The Opal card is no gem, Gladys Berejiklian

COMMENT: Every Fairfax reader should know about the Guangzhou Metro because it provides an insight into the mind-boggling mediocrity of Transport for NSW, for which we all have to pay, including those who don't use public transport.

In 1992, the Guangzhou Metro did not exist. Construction began in 1993 and Metro Line 1 began operating in 1997. There are now nine interconnected lines and 164 stations, providing more than 2 billion passenger journeys a year in one of the largest cities in China.

Last year, I bought a ticket card from a machine at one at Guangzhou Metro stations and it was easy.

During the 20 years it took Guangzhou to go from having no metro system to operating one of the largest in the world, with a simple-to-use automated travel card system, the NSW transport bureaucracy achieved nothing, while spending millions on bureaucrats studying the issue.

This obdurate commitment to impracticality transcends politics. It defeated the Greiner, Fahey, Carr, Iemma, Rees, Keneally, O’Farrell and Baird governments, eight governments that could not conquer the culture of Transport NSW and state rail on the issue of ticketing.

In Hong Kong, the Octopus card was introduced for mass transit in 1997. It has proved so successful and intuitive that 95 per cent of the population use the card. It became the model for the Oyster Card used on the London Metro.

The Octopus card was introduced 17 years ago. NSW Transport has been talking about its own card for longer. The problem is the same as it has ever been: an iron-bottomed, process-fixated, micro-managing bureaucracy unable to implement what most major cities now take for granted.

If the government wants to outsource and privatise the entire ticketing process the public will not care. They want to buy cards at railway stations and bus terminals. They want a simple fare structure that can be used across the system. They want cards that are easy to top up. As they have in Melbourne.

Card machines in stations. Simple fare structure. Transportable across the system. Easy to use, even for tourists and occasional users.

In the past month, I have bought a Metro card at a ticket booth in a New York subway station and topped it up on machines in subway stations; I bought a BART card from a ticket machine in a San Francisco subway station and topped it up at other ticket machines; I bought a Myki card at a train station in Melbourne and topped it up at Myki machines.

But, oh no, that’s not good enough for Sydney. Instead, in the past week, we have seen some of the people with new Opal cards who, having waited a week to have the card mailed to them after applying online – more bureaucracy – got on a bus only to discover that a new Opal card does not work on a bus. They had to go to a railway station, and run it through an Opal machine, before the card will activate. Transport for NSW advises that this was a glitch on some buses but it had been fixed and customers can activate a new Opal card on buses.

Thousands of others have had to line up to buy Opal cards at the one of the grossly inadequate number of venues where card machines are installed. The bureaucrats have no intention of fixing this problem. They want people to buy Opal cards online. The front-page headline of the Herald on Monday, on a story describing the rollout of the $1.2 billion Opal system, used the term "fiasco".

Instead of providing an intuitive card system that builds on the one that exists, the NSW Minister for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian, wants to push customers to buy Opal cards online. She wants people to have "registered" cards. She wants to maintain a complex fare structure, which grinds commuters who travel at peak times so that they not only have crowded public transport they also have to pay the highest prices for the privilege.

Everyone knows that Minister Berejiklian is dedicated to the job and devotes more hours to the transport mission than anyone in the state. But the political reality she has to deal with is that not having ticket machines for the Opal card at railway stations and bus terminals is a political problem because it is so contemptuous of commonsense and utility.

It has always been the problem that instead of installing an existing card system that works the NSW transport bureaucracy wanted an advanced system with a complex fare mix. So it took 20 years to get nothing. Now it has finally made a billion-dollar move that creates more problems for consumers.   

This goes way beyond teething problems. It illustrates the disconnect between the bureaucracy and its customers. It is also a failure of political direction. Gladys, your Opal is no gem.

This column has been edited to reflect a response from Transport for NSW that the bus glitch has been fixed.

SMH

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