You can check your Opal card balance on a phone. #Myki? Don’t hold your breath.

Outside Australia, numerous public transport smartcard systems have apps that let you instantly check the balance of a card using a phone that uses Near Field Communication (NFC).

Most such phones are Android, but the Apple iPhone 6 and later also has it.

Because the “master record” for this data is kept on the card itself, only checking via NFC can guarantee details that are completely up to date — unlike checking via the web or other apps which can’t read the card (such as Myki Plus* and Pay 24). Reading from the web site means it may take several hours or even longer to update.

It seems NSW’s Opal Card has just joined the NFC app club… for Android only at this stage, it appears.

So I just checked my Opal balance on my phone. Neato.

Opal NFC phone appOpal NFC phone app

I think Opal is the first Australian public transport smartcard to offer this.

How long will we wait for Myki to provide this? The web site has barely changed in 6 years, so I wouldn’t be holding my breath — though the tendering to a new operator for the ticket system may mean we’ll see these types of improvements. Indeed, the operator of Opal, Cubic, is one of the short listed companies to run Myki.

Already the Vix-provided gates/readers are appearing at more stations, with response time much more in line with other systems around the world. Just shows how we benefit if the ticketing system is run by a company that actually has some experience at it.

  • Transport for NSW: Opal apps
  • Previously on the blog: What can you see on a Myki card by using an NFC app? — not very much. It’s all encrypted.
  • *Myki Plus’s description misleadingly implies it does use NFC to read the card. It doesn’t. In the fineprint on their web site, it says: “Myki Plus displays the information retrieved from the myki website. This may mean there is a delay between when you touch on and when your balance is updated.”
  • Of course, one should always be cautious about financial transactions such as topping-up your Myki when using an unofficial app. I’d rather stick to the clunky web site, myself.

Sydney’s Opal card

(Backdated. Posted 14/11/2014.)

During the Sydney trip I tried out Opal card, and M got one as well to try.

It’s worth remembering that although the system is provided by Cubic, who built London’s Oyster system, its cost is not insubstantial — $1.2 billion over 15 years. It’s not quite as expensive, but is in the ballpark as Myki ($1.5 billion over ten years).

Opal card standalone reader

Obtaining and topping up

I ordered mine online; it arrived by post within about a week. They’re only available online, or via retailers. Not stations.

Same with topping up, which is heavily restricted as to the amounts you can use. At retailers it’s $10, $20 etc. Online it’s only $40, $80, $120…! At least online topup is fast — one hour vs Myki’s “up to 24 hours” (though in practice Myki is often faster).

The cards are free, but with a minimum top-up.

It’s unclear if they will make buying and topping-up more widely available in future or not. One local contact believes they plan to push Auto Topup for most users — this of course is impractical for most tourists.

For now the paper (magnetic stripe) ticket machines remain in use, and presumably will be kept for some time, alongside Opal — perhaps indefinitely as a single use ticket option?

Sydney station ticket machine

In use

This is what really matters: from the first trip on the airport train on the first day, to the last use late on Saturday night, it was easy. Tap on, tap off (and that’s the language they use). The response times on stations, buses and ferries seemed uniformly fast, unlike Myki (which changed its language from “scan” to “touch” when it became obvious the response times wouldn’t be fast enough for “scan”).

The fare gates and buses still take the mag stripe tickets as well. Suburban stations and ferry stops had standalone readers on poles, which are a lot nicer looking than the Myki or Go Card ones. (Unlike in Brisbane, which has readers on the ferries, Sydney’s are on the wharves.)

The balance/status was shown on each tap on a colour screen… but it doesn’t stay up if you hold the card to it, as with Myki.

Fares

The fares are confusing.

Sydney is keeping its segmented fare system, and the base fares are reasonably priced, but the different modes are all charged separately.

Change from bus to bus? Or train to train? Ferry to ferry? All free, as long as the next trip is less than an hour later. (The light rail is not yet on Opal.)

Mix the modes? You get charged again, with no discount. It means the fares can quickly add up — on one day we took all three modes, and it ended up costing about double what similar travel might have costed cost in Melbourne.

No free transfer between modes has big implications for the network, and helps explain why so many Sydney bus routes run all the way into the city, duplicating trains.

Apparently there are hints that fares will be reformed in the future, but nothing is confirmed.

There are caps to stop costs getting too out of hand. This I found somewhat confusing.

It’s 8 journeys then free for the rest of the week, so if you travel a lot at the start of the week, you’ll find the rest of your travel until Sunday is free. I knew about this one, but expected (rightly) that we wouldn’t get to the 8, even with a fair bit of moseying around.

There’s also a $15 per day cap (a bargain $2.50 on Sundays). We hit the $15 cap on Saturday, via multiple train, ferry and bus trips.

The caps replace most of the weekly/monthly/yearly options on the old ticket system. There have been complaints that a lot of people end up paying more overall under the new system.

Opal fare gates, Circular Quay

I didn’t know (or had forgotten) about the $15 cap, and we ended up unnecessarily topping up our cards as I thought we needed to pay a few more fares on our travels.

But we hit the $15 cap on Saturday, and ended up with balances above the top-up levels, meaning we would have never hit zero if we hadn’t topped-up. So we needn’t have bothered. Perhaps… or not? Unlike Myki the minimum balance to tap-on and keep travelling isn’t zero — it’s the minimum possible fare: $2.10 for buses, $3.30 for trains, and $5.60 for ferries. This reflects that the card itself is free, though you could still drive the balance below zero by then making a trip that’s a longer distance.

So if we hadn’t topped-up, even though we hit the daily cap, I don’t know if we’d have been able to keep tapping-on to travel, because we would have been below the minimum balance.

As it is, I have $20.28 left on my card ready for my next trip to Sydney. It seems you can get an unused balance refunded by returning the card — but only paid into an Australian bank account or via a cheque, so impractical for overseas tourists.

Opal web site

Web site

Finally, the web site. It’s good. Obviously it’s relatively new. The Myki web site appears not to have been revamped since its original design probably in about 2007.

The transaction list updated a little slowly for buses, but quickly for trains and ferries (which have fixed readers). It’s a lot more readable because it shows the data by trip, rather than by individual transaction/touch like Myki does.

In conclusion

Over three days (not the most exhaustive test), I found the Opal system reliable and fast (consistently faster than the notoriously inconsistent Myki), but there are very limited top-up options (and it’s unclear if this will be fixed), and fare system leaves a lot to be desired (ditto).

My smartcard collection – I’ll report on Opal soon!

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.

Smartcards: Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney

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.

Expect a report on Opal soon!