Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Maxing the Opal Card

Commuters filmed by SMH maxing Opal cards
When the Opal Card was introduced by Ms Berejiklian it was not clear whether a trip in the opposite direction on a bus or tram route with the same number on the front within one hour of tapping off would be regarded as another journey. I speculated that, say, James Packer could travel by bus from Palm Beach, complete his business in the Sydney CBD within an hour and travel back to whence he came, so the distance travelled according to the GPS calculators was zero, and then pay the fare for the minimum distance travelled. Now intrepid commuters have put the system to the test and apparently he could.

Journalists from the SMH filmed commuters walking or running or bike riding between stops at the Pyrmont Bay and Star casino. The word on the street was that it would take 28 trips between the stops to accrue the 8 short journeys needed to travel anywhere in the metropolitan area using the Opal card for free for the rest of the week. Four trips within an hour of first tapping off counts as a journey. If travel in the reverse direction was a separate journey only 8 movements back and forth between the stops would be necessary.

This is possible because Opal card scanners are not on the trams but on the pavement beside the stops - you do not have to catch a tram to make a trip. Any two stops can be used for this ploy. The stops at Capitol Square and Paddy's Market would work just as well but involve multiple crossings of George Street.

By George I think she's got it

Town Hall stop to QVB stop
The George Street trams will open up a new set of possiblities for people to minimise their cost of weekly travel. The Citadis X05 has double exit doors at the front and rear and these woutd be the prefered exits so one of the multiple Opal card scanners will be placed in front of the Town Hall steps and another beside the mid-block entry to the QVB - literally a stones throw apart - less than 200 metres apart.

But the big advantage from the George Street trams is the ability to break trips into separate journeys without making four trips for each journey. This can be accomplished by switching between linear routes.

On arriving at Central by train bus or tram (one trip) on a Monday morning it only remains necessary to generate seven extra journeys to travel by train or bus anywhere in greater Sydney for the rest of the week. This can be done quickly and cheaply without ever actually catching a tram - you can use a tram for some of the journeys if one happens to turn up in time. You can generate an extra journey by spilting the train trip to Central into two shorter journeys by, say, leaving the train at Erskineville station on the Illawarra line or Newtown station on the Western lines and walking to Macdonaldtown station to reach Central.

If you arrive by train at Central Electric tap on at Chalmers Street then tap off at Rawson Place (one trip for the cheapest distance). Then backtrack across Pitt Street and up the escalators to tap onto the Dulwich Hill line, then down the escalators to tap off at the Capitol Square stop in Hay Street.

It is not clear if a journey on another route cancels the hour period in which trips on the previous route count as the same journey but it probably does. Ms Berejiklian made the point that James Packer, for instance, could have up to three stops for coffee or shopping and continue his journey so long as he caught a bus on the same route - the hour countdown restarts at each tap off at the end of each trip. One of the intrepid commuters interviewed by SMH talked of "rinsing" the card at the end of a trip.

If this is indeed the case one could complete the necessary seven trips by switching between tram routes. This could be accomplished by a short walk to Campbell Street to tap on at Chinatown stop then tap off at Rawson Place.Then up the escalators to tap on again at Central stop and tap off at Capitol Square. Walk to the Haymarket stop to tap on and tap off at Capitol Square  Finally catch an Elizabeth Street bus to your destination in the CBD. Another bus to Central in the evening outside the hour period and the journey home and every journey anywhere in the greater metropolitan area for the rest of the week is free.

If this is not the case, one must switch between routes. For instance: catch a Railway Square bus from Eddy Avenue, then a bus forcibly terminating in Pitt Street, tapping on south of Rawson Place and tapping off at the next stop to the north. Then an alternative route from Pitt Street to Railway Square, City Road or Parramatta Road, tapping off at the setdown only stop at Rawson Place. Then tap on a bus heading for Elizabeth Street at Pitt Street south stop and tap off at Eddy Avenue. And so on.

Oyster v Myki

Myki terminal on Melbourne bus
This ridiculous scenario does not occur on the Myki system introduced in Melbourne. I recall that when Melbourne metropolitan transport had paper tickets a commuter had 4 hours from the first use of of the ticket in which to transfer to any other route, within a zone system. With the Myki card this has been modified to 2 hours from the first tap off.

