The Opal rollout: past and future

Posted: July 2, 2014 in Transport
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The purpose of this post is to provide some information on the history of the Opal rollout in Sydney since its introduction and to speculate on its future over the coming 12 months. It does not cover anything before Opal was introduced in December of 2012, but for those who are interested then the post Comparing Opal to Myki and TCard is well worth a read. For the purpose of clarity, some things have been simplified, for example only the rollout within Sydney is covered and when Opal was extended to multiple lines/routes in a short period of time they have been lumped together. Rollout information was gathered from Transport for NSW Media releases.

Opal’s Past


Opal was introduced on 7 December 2012 on the Neutral Bay Ferry, with 200 people signing up for the initial trial. By 25 March 2013, 550 Opal cards had been registered. It was later expanded to include the Manly Ferry on 8 April 2013, and finally all ferries by the 30 August 2013.


However, take-up of Opal cards did not begin to gain traction until the rail network begun to be Opal enabled. The City Circle and T4 Line to Bondi Junction were the first to become Opal enabled on 14 June 2013. This was later expanded to Chatswood on 30 September 2013; then along T1 to the Central Coast via Strathfield, Macquarie Park, and Gordon on 31 January 2014; to Emu Plains a month later on 28 February 2014; and finally the entire Sydney Trains network the subsequent month on 28 March 2014. This was the moment that Opal take-up rates began to take off. In its first full year (2013), about 38,000 Opal cards had been registered. By 28 March 2014, just 3 months later, this had risen to 150,000 and by 23 June 2014 it had more than doubled to 340,000.

Opal card take-up and number of trips made - both total trips and free trips after daily/weekly travel cap reached. Logarithmic scale used. Click to enlarge. (Source: Author, data obtained from Transport for NSW media releases.)

Opal card take-up and number of trips made – both total trips and free trips after daily/weekly travel cap reached. Chart goes through to 23 June and does not include 30 June Hillbus rollout. Logarithmic scale used. Click to enlarge. (Sources: Author, data obtained from Transport for NSW media releases.)

However, this was slower than Transport for NSW had projected, with leaked documents showing that it had expected to reach the 150,000 figure by mid-February, at which point the actual figure was only 80,195.


The first bus route to be Opal enabled was the 594/594H route on 30 September 2013. This is a long route that goes into the Sydney CBD, but is also quite lightly patronised, making it a good first choice to test out Opal. It was soon joined by the more heavily patronised 333 route on 2 December 2013, then by routes serviced by buses from the Kuring-gai depot (14 April 2014), Waverly depot (28 April 2014), Forest Coach Lines (10 June 2014), and Hillsbus (30 June 2014).

Buses are the first mode of transport to have mobile Opal readers installed. Trains and ferries have Opal readers installed at stations and wharves which have fixed line connections, whereas the readers on buses are on the actual vehicles and transmit travel information via the mobile network. This means information is updated quite promptly compared to other smartcards, such as Melbourne’s Myki where Myki readers on trams and buses do not transmit their information until they reach a wifi spot back at the depot.


In 2011, Sydney had 443,000 bus users, 366,000 train users, and 27,000 ferry users each day (Source: Bureau of Transport Statistics, Public Transport Users in Sydney, p. 1). Opal has now been rolled out to the entire train and ferry network, and only a small part of the bus network, which suggests a captive market of just under 400,000 daily users. As of June 2014, the take-up of Opal cards reached 300,000. Not all holders of Opal cards would be daily users of the transport network, which suggests that there are over 100,000 users that have not yet taken up an Opal card.

This is likely due to a combination of a lack of awareness, concession holders and seniors whose Opal card have yet to be released, and a fare system that makes some users worse off under Opal compared to traditional magnetic stripe tickets. The issue of awareness is likely to take some time to flow through the system while concession and senior Opal cards is discussed at the end of this post.

The stumbling block in terms of fares for the take up of Opal is that there are 3 users who were worse off under Opal: ferry passengers, periodical ticket holders, and multimodal travellers.

