All magnetic stripe paper tickets are to be retired, replaced by Opal cards, with the first set of paper tickets to be retired from 1 September this year. Opal has been rolled out onto the entire train and ferry network, and most tickets to be retired on 1 September are train tickets.
The move is likely to negatively affect train passengers currently using periodical tickets, which are set to be phased out entirely on 1 September for adults, leaving them with 2 options: obtain a return ticket each day or move to Opal. Periodical ticket users have previously complained that this could mean increased fares for them, with fare comparison website Opal or Not showing a commuter from Parramatta to Central will pay $5.71 per week more with Opal than with a myTrain quarterly ticket. The Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian has countered this by arguing that this is not a fair comparison as “customers pay hundreds or thousands of dollars up front for travel they may not take, for example when on annual leave, or if sick”. She adds that periodical tickets only “represent about four per cent of all tickets sold” and that “the Opal card offers cheaper fares, with around 90 per cent of customers the same or better off financially under Opal”.
Pensioner Excursion Tickets will also be retained for now, albeit no longer sold onboard buses; while most concession tickets are being kept, with only periodical concession tickets on trains to be retired on 1 September. An Opal card for children has been released, with the Pensioner Opal card to be rolled out later this year. A concession Opal card had been previously mentioned, but now no longer appears on the Opal website.
The news comes as Opal is set to be rolled out to another 96 buses operated by Forest Coach Lines in Sydney’s North from 10 June.
Commentary: Are paper tickets worth keeping?
The government’s decision to completely phase out paper tickets, and to begin their retirement while Opal is still being rolled out is both surprising and risky.
It is surprising as the occasional user or short term visitor to Sydney may still require access to paper tickets for a single or infrequent trip that does not warrant putting down the $40 deposit required for an Opal card. By comparison, Melbourne’s Myki card requires a
$7 $6 deposit, which is then fully refundable.
It is also risky in that it forces some passengers from periodical to Opal fares, which for many will create a feeling of being worse off. The Minister is correct in saying that these tickets are a very small minority, and that some will actually still be better off due to passengers having to pay up front for their periodicals even if some days are unused due to illness or holidays. But it remains risky.
A less risky approach may have been to increase the price of periodicals over a few years at a much faster rate than Opal (and other paper tickets) until eventually all passengers moved voluntarily to Opal. At that point, retiring paper tickets would become much easier. It’s also somewhat ironic that this is a problem of the government’s own making – it announced back in 2011 that it would heavily discount periodical tickets to encourage their use. Now that it has decided to remove this heavy discounting, this stop gap solution to a problem has become its own problem.
None of this is to say that the end goal of a paperless transport ticketing system is a bad one. Removing these 20th century methods of fare payment and replacing them with Opal will reduce dwell times for buses and improve passenger movement through congested stations. It will also provide much needed data for the government, which will help to better direct the limited transport budget to where it is most needed. So while unpopular, decisions that help to move more quickly in the right direction should be welcomed rather than criticised.
In that sense, today’s announcement is either an example of foolhardy decision making or of true leadership. Take your pick.