Auckland has been waiting many years for a public transport system with a transfer ticket. At last there is a sign of progress.
Auckland Transport, a body set up with the Super City, has adopted a debit card that will enable passengers to change buses with ease.
Its “hop card”, introduced by agreement with Infratil’s subsidiaries Snapper and NZ Bus, sounds like the Snapper card that the former Auckland Regional Transport Agency rejected in favour of a bid from a French provider, Thales.
Auckland has been waiting well over a year for the Thales contract to produce a transferable ticket and will continue to wait for the hop card to be extended to trains, ferries and buses not operated by NZ Bus. But at least that is the plan now.
I went along to the launch and now have myself a “HOP card”. There’s a little “Snapper” in the corner of the card, showing clearly that this is some sort of compromise between various parties involved: Snapper, Thales, NZ Bus, Auckland Transport and NZTA as the main (though not sole) funding provider. I asked a few people at the launch how this will all work – the compromise between Auckland Transport and Snapper. The answers were kind of mixed: one person said that this card is just a “rebranded Snapper Card”; another person disputed that vigorously.
My understanding is that basically, at this point in time, the purple card I have in my wallet with “HOP” written all over it is effectively a Snapper Card, but with different colours. If I put money on that card, the money will sit in a bank account that is run by Snapper, the 25 cents that I need to pay to top up the card will go to Snapper and any interest earned off that money will also go to Snapper. The machines that will be operating on North Star buses in the relatively near future, before being rolled out onto other NZ Bus operators “some time in the future” will effectively be Snapper machines. At this point of the process, it would seem as though the first person I talked to on Monday evening was right – this is a rebranded Snapper Card.
Some time before the Rugby World Cup, the Thales part of the project will kick into action – with the hardware for ferries and trains coming online. For the tournament itself, apparently we will have only a very limited functionality rail fare system operating with the new cards – something primarily aimed at visitors it would seem. This leads to the first of my questions:
- Once Thales have their machines up and operating on the rail and ferry network, will I be able to use the card I got on Monday night to pay for a train or ferry fare?
Of course, once Thales have their hardware up and running we find ourselves facing an interesting issue. Will all the ‘back-office’ stuff – the ‘clearing house’ the software behind the scenes, the bank account that everyone’s money sits in – remain with Snapper or will it be transfered to another agency, like Auckland Transport, Thales or NZTA? Which relates to my next unanswered question:
- Will we effectively have two ticketing systems operating ‘side-by-side’, that just happen to be interchangeable, or will we have one core system that handles all the transactions (operated by NZTA presumably), but a variety of cards and machines that can access that system?
The clearest explanation of how the system might work I have ever heard was from Snapper CEO Miki Szikszai, who suggested that the way EFTPOS works could be a useful comparison: you have multiple banks, multiple machine types – yet it all still works. I’m not sure whether that’s what Auckland Transport (and ARTA before them) have had in mind for this system though, and I’m not sure whether that kind of approach is in the best interests of the public transport system (which may benefit more from time-based, unlimited travel tickets rather than from a different version of e-Cash).
Another interesting aspect to the issue relates to the other bus companies. If I were Ritchies or Howick & Eastern or whoever, I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel being part of a ticketing system operated by a sister company of one of my main competitors, NZ Bus. This tends to suggest that, in the longer term, it seems likely that the system (all the back office stuff and where the money is kept) may be centralised, with the cards (either the ‘Snapper/HOP’ or the ‘Full Hop’) being able to tap into that system to work our your journey cost and shift the funds around to pay for it. That leads to my next question:
- When will the other bus companies in Auckland (Ritchies, Howick and Eastern, Birkenhead Transport and Urban Express) start accepting the HOP card? Will they accept the purple card I got on Monday night, and will all the same fare options be available to me?
In my blog post on the HOP launch, I lamented the fact that it seems we will not be shifting to a zoned based fares system, providing free transfers, for quite some time yet (if ever). As much of the reason for having integrated ticketing is to enable easier transfers between services – so we no longer have to provide an inefficient ‘everywhere to everywhere’ bus network – this is a huge disappointment. Which leads to my next question:
- Will we be shifting to a zone based fares system? If so, when will this happen and will the HOP card (including the one I got on Monday) be able to technically handle significant changes to the fare system in the future?
The final few questions I have are a bit all over the place, so I’ll simply put them together:
- When will a monthly pass option be available for use with the HOP card?
- Will I be able to top up the balance of my HOP card online without having to buy a stupid USB dongle thing – like one needs to top up their Snapper Card? With the London Oyster Card one can simply top up their Oyster account from the internet.
- Will the system, and the current cards, ensure we pay the best fare – by using features such as ‘fare capping’ at a daily rate?
- Will the system be able to have ‘automatic topups’ like is available with the Oyster Card in London?
I think my final question is perhaps the most obvious one of all:
- Why are all the parties being so incredibly opaque about this whole process? Why is it so hard for them to simply tell us what’s going on?
I’ll probably put this together into an email to send off to various senior staff at Auckland Transport (although most of them seem to read this blog so I have no problem if they wish to post the answers in the comments). If readers have further questions, feel free to add them in and I’ll do my best to get those questions answered.