Ferry passengers: When myZone was introduced in 2010, the new myMulti tickets gave unlimited ferry travel. This meant that a myMulti1 was actually cheaper for a regular ferry user than a myFerry Travel Ten. Opal fares were cheaper than the Travel Ten, but still more expensive than the myMulti, leading to a very low usage of Opal by ferry users (as low as 5% at one point). The Government responded by removing all ferries from the $46 myMulti1, and removing longer distance ferries such as the Manly ferry from the $54 myMulti2. The backlash from commuters led to a discount being offered, where ferry users were given a $52 weekly cap, rather than the normal $60 weekly cap, until 29 June 2014.

Periodical ticket holders: Shortly after the 2011 NSW election, the Government announced a 9% discounts for periodical tickets: monthlies, quarterlies, and yearlies. The purpose was to encourage pre-payment and reduce waiting times to obtain tickets. However, this also meant that these tickets tend to provide a bigger discount than Opal can, and switching to Opal can mean paying more. Even factoring in days lost to time off for holidays/being sick, it is still generally cheaper to go with a periodical ticket rather than Opal largely due to the 9% discount. This appears to be the thinking behind the retirement of periodical tickets from 1 September 2014 – it will force public transport users (train users in particular) to make the switch to Opal by making it the de facto cheapest option.

Multimodal travellers: Arguably the biggest drawback of Opal is its lack of integrated fares. While it is an integrated ticket – the only ticket a public transport user needs, it lacks fully integrated fares – the same fare from Point A to Point B regardless of which or how many modes of transport are used. To it’s credit, Opal has provided integrated fares within modes for the first time – someone catching two buses sequentially will be charged only a single fare rather than two. But continuing to charge a separate fare for each trip made on a different mode means many users will pay extra on Opal compared to a myMulti ticket. The future of this issue is covered further towards the end of this post, and has been covered in quite some detail by David Caldwell at his blog (well worth reading for some detailed background information).

Opal’s Future


Having to install Opal readers on each bus, generally progressing depot by depot, means the rollout for buses is much less predictable from a user perspective than the ferry or train rollout was. One bus is not necessarily assigned permanently to one specific route, and a bus route is often serviced by multiple depots. So unlike with trains and ferries, where users of particular stations and wharves began to be able to use their Opal cards, in the case of buses an Opal card can be used if that particular bus is Opal enabled (as shown by the ‘Opal Bus’ sticker on the bottom right of the bus). As a result, the weekly NSW Government Gazette often indicates that Opal can be used on more routes than have been announced by Transport for NSW. This is because the former includes all routes on which any bus may be Opal enabled, while the latter includes all routes on which all buses are Opal enabled.

Opal enabled buses can be identified by stickers on the front. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW)

Opal enabled buses can be identified by stickers on the front. Click to enlarge. (Source: Transport for NSW.)

The bus rollout is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014.

Light Rail

The rollout of Opal to light rail is currently scheduled for 2015, with the rest of the transport network set to be completed by the end of 2014. This coincided with announcements that new trams would be delivered during 2014 to cater for the Inner West Light Rail extension to Dulwich Hill and the increased demand that it created. It suggested that Opal readers would be installed on the trams themselves and, with the original Variotrams almost 20 years old, speculation was that readers would only be installed on the new trams. This appeared to explain why Opal would not be available on trams until 2015.

However, poles for Opal readers have been spotted at multiple tram stops, which suggests that Opal readers will be installed at the tram stops themselves. This may not preclude them from being installed on the vehicles too, one possibility would be that only the busy stops have Opal readers installed. But it does raise the probability of having off-vehicle Opal readers.

Seniors and Concession Opal Cards

Opal cards for Seniors will arrive later in 2014. Already buses have stopped selling Pensioner Excursion tickets, requiring pensioners to pre-purchase their tickets. Supporters of the move argue that pensioners could just buy 2 tickets, keeping a spare for getting the bus in cases where no retailer is available nearby, and then purchase a replacement ticket for the next day while they are out; particularly given the change was announced months ago. Critics argue that the move is premature, given that Opal cards will become available for Seniors in a few months, and that this change should be delayed until they are made available.

