Opal+ is a dystopian mess

At the end, we just wanted Express Mode

As if writing two blog posts in a row is enough to defer me from writing about transport fare policy, here we are at it again with a new ticketing system trial proposal by Transport for NSW. Dubbed as a “like a Netflix for Transport”, Opal Plus / Opal+ is a unnecessary, dystopian, fare increase that only serves as a forefront to outsource fare policy in the near future although deputy Premier Rob Stokes has assured the public that the existing Opal system will remain and that plastic cards will remain and i have no doubt to trust TfNSW in my cynical nature.

It’s becoming a broken wheel that Sydney can’t copy its neighbors or listen to IPART and set fare policy that doesn’t discriminate on what railway, bus or ferry that a passenger uses but through the adventure of Travelpass to MyZone to Opal, TfNSW still doesn’t get it. Maybe it’s because of the culture of NSW and that zonal ticketing is considered foreign, we do it better as I shout “The First State”.

So what is wrong with Opal+? A lot.

Opal+ is another privacy nightmare

So those who remember the Opal rollout, would remember the legal requirement of personal details that were required by TfNSW to obtain concession fares. The NSW Council for Civil Liberties back in 2014, argued that Opal could be used by police to access Opal transport journeys without the need for a warranty. It also required home address and credit card information to apply.

By no surprise, the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal in 2018 handed down its decision that yes, TfNSW had breached privacy law and that anonymity when using public transport services must be preserved. However there is no word if TfNSW has provided the option to purge personal information from transport journeys and you still need to apply for a Pensioner or Concession Opal card.

Opal+ will basically be the same debacle but in a larger worst case scenario since anonymity doesn’t exist. The Opal+ trial requires Opal card travel data or you can manually tell TfNSW what time and bus routes you do everyday. Opal+ will also be a digital only product requiring yet another privacy policy to agree to and restricts use without either an Apple or Google account and a credit card to allow for payment through mobile. I doubt rooted phones will allow the download of the Opal+ application since Opal Travel is also not available on rooted phones.

Opal+ is also now software vulnerable to bugs, fraud and cyber attacks and can also give the police and anyone else since privacy law in Australia is shit as it is free access to check your Opal+ account and all your trips and all your personal information. Or ask you to unlock your phone to show a valid ticket.

Opal+ is a confusing mess of subscriptions and does nothing to fix Sydney’s broken fare policy

Because Opal+ is a birth of marketing rather than engineering, Opal+ replaces the PAYG structure (those it does exist, more later) and replaces it with two main subscription bundles, Unlimited and Journey. This is the TfNSW sticky tape approach that IPART have been proposing for what feels like a decade now on reforming the fare structure. IPART got close in 2018 proposing a one fare based on per-km (which is what Opal+ does now) but the News Corp FUD tabloids quickly shut that down.

The first bundle Unlimited is no different to MyMulti3 and the Weekly Travel Cap, providing unlimited travel in the Opal network a week with an option for weekends only. What’s the benefit here? Nothing except your Opal card is digital now and requires an account. Moving on.

The other bundles are bundles based on a number of journeys traveled, keep in mind journeys in the TfNSW content are all trips including transfers until 60 mins lapse from last tap off. The subscription bundles are offered in 2, 4 and 6 charged to a kilometer and period of time. Sounds fine right? But here is why they’re terrible.

So Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, have a zonal fare policy where it doesn’t matter how you go from A to B to C, the fare is the same and only is concerned by what zone you’re in (from touch on to touch off) and in Melbourne’s case per time. Perth also allows short one-mode section prices.

So, David Elliot uses a train and bus every day to go to work and on occasion sometimes goes out on Friday night to watch the game or maybe go out on Sunday. In all cases, he traveled in Zone 1 which is clearly shown on network maps. In Melbourne, this would all be covered with a Zone 1 Myki pass for 7 days, the fare is $46 and valid at time of purchase.

In Sydney’s case, David would need to know the kilometers traveled to get the correct bundle. It comes out as under 10km, so you conclude the best option is the $10.76 2 Journey Option but the description says “Perfect if you travel one day a week”? So that would be $53.80 to cover 5 days, which would mean the Unlimited travel bundle would be the best option, which means Opal is the best option.

So whom are the journey bundles really targeted at? The work from home manager in Mosman who’s not coming back to the office? Looking at the journey bundles, unless you need to come to the office 1 or 2 times a week, the journey bundles are not for you.

Opal+ also doesn’t include any previous periodic fares available such as monthly, quarterly and yearly fares back when CityRail was around but it does allow perks such as suspending the account for unpaid fares or not having sufficient funds. In cases where the journey bundle is not covered, PAYG fares are then charged which brings up the next point.

Opal+ PAYG and Ferry fares are more than Opal

To make matters worse, Opal+ pay as you go fares are more expensive than regular Opal fares depending on distance traveled. I suppose this is deliberate to get people to subscribe to a bundle. But if Opal+ becomes the norm, it will be worse off for everyone.

First, looking at Current Adult peak Opal (as of May 2022), again there is the theme of inconsistency due to different modes having different fares.

Central to Penrith by train – $6.99

Wynyard to Mona Vale by bus -$4.87

Circular Quay to Manly by ferry -$7.76

Central to Wollongong by train – $8.99

Now looking a Opal+ PAYG fares, noting that modal fares are removed as all fares are charged the same point to  point but in all cases, the fares go up but are more consistent with distance traveled. 

