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Jul 31, 2014

Rail lunacy in Sydney goes beyond botched Opal card

Commentary  Bureacratic and ideologically driven madness is the natural enemy of good people in public office, and the hard working NSW Transport Minister, Gladys Berejikl

Sydney's Opal card, the badge of bureaucratic stupidity: Commons image

Commentary  Bureacratic and ideologically driven madness is the natural enemy of good people in public office, and the hard working NSW Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, could be said to be much more the victim rather than cause of the so called Opal smart card for commuters disaster in Sydney.

That said the Minister will no doubt feel unhappy with the demolition of the card’s failures by Paul Sheehan in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

There is something deeply troubling about a stored value transport card for trains that can’t be can’t be topped up at railway stations. (However a reference in the Fairfax story to Opals needing to be validated at a railways station before being used on the buses is no longer correct, and reflected an earlier glitch.)

This shambles is a reminder of the famous 60s and 70s dilemma travellers used to encounter using the railways of India over long distances in which the purchase of tickets and making of reservations were sometimes treated by station staff as mutually exclusive. No matter which long queue you joined, you couldn’t get the reservation or the ticket without having the other.  The solution was to get a local friend to deal with railway officials, solving the communications problem.

However if commuters are only just discovering how wretchedly inefficient the Opal card is compared with truly smart (and simple) cards used in what are much larger and more complex cities abroad, just wait until the ramifications of the NW Rail Link project in Sydney make themselves manifest.

These involve the end of life as we know it at the Chatswood transport interchange, the destruction of freight/passenger rail improvements on the wider network, the unique creation of uncomfortable narrow stand up inner city type metro cars for an outer suburban rail line, and tunnels that can never be used for larger rolling stock in Sydney as it grows.

Sydney needs a transport revolution. But it needs a crusade against public administration madness with even more urgency, so that good intentions can be delivered without being rendered so frustrating and unfair that they become useless.


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34 thoughts on “Rail lunacy in Sydney goes beyond botched Opal card

  1. ggm

    The east coast capital cities had a loose discussion to share a single inegrated stored-value card about 15 years ago. That they couldnt finally agree to it highlights the failures of technology solutions in this space. They went with the lowest bid, which in each case (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane) meant compromises.

    Brisbane, the deal with cubic means they got a fixed set of top up devices, which now have to be shared at the busway stations which means somebody has to walk up 4 flights of stairs, across, and down (no direct crossing the roadway!) to top up.

    Melbourne had its share of MyKi failures. Sydney will be no different.

    Suica, Pasmo, Oyster, Octopus, the other capital city schemes seem better.

    The one which ticks me off the most, is the insistance on a charge-to-terminus model if you fail to check off. I think it betrays a lack of trust in the passenger, despite their holding our money (for profit) in huge vested trust funds. -Given that many of us check onto another vehicle, its pretty rational as a computer scientist to ask: why can’t it tell when you check ONTO a new bus or train, you have therefore checked OFF the old one? A simple mechanism which could stop a significant percentage of the overcharges (which btw, require a large investment in time to reclaim)

    So easy to do with a computer. So hard to convince them to do any post-install changes.

  2. moa999

    My simple question to people on this front is:
    – Were you able to buy an e-tag at a toll booth?
    – Were you able to top-up an e-tag at a toll booth?
    Noting there are no longer toll booths in Sydney – it is ALL electronic.
    NO/NO. Everyone had no issues going to the RTA/ operator, using credit/debit cards and setting auto top-ups.

    Opal has been designed to predominately use auto top-ups but with some (frankly too many) additional options for the tin-foil hat brigade.

    You can now get cards at selected pop-up stores at stations, shortly at other retail outlets and at some point they will have top-up machines at stations. You have already been able to manually top-up at hundreds of stores (often the same places where most bought 10-trip Bus/Ferry tickets)

    The amount of gnashing of teeth on this issue is frankly amazing.

  3. Scott

    A lot of this is just resistant to change, with a healthy dose of union pressure to ensure employees still have some relevance at the point of sale.