No specific timetable has been made for Concession Opal cards, though they are most likely going to be issued by the relevant educational institution like current concession cards are. Whether institutions are just given a stack of Opal cards to hand out, if they issue dual student card/Opal card hybrids, or something else is unknown. It appears that they will not be rolled out until the entire network is Opal enabled at the start of the next academic year. High school students between the ages of 16-18 will be able to use the Child Opal card.


The retirement of yearly tickets on 1 September 2014 means that the earliest date for retiring all paper tickets is 1 September 2015. This is the stated end goal. Changes to ferry, train off peak, and periodical fares mean that Opal fares are now the cheaper option for those who currently use those ticket types; this will be a big incentive in pushing these people to adopting Opal.

But there still remains one type of fare that often remains cheaper with paper tickets than with Opal: multimodal fares. This will prove to be the government’s biggest challenge. Transport advocates in Sydney have called for integrated multimodal fares for a long time, but governments have done little more than take baby steps in that direction. It’s not the Opal technology that is preventing this, but political will and a decision on who will bear any economic cost (the government or the travelling public).

So far the government has announced that trams and buses will enjoy integrated fares, with users charged a single fare based on the origin and destination of their journey. This is to prevent fares from increasing on the CBD and South East Light Rail which will force bus users to interchange to complete their journey. The North West Rail Link too will require users to transfer from a bus to a train, with buses from North West Sydney to the CBD to be converted into feeder services for the new rail line. It would appear logical that a similar fare integration would also be extended to heavy rail too, which would then mean that the 97% of public transport journeys not using ferries would enjoy fare integration. Given the similar per km fare cost for bus and train trips at the moment, this would also be relatively easy to do.

  1. ianh2014 says:

    One aspect not mentioned above is the introduction of Opal related (not currently using the card) “commuter” fares to NSW TrainLink regional services (formerly CountryLink).

  2. There is a lot of broken Opal equipment at the moment. I don’t know if there is a design problem or it was the rush to deploy, but significant numbers of Waverley Buses have one or more failed readers while in service.
    I’ve also seen in the past few weeks a spate of ‘failed’ screens on station gates – where it accepts your opal (the gates open) but the screen keeps saying ‘ready’.

    Many gates and poles no longer beep either so you get no audio feedback about your tap on/off status.

    The roll out could come unstuck real fast if they don’t get on top of these maintenance issues. Some of this may be the normal ‘infant mortality’ of new technology and not any system problem, but they still need to get on top of it.

    Opal is still at the stage where it has to go right, or it will end up reviled by the public like Myki is in Melbourne.

  3. QPP says:

    Agree with Matthew that reliability is critical in this rollout phases to maintain public support/acceptance. You’re never going to keep everyone happy, but if there is a spate of issues where readers are not working properly and people get challenged or fined as a result the negative PR will be significant.

    This isn’t hard to get right so maximum effort should be expended

    The biggest issue for me with Opal is still the multi-modal issue though. Government needs to stop ignoring it/hoping it will go away, as noted it has had to deal with it in some locations so do it everywhere. This concept of each mode of transport having ring-fenced funding so no cross “subsidy” can be allowed is a nonsense – it’s all paid for by TfNSW and ultimately most of that funding comes from our taxes and not farepayers, so stop pretending otherwise

    On the plus side, I am very pleased the rollout is progressing as quickly as it is and typically ahead of schedule.

  4. QPP says:

    PS My other (tiny) whinge is the lack of availability of Opal cards over the counter

    I can’t see why this is hard, nor why all Opal cards have to be registered to a user. This just seems to add admin cost to the scheme from what I can see

    If someone loses an unregistered Opal card with a balance on it, that’s their lookout. Lots of other cities with electronic ticketing manage it fine

    On the other hand, upsides to having over-the-counter sales:
    a) Infrequent transport users can get one immediately rather than having to register as a user and wait for one to be sent to them. This lowers barriers to people choosing PT in the first place
    b) It’s easily accessible for tourists and visitors from other states
    c) It keeps people happy who get paranoid about the government being able to track them

    Where’s the downside?

