An article in today’s NZ Herald confirms that HOP cards will need to be changed over later this year to the new Thales system, enabling them to work on all buses, trains and ferries.
Auckland’s “integrated” public transport cards, introduced in May with a $1 million marketing budget from the public purse, will have to be replaced because they are not compatible with a new system for trains, ferries and some bus companies.
More than 93,000 electronic Hop cards, supplied by Snapper, are in use – but they work only on NZ Bus services.
NZ Bus and Snapper – which was beaten in 2009 by French electronics and military technology giant Thales to an $87 million supply and operating contract for an Auckland region-wide integrated ticketing scheme – are owned by Wellington-based investment company Infratil.
From the middle of this year, the Hop cards will have to be replaced at an undisclosed cost to Auckland Transport by upgraded versions suitable for all forms of public transport using the Thales system.
These include trains, ferries and bus services such as Northern Express operator Ritchies Transport, Howick and Eastern, Birkenhead Transport, Urban Express and Bayes Coachlines.
This issue has been brewing for almost a year now, since HOP was first launched, and is the result of a pretty complex number of factors – stretching back a number of additional years and related to Snapper’s role in the whole integrated ticketing project. Effectively, when Thales won the contract to provide the integrated ticketing system for Auckland, Snapper were pretty grumpy about the whole thing and as their owner (Infratil) also owned NZ Bus, a deal between the two was stitched up that would introduce the Snapper Card onto NZ Bus services in advance of Thales’s system being rolled out.
The charitable side of me notes that NZ Bus’s old ticketing machinery was no longer supported, and the machines were breaking down on a very regular basis. The cynical side of me thinks that the whole process was just Snapper trying to ‘throw a spanner in the works’. In any case, a compromise deal was struck whereby Auckland would see Snapper Cards introduced on NZ Bus services, but rebranded to look like HOP cards. I think all parties hoped that the technology would evolve to enable those HOP/Snapper Cards to be useable on the Thales system once that was up and running – thereby avoiding the need for a card-swap – but that hasn’t happened.
I think it’s a bit mean to beat up Auckland Transport for their role in all of this. When NZ Bus decided to go with Snapper, this put AT in an incredibly challenging situation of having another card launch a few months in advance of something they’d been working on for years, stealing their thunder and really muddying the waters when it came to brand recognition of the card. So I can understand why AT went down the path they did last year, launching the HOP brand as soon as they could, even if technically it was on a Snapper Card rather than a “proper” HOP card. I have spoken to those involved in the technical side of things and there was (and remains to an extent) a belief that the Snapper Card “could” become compatible with the Thales system to the required extent to make it work. But it’s just taking too long and AT have understandably decided they can’t wait any longer and will go with the card swap option instead.
Theoretically, the ‘swap you HOP’ process should be pretty painless. Unlike the switch-over from GO Rider to HOP, it seems likely that there will be a period when the machines on the bus accept both HOP/Snapper and real HOP cards – enabling the simple swapover of cards when your HOP/Snapper card runs out of credit. I think it’d be a good idea for the cards to look different too (and not just through the removal of the Snapper logo) to avoid confusion.
In the end, it seems that the only real loser out of this becomes Snapper. While it remains to be seen whether people get to keep their HOP/Snapper cards and still get a new “proper HOP” card for free, Snapper is getting squeezed out of both things it does: Thales kicking it out of the public transport side of their business (aside from the card readers on the bus) and a new generation of bank/credit cards with contactless operation starting to squeeze them out of the retail side of the business.