How Opal works

Posted: September 26, 2013 in Transport
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Opal will be rolled out onto buses starting on Monday, 3 months ahead of the initial “end of 2013” deadline set by the government. This follows the ferry roll-out which was recently completed 4 months ahead of schedule. The first bus route to use Opal will be the 594/594H from Hornsby to the CBD. The Herald reports that the next bus route is likely to be “an inner-city service run by the government-owned State Transit”.

Opal roll-out as of 30 August 2013. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Opal roll-out as of 30 August 2013. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Fares for buses will follow the current 3 band structure, but be calculated on a straight line point to point basis, rather than the actual distance traveled by the bus. Importantly, for the first time the fare penalty for transferring from one bus to another will be removed, with passengers paying a fare as though they had caught a single bus for the entire journey regardless of how many individual bus trips they used to reach their final destination.

Bus fares under Opal. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Bus fares under Opal. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

A source within Transport for NSW has informed Transport Sydney that light rail will be brought in under the bus network for fare calculation purposes. This will mean that passengers who currently take a bus into the CBD from South East Sydney will not pay any extra for transferring from a tram to a bus (or vice versa) once the CBD and South East Light Rail begins operating in 2020. However, it remains uncertain whether this will extend to M2 buses that are converted into feeder buses for the North West Rail Link when it opens in 2019.

Fare changes

There are three main changes to the existing fare structure with Opal: single mode integration, a fare cap, and simplification.

Currently (unless using a myMulti ticket), passengers pay a different fare in going from A to B depending on which mode of transport and how many vehicles they use. If they use a single mode of transport, such as buses, then this penalty will be removed. This represents integrated fares, but only for a single mode of transport. The main impact will be seen on buses, where taking 2 buses to get from A to B is more expensive than taking just one, even when it is both faster for the passenger and cheaper for the government from a cost perspective to do so. Trains effectively already have single mode fare integration as passengers can change trains without leaving the gated area of the station, while ferries and trams make up only a small fraction of public transport trips in Sydney. Fare penalties will remain for multi modal journeys, such as one involving both train and bus.

The fare cap is designed to replace discounts currently received for weekly and travel ten tickets. Instead of receiving these discounts directly, passengers will only be required to pay for their first 8 journeys each week, with all subsequent journeys being free. There is also a daily cap of $15 per day, or $2.50 on Sundays. This will have a similar effect to the current discounts, though not for occasional users or passengers with periodical tickets (monthly, quarterly, or yearly tickets).

That these changes disadvantage some users is because it also brings in simplification of fares. This was something that the head of ticketing in London, whose Oyster Card operates on the same system as Opal, recommended back in 2011. This decision to leave some users worse off is a tough but ultimately necessary one that needed to be made in order to simplify the dogs breakfast that Sydney’s fare structure has turned into.

Card balance and value storage

Opal cards do not work like credit cards. A credit card is basically a holder of an ID number, which the vendor then uses to find your account online in the cloud which has all of your account information. If Opal did this then it would require a lengthy connection process to a central server somewhere each time you tapped on or off, far too long considering the number of passengers who pass the Opal card readers at any one time, leading to long delays. It would also be complicated for buses and trams which, unlike the readers at train and ferry stops, do not have a fixed connection to the servers. (They could be connected via a wireless connection, but this is slow, expensive, and unreliable.)

An adult Opal smartcard. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

An adult Opal smart card. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Instead, Opal cards have value stored on the actual card itself. This allows the tapping on and off process to proceed quite quickly. The information on the card reader is then downloaded to the central server to provide the user’s online account with all of their travel information, including the fare for each journey. This information is downloaded quite quickly for fixed card readers (i.e. train stations and ferry stops) and less frequently for mobile card readers (i.e. buses and trams), probably once a day once the vehicle returns to the depot.

This also means that any value added to an Opal card has to also make its way onto the card itself. If topping up credit at a train station, for example, the card can be scanned right there and the value loaded up instantly. If, on the other hand, value is added remotely via the internet then this information needs to be pushed down to Opal readers across the network, from where the value is added to the card next time the passenger taps on or off. As with before, the fixed readers should receive this information almost instantly, while for mobile readers it might take up to 24 hours.