With the Myki card a commuter from Bronte could transfer from a bus headed to Railway Square to a bus headed to Circular Quay without paying for two journeys, and visa versa for Bondi commuters. Melbourne was laid out with a classic Victorian orthogonal road network and public transport allows commuters to reach any destination it the CBD with only one journey. It is the attempts by the deleriously-incompetent public servants put in control of Transport for NSW to impose a public transport system based on linear routes that creates impossible situations. The system must inexorably fail because of the pinch point in Elizabeth Street which has been the fundimental determinant in tranport planning in Sydney for 200 years.

Commbank can't

The contract to roll out the Opal card was negotiated by the previous, competent State Government. The lead partners in the Pearl consortium were the Commonwealth Bank and Cubic Transportation Services, the corporation deeply embedded in the military/industrial complex that had implimented the Oyster card system in London.
Docklands Light Rail in 1987
The Oyster card was rolled out on the Docklands Light Rail which is a genuine light rail system opened in the 1987 utilising the elevated goods rail lines of the London Docks around Canary Wharf. Additional concrete viaducts took the line to the south over Canary Wharf. The Canadian company Olympia & York developing the Canary Wharf filed for the biggest bankrupcy in history but the rail project was sound and has been extended.

The carriages are now twice as long and more frequent. The high-floor carriages draw power from the underside of a third rail under the overhang of the platforms and are fully automated, without drivers - the standards of system safety are claimed to be higher than for heavy rail. Routes that would have required trams to run through streets were rejected in the 1980s. No "World City" has built trams through city streets.

The main difference with heavy rail is the length of the carriage sets and the lack of ticket barriers at the entrances to the platforms. When I descended from the platform at Canary Wharf station there was a looped public address announcement reminding passengers to go back if they had not tapped off.

 Tragically, the Oyster card system of placing card readers on the platforms developed for the Docklands metro lines have been mindlessly adopted for the Sydney trams.
In Melbourne the Myki card readers for the trams are placed at the entrances to the carriages. This has far-reaching advantages with the development of the latest technologies, as it turns out. The contract for the rollout of contactless cards signed by the previous state government required the system to be upgradable to more recent technologies.

Oyster card reader at ticket barrier
The systems already in use round the world were the use of credit/dedit cards with printed circuits (used in tap and go terminals) in place of the Opal cards. However Apple and Google (Android) were already marketing smart phones. In September last year Oyster card readers in London were upgraded to recognise mobile phones. Banks issue apps that allow mobile phones to charge Oyster payments to an account set up by the commuter.

Needless to say the Apple Pay app has been "synced" to the newly released Apple Watch. The big advantage of a smart phone or smart wearable over a printed circuit on a plastic card is that they have a rechargeable battery. They can operate over greater distances - it is not necessary for the device to be lain flat on a pad in order to initiate a transaction. This will be the main selling point for the Apple Watch.

At an "assisted checkout" at a supermarket, for instance, a transaction could take place as soon as you touch the "pay now" field on the touch screen. The Apple Watch currently requires you to click the side button twice: Apple needs to get the support of banks in making it accepted at "touch and go" credit card terminals.

As far as can be gathered the big four Australian banks have not signed up to recognise Apple-Pay-enabled mobile devices or the equivalent Android devices. These would potentially operate in competition with the lucrative credit cards they issue.

The smart devices operating over greater distances can eliminate the distinction between gated and no-barrier stations. A commuter would trigger a transaction by walking through the entrance to a platform or entering and leaving a bus or tram. Passengers not carrying a mobile device would still have to tap a card on the pads. With these systems the dwell times at stops for buses and trams would be reduced, achieving faster jouney times. In fact we would expect the systems in use for the Oyster card readers in London to be introduced in Melbourne for the Myki card readers any time now.

But not in NSW. Anyone walking passed a Opal card reader with an activated mobile device would trigger a phantom journey. Whether this was to Central or Dulwhich Hill or to Circular Quay or Kingsford would presumably depend on which side of the tracks they were walking. Someone walking across the tracks could trigger journeys in both directions. If they missed the buzz in their pocket they would not learn of these phantom journeys until they examined the periodic accounts issued by their bank.

The Commonwealth Bank clearly has no intention of upgrading the Opal card readers despite the Sydney rollout having taken place after the upgrading of Oyster card readers in London, and despite the requirements of the contract with the former State Government.

It appears that the advice Ms Berejiklian has been receiving has been as shonky as the financial advice given to Joe Hockey's mother in law. It is despicable for a bank that has a privileged position as one of the four pillars to take advantage of the defiant obtuseness and mathmatical incompetence of North Shore Liberal ladies.