The Opal rollout has progressed with little to no major issues. To see exactly how well it has progressed, it can be compared to Sydney’s previous attempt at smartcard ticketing – the TCard, and also Melbourne’s Myki.
The NSW Government initially promised a smartcard ticketing system in time for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In what became the first of many delays, this did not happen in time for the Olympics and the contract with ERG (now known as Videlli) to develop what was then called the TCard would not be signed until 2002.
Plans for a commuter trial also saw delays, and so the first to trial the TCard were school students in the School Student Transport Scheme (SSTS) that provides free public transport to get to and from school. 285,000 TCards were given out starting in January 2005 for the purpose of collecting data. However, students were still required to show their paper bus pass due to potential glitches in the system and could not board the bus with their TCard alone. In addition, they could not be denied on to the bus if they did not have their TCard. This, along with the originally anticipated glitches meant that by the third year of the SSTS trial, only 12% of students were still using their TCards.
A commuter trial finally began in October 2006, not 2004 as was agreed to in the contract, starting with government STA buses from the Kingsgrove depot that used the King St corridor through Newtown and buses from the private operator Punchbowl Bus Company. Once again, the trial encountered major glitches, and by June 2007 STA drivers boycotting TCard and the Punchbowl Bus Company refusing to extend the trial beyond an initial 6 routes until the glitches were resolved.
Part of the reason for the glitches was the unnecessarily complex fare system in place in NSW, with hundreds of different fare options available. This was further complicated at the time by the fact that each private bus operator also ran its own independent fare structure (which would later be streamlined when myZone was introduced in 2010). The government was urged to simplify the fare structure, but refused to do so .
The TCard was dumped a few months later in November 2007.
Though never used as a ticketing system, the development of the TCard did provide a silver lining in the form of bus vehicle tracking. Thus, the work done in the development stage formed the foundation for the real time bus tracking and PTIPS (which provides the potential for buses to be given traffic light priority when running late in order to improve on time running).
Like Sydney’s TCard, Melbourne’s myki suffered from delays. Originally announced with a planned completion of 2007, it was soon pushed back to 2009. Myki was introduced onto Melbourne’s entire train network on 29 December 2009, apparently to satisfy the political promise of a 2009 rollout, with myki rolled out on to buses and trams 6 months later.
The rollout was rushed, with then head of Melbourne’s Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) Daniel Bowen finding a number of problems. These included faulty top up machines at the first 2 stations he went to (the first was out of order while the second didn’t accept coins or credit cards), an online top up process that could take up to 24 hours, and slow reader response times of almost 2 seconds (about twice as long as Opal readers in Sydney).
In addition, the website was full of problems, from transaction report pdfs that would not be produced but then unexpectedly be emailed out much later through to incompatibility issues with browsers like Chrome and Safari.
“The simple truth is the government has rushed this thing to the table while it’s still half-baked. After foolishly having promised it by the end of the year, they’ve switched only part of it on, but even that part doesn’t work properly.” – Daniel Bowen (January 2010), PTUA President
The rollout’s progress was frozen in mid-2010, months before the November 2010 state election, with no further progress made on expanding myki’s coverage to regional trains or starting the removal of paper metcards. The election resulted in a change of government which then ordered a full review before any further progress could be made. It ultimately decided to continue the rollout, with metcards finally phased out within the Melbourne network by mid-2013.
But by then the damage had been done. Melbourne’s travelling public didn’t trust myki, which had developed a reputation for being unreliable with its long reader response times, difficulties with top ups, and glitches from a rushed rollout. Some went as far as to question whether myki, with its $1.5bn price tag, was ever necessary at all given that metcards had been meeting the requirements of Melbourne’s ticket system for some decades, providing integrated fares and integrated tickets without the need for an expensive electronic ticketing system.
Compared to Myki and TCard, the rollout of Opal has been virtually scandal free. A kind assessment of the reasons for this would conclude that those behind Opal learned from the mistakes of Myki and TCard.
Mistake 1: The rollout timetable was ambitious and based on political rather than technical considerations.
