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Tap and go: Sydney has the Opal, but how long will we need it?

Sydney Morning Herald, 31 July 2015

For Sydney public transport users, the Opal card was a long wait. But now the smartcard it is here – 15 years after the former government promised its like for the Sydney Olympics, more than 70 per cent of all journeys are now made on an Opal – there's every chance the card could soon be overhauled. In multiple areas – in what we pay for public transport, in how we pay for it, and in the sort of information we give and receive from transport cards – the arrival of the Opal is likely to be a precursor to bigger changes to come.

For the most part the Opal system is a facsimile of London's Oyster.

The company that built the two systems is the same – Cubic Transportation Systems. And the Opal poles, readers and back office systems are designed and tested in Cubic's London headquarters.

But as early as 2010, when Sydney's Opal contract was signed, London was already well on its way to implementing a handy alternative to the Oyster: your credit card or phone.

These days you can arrive at London's Heathrow Airport and can catch a tube into the City using only your "tap and go" credit card or even Apple Pay on your iPhone or Apple Watch.

"It's taking the payment experience of transport and saying, why does it need to be different from the payment experience of anything else?," says Shashi Verma, the director of customer experience at Transport for London (TFL), who started working on the "contactless" payment system in 2006.

In Verma's telling, the introduction of contactless ticketing in London has been a huge success. By mid year, contactless payments were starting to make up almost 20 per cent of TFL bus and rail journeys. The system is already handling up to about 140,000 contactless payments per hour.

The NSW government has not yet declared when or whether it will move to contactless, but a spokeswoman says the Opal "technology platform is flexible and scalable so that it can migrate to the next proven and stable payments technology".

Verma predicts it could take about two years to upgrade the software needed to run contactless in Sydney, though it will come at some cost. "The whole cost of developing and deploying contactless on the entire London system was £68 million but the saving and the revenue uplift that comes from that, the system gets paid off very rapidly," says Verma.


If the manner in which we pay for transport trips is likely to change in Sydney, the type of fares we are going to be paying will almost certainly change sooner.

Former Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian, who oversaw the introduction of the Opal card, introduced the distinctive "travel free after eight trips in a week" element to Sydney's transport fare structure. But Berejiklian refused to consider more fundamental fare reform. In particular, she denied the need to remove the penalty for changing between buses, trains and ferries on the one trip.

Berejiklian's successor, Andrew Constance, insists the opposite. "Moving to distance-based, integrated ticketing so that people can be certain in terms of interchange and take up that opportunity – that's the key challenge," he told an audience at Sydney University this week.

Constance has commissioned a review into public transport fares, aimed at removing penalties for interchanging. That review is to land next year, though an issues paper already released shows about 10 per cent of Opal journeys involve changing modes. According to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, commuters making these journeys are penalised in an "inequitable" manner, which "may also discourage the government from operating the transport network in the most cost-effective way".

Based on overseas experience, however, the smartcard could allow other refinements for the benefit of commuters.

When upgrades closed London Bridge station recently, tens of thousands of commuters needed to find an alternative means to work.

"That required people to either divert their journeys to a different station or take a bus or various things of that kind," says Verma. "So we have had to put in arrangements in the fare collection system to make sure that people don't end up paying a higher fare just because they are having to divert their journeys," he says.

There is no reason Sydney commuters could not benefit from similar tweaks, Verma says. In coming years, for example, the NSW government wants to shut the Epping to Chatswood rail line for seven months to make it compatible with the new train line to the north-west.

Longer-term, the government wants to shut the Bankstown Line for a period to connect it to a new line through the city. For these and other works, the Opal offers the possibility of some relief.

"People feel genuinely pleasantly surprised when they realise that somebody is out there looking out for them," Verma says. "And that's the power of data."


But getting the most out of public transport information could also come, depending on your perspective, at a cost to privacy.

When TfL closed the Putney Bridge last year for repairs last year, for instance, the agency also contacted some 56,000 bus passengers whose journey to work would be disrupted. TfL was able to get this information through user's Oyster card data, and did so to little or no controversy.

Whether this will hold in Australia is another matter.

Mr Verma's boss, the managing director of customer experience at TfL, Vernon Everitt, in Sydney on Friday for the Tourism & Transport Forum's Transport Summit, said commuters were prepared to disclose transport information if they saw a benefit.

"That's the critical thing," Mr Vernon says. "We will never disclose to anyone else your travel patterns or obviously your payment details – that is completely secure. And we will only tailor the information to you if you have registered with us and asked us to do so."

According to Mr Vernon, TfL wants to start sending out a greater level personalised, real-time information to users.

"If you're a Northern Line user and we are taking some lifts out, if you're in a wheelchair you want to know that information," Vernon says.

Other technological advances will also provoke questions about privacy and information.

According to Steve Norris, a former Conservative mayoral candidate and independent Cubic director, systems already already exist to do away with ticket gates at rail stations completely.

Machines could simply register a chip on your card or phone as you walk past. "Clearly the next generation will be about knowing what's in your pocket," says Norris.

"Or it even could be knowing who you are – facial recognition," he says.

If Sydney residents have just got used to using their Opal, they may one day need little more than their iris.

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