Here is my collection of Australian public transport smartcards.
The ones I’m missing are Adelaide, Canberra and Tasmania — all of which have been introduced since my last visits there.
Notably Perth’s SmartRider is the only card that is blank on the back, which is why the card number (which I’ve blacked-out) is on the front.
Some friends and family have also given me cards from overseas, though what I find most interesting is not the card designs themselves, but how the systems work for users — the response times in particular, but also the opportunities to top them up, the availability and pricing of single tickets, and so on — and to judge those, you really need to use the systems.
I’ll get to writing up our Brisbane trip in full excruiciating detail in due course, but first what everyone wants to know: How is Go Card compared to Myki?
Go Card seems faster; more responsive. On buses, ferries and railway stations we consistently seemed to get sub-second response times when touching the card — clearly faster than Myki. This might reflect that the Go Card, provided by Cubic (which built London’s Oyster card system), is a more mature technology. It also doesn’t have Windows CE on all the devices, which may help to slow down Myki further.
The caveat however, is that major station fare gates open a good deal slower than Melbourne’s — both the older Metcard gates fitted with Myki readers, and the new Myki-only gates seen at Melbourne Central and Parliament stations. Quieter Brisbane stations had no fare gates, only standalone readers, like in Melbourne.
I didn’t notice any Go Card readers or machines that weren’t working, though on the bus between Nerang and Surfers Paradise, I did see a nearby reader go to “Please wait…” status for an extended period on the trip to and from the beach. Perhaps it does that when crossing zone boundaries or something.
Judge for yourself:
Given the fast response times, peak hour buses didn’t seem to be a major problem for Go Card, with hordes of people able to enter and exit, touching their cards as necessary. However I didn’t see any crowds or conditions that were comparable to crowded Melbourne trams (with wide doors used for both entry and exit at the same time).
This is a feature that Myki does not yet have (unless you are willing to pay a $9.80 administration fee). This is particularly important given the Myki plan to have no short-term/paper tickets available.
Like Myki, Go Cards can be topped-up can be done online or at the machines, or via bus drivers in $5 increments. (Top-up via bus drivers is currently possible with Myki in regional cities, for any amount, but it’s not clear if this will ever be available in Melbourne). You can also register for auto top-up, as with Myki.
We used station machines to top-up. They had touch screens which perhaps weren’t as sensitive as they should have been (nor as responsive as the Myki machines), and sometimes took a few more presses than necessary to get to the right options.
One top-up via a credit card didn’t work, just moments after I’d used the same credit card to top-up another Go Card. But it didn’t seem to be an issue with doing two transactions on the same credit card, as that worked on another day. Using cash worked fine.
One problem we had is that it’s hard to work out how much your trip will cost. The fares are on the web site (if a little difficult to find, as they are not linked from the Go Card pages), but the (excellent) mobile web Journey Planner didn’t mention the zones or costs. Printed timetables and maps did show zones.
This made it difficult as we didn’t want to put too much money on the cards since we were only staying for five days. In the end we had about $8 left on our cards when we flew home, though this can be refunded (see above).
South East Queensland’s Translink system has 23 zones, much smaller than Melbourne’s two zones (though bear in mind the comparable area would include places like Geelong, which is slated to be zone 4 under Myki). Suburban Brisbane, as far as I can make out, stretches up to about 8-9 zones from the CBD.
This is both good and bad. Lots of smaller zones means travel across zone boundaries isn’t such a big jump, though the cost of a short trip is not that much cheaper (a single zone trip on Go Card: $2.65; on Myki $3.02 or $2.02).
I wonder if the smaller zones encourage more people to drive to zone boundaries to get a cheaper fare, or if the smaller increments prevent this problem. In Melbourne this happens, but because there’s only one zone boundary, it limits how many locations get swamped by park and riders.
Go Card offers off-peak fares at 15% off, including all weekend, which is quite good, though not as bargain-basement as Myki’s $3 all-day weekend fares.
There are no weekly/monthly/yearly passes on Go Card. All they offer is a “frequent user discount“, which is a 50% discount on any trips after your tenth journey in any Monday to Sunday period. Robert Dow from the Queensland lobby group Rail Back On Track (the PTUA-equivalent) tells me it’s a weakness of the current implementation, so there may be not a lot they can do about it, though he says they could adjust the discount amount, and when it kicks in.
Go Card can be used on Airtrain, but you don’t get the same discounts, because Airtrain has special fares. In contrast, Myki can’t be used at all to pay Skybus’s premium fares (though rumours abound that it will eventually be possible).
The alternative: paper tickets
My sister was wary about the expense of getting Go Cards for her family, and spent the first day travelling on paper tickets. This turned out to be quite expensive, as those fares are about 45% more. No wonder 80% of trips in South East Queensland use Go Card. She got Go Cards for the rest of the holiday, including travel to and around the Gold Coast.
The paper tickets are thermal paper. They appear to have more restrictive transfer rules, and you have to find a human to let you through station barriers — along with the cost, these all encourage you onto Go Cards instead.
They are also only available as single trip tickets. This may have been to further encourage people to switch, but caused Translink and the government major embarassment in August at the Ekka (Brisbane’s Royal Show equivalent), as thousands of occasional users had to queue to buy tickets to get home, with police eventually ordering rail officials to let people board trains without tickets, to prevent a crowd crush.
In contrast, for many fares, Myki is only marginally cheaper than short term/paper/single Metcard fares. For instance, regional bus fares are only 10% different, resulting in many people continuing to buy single short term tickets off drivers (which are an expensive cardboard semi-smart card).
The plan for Myki of course is to have no paper ticket option at all. This would be a retrograde step, since occasional users and those unable to obtain a Myki card before travel would have no fare option.
Conclusions, and lessons for Myki
Go Card is quite obviously more mature than Myki, despite being initiated around the same time, with the system going live about a year before Myki started in regional cities. It’s older technology though, using the (now hacked) MiFare Classic cards.
Myki has more secure cards, better fare options (with daily caps and passes available).
The key lessons for Myki, are, I think:
Response times have to be made consistently fast (as well as the other well-documented problems ironed-out).
Some sort of paper ticket option should be provided, preferably with thermal paper tickets, which are cheap to produce and require staff assistance to get through gates. Myki fares should be at least 30% cheaper to further encourage their use.
Update: Some discussion on the points above on the Rail Back On Track forum. Regarding the Journey Planner showing zones, this is true for the main Translink web site, but not the mobile version. And I did know that Go Card refunds can be done over-the-counter, but assumed we wouldn’t have time to do this when catching the Airtrain back to the airport.
Update 2: Note that the Myki $9.80 refund fee was removed in January 2012 — however although you can get a full refund of the card balance, the cost of the card itself ($6 full, $3 concession from January) can’t be refunded. And unlike Go Card the refund can’t be done over-the-counter — they send you a cheque in the mail.