The TCard contract was signed in 2002 and given a 2005 deadline (3 years) whereas the Myki contract was signed in 2005 and given a 2009 deadline (4 years). Meanwhile, the Opal contract was signed in 2010 and given a 2015 deadline (5 years), despite the technology being far more mature and being trialed in numerous other cities by that stage. Under-promising and over-delivering has brought forward the estimate completion of the rollout to the end of 2014.
Mistake 2: Poor choice of trials.
The TCard trial failed because it required students to continue to use their paper bus passes and did not mandate the use of TCards. Soon only 12% of students were using their TCards due to glitches in the system. By not using their TCards, these glitches became harder to fix, and this was seen when the limited commuter trial continued to see problems. The commuter trial turned out to be the final throes of the TCard.
In Melbourne, Myki was trialled in regional centres, but then rolled out onto the full train network overnight. Not only did the lack of trams and buses mean that Melbourne’s long standing multi-modal integrated fares not apply to Myki, but the large scale trial made it difficult to deal with what soon became large numbers of problems.
The Opal trial began with the Neutral Bay ferry. This was the least patronised route of the least patronised mode of transport. But importantly, it was in Sydney, was a paid service, had readers on the wharves rather than the ferries, and was easy to isolate.
Mistake 3: Long response times for readers.
Myki readers took 1-2 seconds to read a Myki card, about twice as long as that for Opal readers. Read times of over 1 second significantly increase the chances that passengers will not have their card recognised appropriately, risking the wrong fare or a fine for fare evasion. Additionally, it can also cause delays if large numbers of passengers try to pass through limited readers.
Mistake 4: Difficult top ups.
The long (24 hour) online top ups for Myki, which sometimes blew out to days or weeks if there were issues, mean that many Melbourne Myki users refuse to rely on automatic top ups to this day.
In comparison, Opal top ups become available about 1 hour after being made online.
Mistake 5: Complex fare system.
The TCard was introduced into an environment that pre-dated myZone. It was complicated, featuring completely different fare structures for different modes and operators, of which there were a multitude of private bus operators (particularly prior to their amalgamations from 2005 onwards). These no doubt contributed to the glitches that were partly the cause of its failure.
Yet even under myZone, the fare structure for Sydney remains complicated. It retains a separate fare structure for each mode of transport, plus an additional multi-modal fare in the form of a myMulti (but a CBD centric one that is only available as a periodical unless obtaining the very expensive daily ticket). On top of that, there are mode specific discounts, such as travel tens for buses and ferries or off-peak tickets for trains.
This led the director of fares and ticketing at Transport for London, in charge of the Oyster smartcard system on which Opal is based on, to remark that:
“The fare structure in Sydney is definitely in need of simplification. The system will deliver you any fare structure you want, but it is insane to have a fare structure that complicated because you are putting a lot of risk in the technology in implementing a fare change every single time. But more than that, if your customers don’t understand what these rules are, what is the point of having this fare structure?” – Shashi Verma (July 2011)
It was also supported by ERG’s legal claim against the NSW government, in which it claimed that the failure to simplify the fare structure was a contributor to the demise of the project.
This need to simplify the fares appears to be a major driving force in Opal’s seemingly basic fare structure. For example, it lacks periodical, multi-modal, or multi trip fares (e.g. monthly, myMulti, or travel tens respectively). It replaces these with an 8 paid journeys a week and then the rest are free policy, which acts to mimic the eliminated fares. But this still leaves some passengers worse off, particularly occasional users or anyone using more than one mode (e.g. a bus plus a train).
Most importantly, the new fare structure lacks any form of multi-modal fare. Such a decision is not a technical one, the technology is more than capable of handling multi-modal fares that eliminate transfer penalties. Indeed, it does exactly this with single mode transfers, where passengers can now catch 2 buses consecutively and pay a fare as though they had travelled from their origin to their destination on a single vehicle. Instead, this decision is a policy one.
So despite having few problems from a technical perspective, the Opal is not entirely without issues. The only question that remains unanswered is if multi-modal fares will happen after the Opal rollout is complete, or whether the government has merely put that into the too hard basket. If it is the latter, then Opal’s $1.2bn price tag will be quite high for an integrated ticket that is not accompanied by integrated fares.