  5. @QPP –

    My guess is that Opal is still in the trial stage and the government wants to control the rollout (I initially wrote “limit”, but I think that is not the right term to use here). Previous comments about teething issues would support this. It also explains why Concession Opal cards are not yet available. I would be very surprised if retail sale of Opal cards is not introduced, the only question is when. The same probably applies to unregistered cards, though there is slightly less certainty there.

  6. QPP says:

    Having just checked, the website now says “Opal will be available from retailers later in 2014”. I guess they realise they have to go there if they want to retire paper tickets, or they just make it too hard for the visitor or casual PT user

    Well, it’s late 2014 now Transport as we’re in the 7th month of the year, so how about it? ;-)

  7. I suspect they may be delaying the ‘over the counter’ Opal while they watch how London copes with banking ‘contactless payment cards’ being used to directly pay for tube fares. If this works as well as TfL hopes, I can see Cubic speeding the implementation here and TfNSW dropping the whole over the counter Opal card thing all together. Why bother with the expense of the cards, when a bank will do it for you, at no cost to your self ?

    The only group that will be really disadvantaged will be those wanting to have anonomised travel, which will be an insignificant portion of the overall travelling public. Probably a noisy, vocal and articulate minority, but still a minority.

    I can see over the counter sales and possibly even the proposed single use NFC tickets going the way of the Dodo.

  8. Beau Giles says:

    @Matthew I think you’ll find they’ve already ‘paid for’ all of the cards… my adult card was manufactured in 2012 and my child card in 2013.

  9. Bob says:

    Why leave ferries out of fare integration? Successful public transport systems in Europe price all modes the same, whether it is buses, heavy rail, light rail or ferries. They only worry about overall cost recovery of PT and its share of journeys compared to private vehicles. For some reason, there seems to be a reductionist obsession in Australia about mode.

    If the policy objective is to create a more liveable, less congested city, the best approach is to have a PT fare structure which makes multi modal, zone based periodic tickets the most attractive product. This encourages people to use public transport for more of their travel, not just the journey to work. If this is supported by a properly designed multi destination bus network, there would be less demand for expensive road infrastructure.

    Unfortunately, the Opal model has taken us down the path of “pay for what you use”, with some bonus free trips thrown in. This locks the average user into the mentality that “I only use public transport when I have to, otherwise I will drive my car”.

    Incidentally, I’m yet to be convinced that the cost of providing my 600 metre ferry ride from Balmain East to Darling Harbour (opal fare $5.60) is greater than the cost of transporting a train traveller from Hornsby to Wynyard (opal fare $4.70). And why are there off peak fares on trains, but not ferries?

  10. Simon says:

    Bob, I can answer your last question. Consider the case of the Manly ferry, which carries about half of Sydney Ferries´ patronage. It´s peak hour is actually on weekends. Providing an off peak concession at these times would be inappropriate. It´s entirely appropriate for rail, due to its high fixed costs, to promote rail use outside of peak. Again, with buses, the fixed costs aren´t that high, and loadings are lower off peak. I´m reasonably comfortable with that as a policy position.

    I don´t know what you mean by ferries being left out of fare integration though? intra-mode integration exists with Opal, it´s just the multimodal integration which is lacking.

  11. XP says:

    I would challenge the notion that integrated ticketing is a holy grail. In the typical feeder bus interchanging into a trunk rail node scenario, the transit oriented point of view would be to avoid subsidising dispersed housing/activity away from the rail node, and instead ensure economic forces favour concentration of housing/activity within the rail node. Running the feeder bus network is a real cost, and users should pay for the added cost of this bus network – rather than being subsidised by users of the trunk rail network.

    One flaw in the current train fare pricing scheme is the under-pricing of long distance travel, and if anything, long distance suburban rail fares should be increased, whereas short distance travel (not involving Town hall/Wynyard) should be reduced in price, given the ample spare capacity )and hence low marginal cost of adding patronage) to most stations, especially in the counter-flow direction. This would provide many of the benefits of integrated ticketing (by reducing the “flag fall” component of the rail fare) without needing an integrated ticketing system. Any travel that does involve Town hall/Wynyard however should have a surcharge to reflect the capacity constraints at these stations and therefore the higher marginal cost of servicing these journeys.

