Is Sydney ready for a modern ticketing system?

Opal terminal at the ready.

Finally some evidence we could actually be getting a modern ticketing system for our public transport.

It doesn’t take much travel until you realise that our public transport system ticketing system lags a long way behind much of the rest of the world. Buying individual tickets for trips, having to buy another ticket even when you just switch buses as part of a trip, pricing that doesn’t add up when you change from bus to train – it’s a mess. It’s all basically unchanged from the days when telephones had rotary dials, not sullied by new technology. Well it appears that’s all about to change. So many other places have a simple charged card system – and now it seems we are to get one too.

The Opal ticketing system uses a charged card. You put money on a card and the system debits the card for each trip you make. You tap your card on a reader and the beginning and end of your journey and the system calculates, and debits the card for, the fare. If it works that simply it will be fantastic  The technology for a card to carry value and be debited is trivial these days – in fact the idea of having a separate card, rather than using your phone is beginning to look old-fashioned. As far as I can see from the technical descriptions there’s no reason a suitably-equipped phone wont work, it’s just not mentioned anywhere.

Opal terminal at Kirribili wharf.

So there’s no sensible reason that this system shouldn’t work on a technical level – beyond the general incompetence so often displayed by the NSW Government when implementing things like this. Let’s not forget is was 1996 when the Government first starting implementing a similar system.

No, the issue in Sydney is not the basic technology: It is calculating fares given the tangled mess of ticketing and fare calculations that we run. I’m going to hazard a guess and assume that this system will only run point-to-point within the existing separate systems. You’ll swipe every time you use a different bus or mode of transport. That’ll still be an improvement but it’s so unnecessary in any sensible system. The Government announcement about Opal lists five things people want and will get from the system:

  • Cost effective and easy.  Each time you use an Opal card, the correct fare will be automatically calculated so you won’t have to worry about choosing the right ticket.
  • Fast.  You won’t have to queue to buy a ticket.  Simply tap on and tap off at an Opal card reader to speed up travel time.
  • Convenient.  You’ll be able to choose how to manage your Opal card and account.
  • Secure.  By registering your Opal card, your balance can be protected if your card is lost or stolen, and you’ll be able to view your transaction history too.
  • Transparent.  You’ll be able to check your journey history, as well as choose to receive activity statements.

That’s a great list. But if you really want to improve things integrate the ticketing so that a journey has a simple cost no matter which mode of transport you use to get from A to B. That’s the way to really make the system work cleverly.

Anyway it’s encouraging to see the actual Opal terminals popping up at Kirribili ferry wharf. They’re not active yet, and they sit near the big boxes that were supposed to show real-time GPS positions for the ferries over two years ago, but it is a ray of hope. Let’s hope it turns into a reality soon. We’re ready.

See also: Getting closer to real-time bus information.

2 thoughts on “Is Sydney ready for a modern ticketing system?

  • October 15, 2012 at 5:31 pm
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    Awesome post. It is indeed VERY encouraging to see some physical evidence of Opal. I’ve always known that Sydney’s public transport was far more complicated than it needed to be, and a recent trip to London confirmed that. I sincerely hope Sydney uses this not only to implement a touch-on-touch-off system, but to also overhaul the ridiculous number of zones and different tarrifs that are out there as well.

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