue with the same transit tiers they have now: cheaper Suica IC fares vs. more expensive paper ticket fares. They will probably offer an app with QR Code support as but I see it as a simple extension of QR Code paper tickets, i.e. it won’t get the less expensive Suica fares. And don’t forget the ultimate Suica advantage: touchless walkthrough gates.

Another week, another new JR East gate design

JR East sure has a lot of irons in the fire. We have Super Suica, the new eTicket system, the Touchless walkthrough gate, and now we have yet another new gate design mentioned in yesterday’s press event release for the new JR Takanawa Gateway station due to open in spring 2020.

This 2nd design is supposed to be wheelchair friendly with the Suica reader on the right hand side rather than on top. It’s not as wheelchair friendly as the touchless walkthrough gate and downright hostile for left hand Apple Watch users which Japanese users have tweeted and complained about.

And it has a QR Code reader on the front. Don’t hold your breath because it is only for “testing and evaluation” purposes in a new station with initial low passenger traffic. There are still one-off paper ticket variations without mag stripes that don’t work on the current Suica architecture or on ticket gates and have to be collected by a station agent.

Those low volume specialty tickets would fit well with QR Code as JR East migrates away from paper ticketing all together. Osaka Metro have said they plan to test other technologies such as face recognition. I have no idea if those systems will work any better than Face ID for face mask wearing hay fever and flu suffering transit users. It doesn’t sound fun.

The vague JR East press release wording, and the wheelchair specific design suggests these gates will not be universal at Takanawa Gateway station. They will probably be installed in the manned booth areas to free up station agents to deal with more important business.