    The whole idea of the E-ticket is to remove the need to purchase/top up at a rail station. You can do it all on line, anywhere, using your mobile phone 24/7, so why have an antiquated method being used at a station? No point…you remove half the reason you have an E-ticket in the first place.

    Tourists are used to the model, and the crusties will eventually work it out, with the help of their grand kids.

  4. Ben Sandilands


    It’s not antiquated in other cities. It seems natural that the place where the Opal card is to be used is also the place when it can be purchased or topped up. In the last year I have on arrival in London or Singapore gone to a machine in the first metro station after exiting border control (Paddington in the case of Heathrow, since the express link to Paddington isn’t on the card), stuck in a few banknotes, and presto, had my ticket to ride. Try doing that at Sydney airport late at night or early in the morning.

    There is so much to commend in the use of such cards that it really is disappointing that it be so hard to purchase or refresh in this city.

    Taking your points on ease of use on-line. Good points. But if you have just arrived in town, and you don’t really want to haul out the computer or hassle with an app while on the run, it is so much easier just to buy or top up at a machine at the station.

    I think street smart Sydneysiders won’t really want to fumble around with a computer late at night in say Kings Cross because they need to top up the Opal.

    You are right about the change resistant. However there are also who want change to be as good as it possibly can be, who have seen how this is done abroad, and earnestly want the Sydney system to be just as good.

    PS I don’t share Paul Sheehan’s enthusiam for Melbourne’s ticketing system, while it is OK it certainly isn’t an Oyster or Octupus card when it comes to utility and simplicity.

  5. Rais

    Perth’s Smart Rider card is pretty bug-free and would work in a city the size of Sydney – only a little over twice the population of Perth now. It’s backed up by provision of reliable one-trip ticket machines on all rail stations, buses and ferries so anyone with or without a Smart Rider card can use public transport at any time. Smart rider recharge can be done with cash on buses or at the few manned rail stations or on line. I have mine recharged with $50 automatically when the credit drops below a predetermined amount. There is a charge to terminus if you fail to tag off but a phone call to Transperth is enough to get the reharge credited. Ggm is right, that could be done better at least when transferring from one vehicle to another within a few minutes.

  6. Fred Myers

    Well for one more time perhaps Perth with its Multi-rider (and its combination with the Seniors Card)could offer a few alternatives to the eastern capital cities. Hopefully the international airport bus route in Perth will be up and running shortly. Whether the card will be sold at the airport is, of course, another question.
    And yes the process in Singapore and Hong Kong should serve as examples of how ticketing for visitors should work.
    And did you really mean to say “demolition of the card’s failures” or “highlighting of the card’s failures”
    A country cousin

  7. moa999

    At Kings Cross there are (for example) two newsagents/ convenience stores that allow you to do top-ups (and I suspect are open longer hours than the station ticket booth)

    As mentioned on the Opal website, automated top-up machines are coming. While it would have been nice to have them earlier, I suspect the operators also want people on automated top-ups.

  8. Graeme Hill

    As others have said, Perth manages to have recharge machines; both via bank cards and cash.

    It sounds more like someone took a decision NOT to have top-up machines to cut the cost and “persuade” travellers to do it on-line. All well and good but it’s a damn site harder and more expensive to add the capability AFTER the event rather than building it in to start with.

  9. moa999

    As stated previously TVMs (top-up value machines) are coming.
    There are already the foundations installed at most city stations.

    But again, the Government would prefer everyone to use auto top-ups.

  10. Bear

    As the saying goes: “It ain’t rocket science!”.

    But this is Australian government & bureaucracy all over. The need to re-invent the wheel and “improve” on what has been found to work everywhere else. Examples: onerous and expensive ADRs for motor vehicles that are perfectly good in EU, US or even NZ ; or just try to get approval to import and sell some new electrical item already in possession of (genuine) UL or EC certification.

    Even after all that, you might forgive them if what they eventually created, actually worked.

