Transport technology on track: inside Sydney's smart card success

By Stephen Easton

May 19, 2016

The Opal card finally came to Sydney in late 2014 and the rollout of public transport smart cards has been widely praised as a great success. Ticketing operations manager Lewis Clark attributes that to having a strong project team and making sure customers would be happy through a staged process featuring small-scale trials.

Replacing all the bus, train, ferry and light rail tickets used in greater Sydney and beyond with a single ticketing system was an extremely complex task. Completed in December 2014, almost 20 years after New South Wales residents were first promised smart cards for their public transport, it was also a long time coming.

“We were quite scientific in terms of how we went about understanding that customer feedback.”

The epic saga began with the Tcard project, which was aborted in 2008 with a new tender process commenced a few months later. The new contract was won by the Pearl Consortium, made up of the Commonwealth Bank, Downer EDI, and Cubic Transportation Systems.

The Opal card’s late arrival was noted for what did not accompany it: the widespread public cynicism, ridicule and outrage that often comes with major changes to fundamental aspects of city life like public transport. Busy commuters are easily upset by changes to such things and have low tolerance for bugs, delays and confusion in the shift to a new and supposedly better system.

Witness the not-so-positive response to Melbourne’s myki, from experts and the public, or the backlash against major changes to Canberra’s bus network, which were based on usage data gleaned from the ACT’s own smart MyWay cards. In contrast to many similar systems, hordes of Sydneysiders switched to Opal extremely quickly and with very little fuss.

If anything, the reaction this week to major changes to Opal’s pricing is testament to how quickly its technology-enabled opportunities for incentivised use had become engrained in Sydney commuters’ lives.

Small-scale trials and project management

Lewis Clark
Lewis Clark

Clark puts the success of the Opal rollout down to “focusing on the customer experience, having a good project team, a good contractor and some of the partners that they engaged”.

A staged approach using small-scale trials to gauge the initial reactions of different groups of commuters across various modes of transport was especially important.

“As we went through, we rolled out in a controlled manner in terms of a few routes and specific customer segments,” he told The Mandarin.

“We spent time doing customer survey work, understanding that feedback and bringing that back into the project team, and making any adjustments that we needed to. We were quite scientific in terms of how we went about understanding that customer feedback.”

Clark also points to the way the project team was put together, which enabled it to step back and consider all of the wider consequences that could flow on from the changes. He stresses the importance of having a “holistic understanding” of all the wider impact the project is likely to have on other areas of government, as well as making sure the project team has the expertise to address all of those potential outcomes and that all key stakeholders have a seat at the table.

“We were always very cognizant that the introduction of Opal had impacts across transport, and also impacted our customers and transport operators, so we really built a project team within Transport for NSW that had all that representation and made sure that we all went on the implementation journey together,” he explained.

“We had a good core team within Transport for NSW to manage and understand those different aspects in terms of business change, change for the operators and change for the customers, and we obviously had a very good contractor in Cubic, who’s got global experience doing this in different cities.”

Clark praises Cubic’s experience and capability as another key to the success of the rollout, which covered the largest geographical area of any comparable ticketing system.

“We had to consider [the size of the area] when we did the rollout of the devices, because that gave us a focus in terms of some of the infrastructure work,” he explained.

“Also, then it was easy for customers to understand as we progressively rolled out, and I think with some of those technology challenges that come with the volume of buses and a number of other sides to the geography, Cubic were very able to deal with that.”

Elsewhere, the transport ticketing company’s conduct in relation to the earlier tender process for the Tcard has been criticised. In 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Cubic had “helped prevent delivery of the Tcard by its rival ERG” when it sued the NSW government back in 2000 after failing to win the job. The case was thrown out of the Supreme Court by a judge who said Cubic was “guilty of reprehensible conduct” and showed ”lack of good faith and positive dishonesty” throughout the first tender process.

There are often privacy concerns about such systems — as expressed by privacy advocates including NSW Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Coombs — but the public hasn’t shown much concern about the personal data collected through Opal cards, either.

“There’s not been a significant amount of concern around privacy,” said Clark. “We did make sure we were consulting with the privacy commissioner about what we were doing and making sure that that was fully understood.”

Looking to Opal’s future

Less than two years after the introduction of Opal finished up, the government is already looking into what comes after smart cards: payment with mobile devices or directly from bank accounts via contactless credit and debit cards. For the latter, Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Andrew Constance announced a trial will begin next year.

“At the moment we’re in the process of rolling out some [contactless bank card] machines at stations and ferry wharves to allow customers a broader channel to top up, and also single trip tickets, so a sort of ‘ticket of last resort’ using the Opal technology,” said Clark.

According to Constance, the first steps include “finalising partnerships, working with the finance and contactless payments sector [and] developing the software” before the public trial.

A new version of the Opal app was also released last month, integrating trip planning functions with the new ability to top up one’s card balance on the go. Transport for NSW is also providing an open data hub which should enable development of new third-party transport apps, and the transformation of its back-of-house IT systems. Secretary Tim Reardon explained:

“This upgrade will bring the whole transport team onto a single, fast and modern network, allowing staff to collaborate and work anywhere they need to – across locations or in the field – saving time and money.”

The Baird government adopted some of the more interesting recommendations from the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal, including easing the burden on commuters who use multiple modes of transport in the system with a $2 subsidy. However, it didn’t take the recommendation for more discounts to encourage off-peak travel, which would take some pressure off peak hour services.

Sydney Business Chamber boss Patricia Forsythe enthuses that this could help encourage flexibility in working hours to spread out the hustle and bustle of the city more evenly throughout the day. She suggests big employers like government agencies “could take the lead” and notes Transport for NSW has embraced flexible hours for its own staff.

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