Following on from my post yesterday on the Snapper/HOP mess, I felt that a lot of further questions remained unanswered. Phil Twyford attempted to get some answers out of the Minister of Transport in parliament:
While questions around why Auckland Transport decided to allow Snapper to become involved in the HOP scheme remain frustratingly unanswered (perhaps until I read a bit further into the mountain of information I have), a question that I want to look at in this post relates a bit more closely to the title of this post – why did things go wrong?
A useful starting point for looking at the answer to that question is the presentation to NZTA’s board I linked to yesterday. This covers the vexed issue of what’s called “treatment of third-party systems, kits or cards”. Before we get into the details it’s useful to remind everyone that an integrated smartcard ticketing system has three components:
- The back-office “system” which handles all the transactions and keeps track of everyone’s balance plus the trips they take.
- The ticket machines on the bus, including the card readers
- The cards themselves
There’s also a further layer sitting between the machines and the system but my understanding is that’s a relatively simple part of the system which just collects information from the vehicles/stations and then passes it onto the ‘proper’ system. It was clearly ARTA/AT’s preference for all elements of the system to be controlled by one party and this has been in the request for tender for the system. The presentation deals with this below:
As noted, there are different extents to which third party elements can be introduced, but each step leads to increased risk, complexity and therefore potentially cost. The first option is obviously to have everything provided by the one party – ironically what ARTA originally wanted and what we’re going to end up getting:
The most basic way of introducing 3rd party elements is the “device” or card reader. In early 2009, when the Regional Fuel Tax was cancelled and funding for the integrated ticketing system was put in jeopardy and then reduced, there was an acceptance that third-party devices may be required for buses – although Thales equipment would still be used on trains and ferries as part of the funded system. So the second option looks something like this:
Essentially the bus operators being able to decide what devices to use left the door open for NZ Bus to “choose” its sister company Snapper. But Snapper wasn’t interested in just providing the card reading devices, they wanted (at the very least) to also be able to use their card – so we shift along to option 3, with increased risk, complexity and therefore potentially cost:
I never liked the idea of this system because it would effectively undermine the whole concept of an integrated ticketing system where operators become irrelevant in terms of paying your fare. Instead you might end up with the an equivalent debacle to our mobile phone industry where you can pay different rates depending on the network of the person you’re calling or texting. I can imagine NZ Bus and Snapper also doing deals so that there were cheaper fares available on the exclusive Snapper Card rather than the Thales card, further undermining integrated ticketing.
Finally, the fourth option creates something like our current EFTPOS system with a whole pile of different ‘clearing houses’ and cards and devices. While this option is probably great for retail purchases and other uses for contactless “e-money”, the complexity and messiness would not be well suited to public transport:
The different options, as well as more detail on the system (such as which bits of it are centrally controlled and which bits are controlled by Auckland) is outlined in the NZTA board paper that sought funding approval for integrated ticketing (nearly $100 million of funding including operating costs).
It seems like NZTA preferred option 1 due to its lower cost, but was mindful that some operators (presumably this means NZ Bus and their close connections with Snapper) would not like this option. It’s a pity that some of this slide is blanked out – wonder what it says? Some reference of the Minister?
Interestingly, there’s then some discussion about a pre-emptive Snapper rollout – exactly what did end up happening. The presentation notes that while it’s not possible to show that the Thales system is better value for money than Snapper without “starting again”, it was possible to show that Thales was “better” and “internationally competitive” and that Snapper would not be free – rather around $75 million over 10 years (compared to around $135m for the Thales system).
To summarise what is quite a lot of detail it seems to me as though NZTA warned against making the system overly complex through Snapper’s involvement – because that would add risk and add cost. Yet because Snapper went ahead and launched and somehow talked ARTA/Auckland Transport into involving them, we ended up with the messy mixed system that NZTA had always feared. Of course then things started to unravel, rather like NZTA had predicted:
- The Snapper/HOP (SNOP) Cards struggled to connect with the Thales “system”, meaning that they would need to be “swapped out” for normal AT HOP cards once the Thales system was up and running.
- Even using a Thales card and the Thales system, the Snapper readers weren’t up to scratch, leading Auckland Transport to eventually bite the bullet and go back to the original plan of having Thales supply all the equipment: cards, readers and the system itself.
Perhaps what all this really highlights is the mystery of why ARTA allowed Snapper to join the HOP scheme. This is where the issue of political interference from Steven Joyce sounds like it comes in – as referenced in yesterday’s post. ARTA and NZTA had both wanted to keep the system as simple as possible because they were worried adding in third-party elements would add cost and delay. Ironically they were both absolutely proven right in the long run with Snapper – as a third-party – struggling with exactly the issues that had been foreseen.
It seems simply staggering for ARTA to go against the very thing they had been fighting for – a single system, or “Option 1” as described above – unless they were under considerable pressure to do so. Furthermore, it seems like ARTA went against their previous position even though they had both NZTA and the Ministry of Transport (I’ll get into their documents in future posts) supporting “Option 1” as the most cost-effective and low-risk approach. If ARTA’s change in position wasn’t due to political pressure from the Minister, I’d love to know what it actually was caused by.