  11. derrida derider

    I think moa999’s post exemplifies Sheehan’s main pont in that article – the utter lack of customer focus. moa, the whole point of these systems is to make it easier to use than the old ones (buying a paper ticket or paying at a toll at a booth). And as any good IT systems designer will tell you if users don’t want to use your system that means there is something seriously wrong with the system, not the users.

    For example, your freeway tolling system you claim “no-one had a problem with” is a nightmare for interstate visitors. Its not worth me getting an etag (and anyway why should I pay so much for very occasional use) and without one you have to set up a seperate account for each expressway operator (in theory not – but experience has taught me they all see inter-company billing as a chance to really price gouge). In fact it is as though they WANT to make it hard to pay – maybe for the extortionate identification and late fees, but more likely through simple lack of customer focus.

  12. marcfranc

    NSW Transport didn’t even have to go as far as Melbourne or Brisbane. Less than 300 km down the highway, Canberra’s Action bus network introduced its MyWay card a year or so ago. In many uses, I’ve encountered a glitch only once, and the usage rate seems well above 90% even though (more expensive) cash tickets are still available on buses. After you first tag on when you board you can tag on and off any number of buses for up to 90 minutes (at a cost of about $2.15 off-peak and $2.70 with attractive caps for daily and monthly use).

    Yes, it’s a much smaller and simpler network than Sydney’s, but the implementation seems to have been trouble free. Usage is likely to increase significantly with the introduction of pay parking across the parliamentary and adjacent areas in the next couple of months.

  13. moa999


    On Sydney buses with Opal you can use multiple transfers and only pay a single fare.
    It is distance based – 0-3km is $2.10, 3-8km $3.50, 8+km $4.50.
    It roughly compares to the old paper ticket fares, but with those you have to buy a ticket on each bus.

    Compared to myki (I was in Melb when it was rolled out) Opal rollout has seemingly been much smoother and with less issues – sure there have been some hardware failures but these are bound to happen here and there anyway.

    The Sydney system is also ridiculously huge – you cannot roll it out overnight – 200+ railways stations (each with probably 5-50 readers), 5000+ buses (with 2-6 readers)

    For the moment you can still use all the existing paper tickets if you choose not to use Opal.

    I am now up to almost 900 transactions on my Opal (each tag on/tag off/top-up is a transaction)(and I suspect many have fare more than me) and yes I have come across some mulfunctioning readers, or buses with GPS not working, but there is generally another reader and I have never had a Default fare or a Billing issue.

    And I have saved a bunch of money, and a bunch of time.

  14. brisbane

    Did I miss something?
    Plane talking is now about trains? has become Plain talking, or is it now just a Sydney centric discussion forum?

  15. romeobravo

    It is possible to top up an Opal card at the airport train station counters. I did so on Tuesday, at the International station.
    [great news. I’ll top up mine at T1 when I fly in and out this coming week.]

  16. Ben Sandilands


    You have, but that’s not a criticism. In earlier posts and over almost seven years, rail has often been discussed here, and with remarkably ferocity at times too. High speed trains, airport trains and metro systems have all been reported, with very good responses in terms of having a discussion.

    The common thread is mobility, and of course, plain talking. Among some of the trips I’ve mentioned was an early one in which my father, a marine engineer, took me to Melbourne and back when steam drawn trains changed guage at Albury Wodonga, but we flew back by DC4-Skymaster, past the Snowy Mountains, not over them. I started in newspapers by quickly becoming what history made the Sydney Morning Herald’s last full time shipping cadet. A time when the Wanganella was the main means of travel across the Tasman, and the Adelaide Steam Ship Company and others still offered interstate sailings in what were grand ships of a fading era, or vomit vessels.

    This has caused some thrilling and very interesting stories from readers too. And now we are closing in on the 21st century equivalent to joy flights, rocket rides.

    A few months ago we nearly had 100 comments on a discussion which was mainly about trains in and around Paris, and one reader gave us a superbly illustrated report on high speed rail in China.