UPDATE (2 October 2013): @TheOpalUser has discovered that Opal card balances are updated about 20 minutes after tapping on the card reader on the bus. This suggests that the card readers are connected constantly and thus it shouldn’t take 24 hours unless the mobile network is not working.

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All of this also means that if an Opal card is lost or stolen, the owner can cancel it and still retain their balance on the card as the system would have a record of the balance as of the last time the card was tapped on or off.

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Comments
  1. Nicola says:

    Thanks for this. I’m very interested in seeing how the Opal roll-out goes and particularly in whether it’s used to edge up ticket prices.
    Stood behind a guy at Milsons Point train station today who took 3 goes to get his Opal card to swipe properly but I guess this will improve with practise.

  2. mich says:

    Another change which seems to have passed unnoticed, is that currently you can get an off-peak return train ticket after 9 AM, and come back any time. With Opal, you will have to pay a peak fare to come back.

  3. mich says:

    It seems slightly dodgy to test this facility on a bus which runs a total of six services a day.

    And if IPART really thinks that an appropriate weekly cost, is four times a daily cost, then why does a MyMulti daily ticket cost a whopping 50% of a MyMulti weekly ?

  4. mich says:

    So to go from Hornsby station to St Ives, you have six buses a day, cost $3.60 a ride. If you don’t want to wait seven hours on the sidewalk at Hornsby, for the next service, the alternative is to take the train to Gordon and a bus from there. Cost $7.20 one way. It’s not much further. It just costs twice as much.

  5. MrV says:

    So only 14 years 9 months late instead of 15 years then?

    The comparisons with Oyster are getting tired, the level of discount is pathetic especially when the periodicals will go. Nobody is fooled by this.

  6. Alan says:

    I think another advantage of the system is that we will have very high quality information about what stops/stations/routes are popular, and can plan future steps accordingly.

  7. OC says:

    “Fare penalties will remain for multi modal journeys, such as one involving both train and bus.”

    Actually fare penalties won’t just remain they will go up SIGNIFICANTLY in most cases due to the removal of the mymulti periodicals.

    For instance I live over 3km from a station in the 20-35km band. Currently I can purchase a MyMulti Zone 2 for $52 a week. Given the weekly train ticket is $40 I am effectively paying $1.20 per trip ($12 / 10 trips).

    Under Opal I will pay $37.60 for the train ($4.70 x 8) so cheaper than the weekly. The bus however will cost me an extra $3.50 per directon x 8 trips before I get to my 8 journey threshold. Given this actually pushes me above the $15 / day threshold I ‘only’ end up paying $60 / week. This still leads to an additional > $400 per annum in fares vs the current option.

    Worst still the effective ‘multi mode’ penalty rises from $12 per week ($52-$40) to $60-$37.60=$22.40.

    That is those extra 10 bus trips will now cost me $2.24 each vs. $1.20 each. Needless to say I will be driving and further clogging up the already packed streets around my station.

    Gladys has sown the seeds of a serious political disaster when the North West Rail Link is built. If she doesn’t remove the multi modal penalty then commuters there face an increase in fares from $36.80 a week on the express buses to $60 a week by bus and train if they live more than 3km from the stations or $54.40 if they live < 3km from the station ($4.70+$2.10)x8.

    If she chooses to provide free feeder buses to the North West then people everywhere else will ask the entirely reasonable question of why is it good for the goose but not the gander?

  8. mich says:

    Apparently, if you drop by the pub near the station on your way home from work, for over an hour, then the train and then the bus home will count as two separate trips, so you get to your 8 trips sooner ( then, it’s free ). It’s a bit annoying to have to do this on a Monday, though, I’d rather drop by the pub on a thursday or a friday.

  9. mich says:

    If the computer and the GPS are going to do all the work, it’s time to drop this system of only having three prices for buses. There used to be 5 or 6 until only a few years ago.
    It is a travesty of “user pays” to have an 8 km bus journey costing the same as a 60 km journey.

  10. Simon says:

    I actually think it should be a price per section under Opal. Might be worth making a submission to the current IPART review.

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