  12. QPP says:

    ” Running the feeder bus network is a real cost, and users should pay for the added cost of this bus network – rather than being subsidised by users of the trunk rail network.”

    This is pure treasury-speak. The notion that users of one mode “subsidise” another is a furphy. We ALL subsidise all modes of transport much more than the user pays for them through taxes. One of the reasons we subsidise to such an extent is because patronage of some modes (and suburban buses are the standout) is so low. So anything that boosts patronage and therefore increases the fare revenue (given that the cost of running a bus that carries 40 people is the same as the cost of the bus that carries 1) is a benefit as it acts to reduce the subsidy we’re all paying anyway.

    In the real world, our suburbs ARE sprawling and whilst the pattern of density is likely to change in the short-medium term, that’s the reality of present day Sydney. Also in the real world, even if that feeder bus carries 1 person, it’s still going to run because it’s a public service.

    It’s in all our interests as taxpayers to encourage as much use of PT as possible, especially where there is slack capacity.

  13. Bob says:

    XP – I recommend you read the late Paul Mees’ brilliant book “Transport for Suburbia”. I’m sure that conventional economic thinking is enormously valuable in some aspects of public policy, but public transport policy is not one of them.

  14. Alexsg says:

    “I would challenge the notion that integrated ticketing is a holy grail. In the typical feeder bus interchanging into a trunk rail node scenario, the transit oriented point of view would be to avoid subsidising dispersed housing/activity away from the rail node, and instead ensure economic forces favour concentration of housing/activity within the rail node. Running the feeder bus network is a real cost, and users should pay for the added cost of this bus network – rather than being subsidised by users of the trunk rail network.”

    I agree with the general notion of trying to encourage greater density and economic activity around transport nodes, but the fact is we live predominantly in low density cities. Charging higher fares for local services will do little to encourage people to move closer to centres and it certainly won’t encourage them to work in these centres or to use them to access trunk services.

    Faced with this choice they are probably going to give up on PT altogether and use their cars. And that’s a bad thing, not only for the obvious reasons but also because it makes employment outside centrs more attractive, thus dispersing economic activity further away from centres. This reinforces car use which in turn allows and encourages people to move into even lower density areas and, well, you get the picture.

    In any case the government is now penalising only inter-modal transfers, and not ones within the same mode. As I said before this only encourages people to make longer trips by bus when it would be more logical to transfer to rail for the last part of their trip, especially into the CBD. In turn this brings more buses into the city which contribute to congestion, which obviously has its own economic costs.

  15. Tim says:

    Hi Bambul

    On you chart the last data points show that 20% of Opal card trips are free (4m. out of 20m.). I know there is a limit on paid trips but that sounds like a lot; is that right?

  16. @Tim –

    Assuming all Opal users make 10 journeys a week, they pay for the first 8 and get the last 2 for free. That’s 20%, as a very rough estimate.

    Some people will get extra free travel on the weekend (or earlier if they make more than 2 journeys in one day) plus if they reach the $15 daily cap ($2.50 on Sundays), which increases the proportion of free travel. Meanwhile, occasional users will not reach the 8 journeys cap, which decreases the proportion of free travel. These two probably offset each other, which brings us back to the 20% starting point.

  17. Simon says:

    XP wrote: ” Running the feeder bus network is a real cost, and users should pay for the added cost of this bus network – rather than being subsidised by users of the trunk rail network.”

    Well, yes. But in what world is subsidised parking better value than subsidised feeder bus services? The present approach is that buses, the highest cost mode per space-km, run against trains from West Pennant Hills and vicinity, at a lower cost to the end user. And the Upper Northern Line is then underutilised. Urgh, pathetic really.

    If feeder bus subsidies are a problem (and I’m not convinced that it is), subsidised parking is a far bigger one.

  18. MrV says:

    No way in hell I would be using my contactless credit card directly on a barrier gate. Can you imagine trying to get anyones attention if an error occured and you are billed for gate that doesn’t open or double billed?
    Good luck getting any sense out of the barrier watchers.

    At least with Opal you have some control over how much gets loaded.
    They would be better to focus efforts on multimode integration.

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