Central to Penrith by train – $9.08 (40-50 km)

Wynyard to Mona Vale by bus – $7.37 (20-30 km)

Circular Quay to Manly by ferry – $6.59 (10-20 km)

Central to Wollongong by train – $10.49 (50+km)

In addition, Opal+ includes a ferry surcharge of $3 to journey bundles (but not the unlimited bundle) as extra. Again without the unlimited bundle, all ferry fares go up per trip but are not necessarily revealed due to the weekly cap.

Circular Quay to North Sydney and return

(Based on 2 x Opal journeys) – $6.21 + $6.21 = $12.42

Circular Quay to North Sydney and return

(Based on a 2 journey subscription and ferry surcharge) – $10.76 + $3 = $13.76

Opal+ throws in perks but hides the elephant in the room

Since Opal+ fares are doing no favors, TfNSW have decided to throw in a bunch of perks and discounts for ride sharing, parking, coffee and a South Pacific getaway. While TfNSW throws some fluff around and a latte discount to distract, TfNSW are hiding the elephant in the room, the fare recovery ratio.

Now to be fair, a lot of transport operators are in strife at the moment, Transport for London is nearly bankrupt and no transport operator has recovered to 2019 patronage levels, TfNSW is also still sitting around 60% despite shooting itself in the foot for 2 weeks for nothing but to get some political points and keep RTBU happy (spoilers, no it didn’t). This is until eventually TfNSW reach crisis point and either ask for a bailout or do a Nick Greiner and cut everything back to 1986 frequencies.

I mentioned in the last blog post that the Productivity Commission had promoted MaaS (Mobility as a Service) as a potential fare policy but cautioned on its use since no other major transport operator has introduced it nor successfully implemented it. It also seems Opal+ is marketing itself as a Octopus card (Hong Kong) or Suica card (Tokyo) where Opal can be used to make purchases and hire a locker, but Opal+ lacks this as it’s another subscription to manage in a ever crowded subscription market as the media and entertainment industry demonstrate. Side note, in Suicia’s case, the card can also be purchased with anonymity.

Survey evidence from Rome suggests that MaaS take-up in the city would be limited by low willingness to pay (Corazza and Carassiti 2021). A large proportion of respondents, for example, would only be interested in a MaaS subscription if it cost less than a conventional monthly transit pass. In all likelihood, Australian passengers’ expectations of the price of MaaS would likely be highly influenced by current and past fare levels for public transport.

Productivity Commission 2021, Public transport pricing, Research paper, Canberra

Now let’s take Opal+ is a success after the trial and TfNSW decide to not renewal the Opal contract with Cubic (which expires in 2 years) and make Opal+ the primary ticketing solution. Opal+ is not limited to restricting fare benefits behind a subscription or force Opal+ for concession fares and deal with the information hurdle for older Australians. Opal+ could also be outsourced altogether and managed outside TfNSW with lapsed or weak regulation and not be as restricted as current Opal fares that are stated in Public Transport legislation.

We saw what happened when lapsed regulation did to the motorway network that made Transurban a de facto monopoly asset manager and major lobbyist to undermine any reform in toll policy. You can’t rule out this can’t happen here as well.

In 2010, a ticket window would print out a yellow ticket, it would give you unlimited transport for a period you specified and while not perfect, it would cover all basic transport needs.

In 2014, your yellow ticket became digital and while more new, you lost your unlimited travel benefits and got a $500 fare increase but at least you didn’t have to line up every week unless you were the niche who got a MyMulti Yearly. You’d link up auto top up and leave it alone and it would cover all basic transport needs.

In 2023, your Opal card is now saved in your phone, Transurban has won the tender to manage fare policy for ten years and has decided to increase the unlimited bundle to $80 with a quarterly increase adjusted to inflation but has given you a $5 discount if you link your e-tag and a $10 voucher for Netflix. If you don’t have a minimum balance in your Opal+ account after a week, your account is suspended as per the terms and conditions.

Opal+ is a step in the wrong direction. Listen to IPART and fix the foundation.

2 Comments

  1. albert3801 says:

    Excellent article and totally agree!

  2. kc3302 says:

    Spot on as always. There was previous talk of the government/politicians wanting to introduce “Transport as a Service” subscription models, but I never thought it would actually happen. “WTF” was the first thing that came to mind when I saw this a couple of days ago. A subscription service is much more appropriate for toll roads, but we don’t have anything like that (it isn’t a good idea anyway, as it will only encourage more people onto roads and off public transport).

    Now more than ever people don’t travel the exact same journeys each week (casualised workforce, partial work-from-home, etc.), so the rigidity of Opal+ doesn’t suit the great majority of people – especially when there is zero or negative financial incentive. Prepaying $50 for unlimited travel for a week is directly comparable to pay as you go travel payment which is capped at $50 so you don’t save a cent – and a huge benefit is if you are sick or your plans change you aren’t tied to paying $50. The distance-based plans are worse (as your calculations show) because you pay more than current travel, with the added benefit of paying for 2/4/6 trips every week even if you can’t/don’t use them. As for the “perks”, you can pay an extra $5/week and get 10% of taxi fares (only with 1 taxi brand) which is useless unless you do more than $50 in taxi rides a week; plus an unspecified saving off a coffee etc – far too vague to encourage anyone to pay more than they currently do for transport.

    Instead of wasting time and lots of money on this unnecessary subscription model, they should be looking at resolving important things such as the fare-mode inequity; and getting the f***ing NIF/Mariyung trains running!

    And as you mention, enable Express Travel Card – this should be simple to implement and will encourage greater use of contactless. It will also remove the delays I see every day on buses (and presumably on other modes) where the 1st tap of a contactless card frequently doesn’t work so they need to reopen the phone/watch wallet and authorise with pin/fingerprint/face then tap again to get it to tap on/off.

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