    If I had my way, the ocean liner sendoff, with streamers linking passengers on the decks to loved ones on the shore, as the brass band plays and the tugs fuss around the grand liners as they nudge them away from Walsh Bay or W’mooloo would be translated to airports and airliners, or maybe to Central and Southern Cross and Roma Street. However there appears to be some insurmountable engineering issues.

  17. Tamas Calderwood

    I love my Opal card. It has made my trip to work much, much easier. It also makes catching a random bus or ferry very easy. Full credit to Gladys for making it happen after decades of governments that dropped the ball.

    There are teething problems, sure, but the system is up-and-running and it works. If they need to roll out railway station top-up machines, fine – but that is a pretty easy fix.

    I just can’t agree Opal is a failure. For me, it’s brilliant, if a couple decades late.

  18. marcfranc

    Tamas Calderwood, I’m not suggesting Opal’s a failure, just mystified it’s take so long to roll out. I’m a regular user of public transport in both Canberra and Sydney and looking forward to being able to use an Opal card in the inner west. Currently I need to carry two different travel ten cards — one to catch a bus to Central and one for trips beyond that, even though we live less than 5km from Town Hall.

    Ben, you sound even older than me. I remember as a very small child flying in a Vickers Viscount from Melbourne to Canberra, but I think we flew over the top of the mountains .

  19. Ben Sandilands


    Just loved those ultra modern Viscounts when they arrived. I was still a boy, and the huge oval upright window seemed about as high as I was, and there has been nothing, at least in terms of pressurized cabins, that has offered such visibility in airline service, not even the exceedingly well windowed 787s


    If only we could have had a National Transport card. Then we would be world class. Instead we have to carry a swag of cards if we use public transport in multiple states.

    It is so straightforward for the privately operated toll roads. They all go together and made their tags interoperable. Why did it work for them?

    Commercial imperative beats government bureaucracy any time.

    For what it’s worth, I rate Singapore’s Ez-Link as the best I have tried. It is usable in so many places, from transport to car parking to shopping. It also has the banks so keen to have Ez attached to their credit cards that they offer serious incentives.

    Funniest thing was Hong Kong”s Octopus. If you took your card to a reader along the mid levels escalators at lunch time, it would give you a little credit as a bonus. Very popular incentive to get the locals out for some exercise during the lunch break.

  21. Ken Borough


    The F27 and its variants had large oval-shaped windows that were ideal for rubber-neckers, especially at the lower levels at which the Friendship flew.

  22. michael r james

    I’d be fairly wary of taking Sheehan’s report without verification. I stopped reading him years and years ago when he became ever more curmugeonly and incoherent. (He should have retired. I can’t believe Fairfax have retained him while losing so much other talent.)

    Anyway some comments here seem to misunderstand the history of Sydney’s epic path to a travel card. The original attempt was by ERG, a Perth-based Australian company who hit the big time with creating Hong Kong’s Octopus Card, wildly successful, much lauded and copied (eg. London’s Oyster is a direct copy). After years of trying there was legal termination, and though there is some dispute, IMO, ERG was correct in blaming the mess on the intransigence of Sydney in refusing to simplify their unnecessarily complex fare structure (and across multiple modes).
    The current system was a contract awarded when Kristina Keneally was premier (not by Gladys) when she also instructed DoT to simplify the fare structure. It might have been further simplified since then. This attitude of complex fares and nickel-and-diming the travelling public is a miserable counter-productive habit inherited from the Brits. If Paris and NYC can have flat fares for their Metros ….
    I think you’ll find most of the toll roads are owned/operated by the same company (Transurban), at least the majority across all Oz cities. Clearly toll roads operate on very simple and essentially identical principles unlike city transport systems (alas).
    Also I think you’ll find Singapore’s card (2001) was based directly on HKs (1997). The Octopus card is used for lots of things including building access swipe card, parking, payments etc.

  23. Allan Moyes


    Was part of the shipping cadet’s job to report on the arrivals and departures of ships into Sydney (and other) harbours? Does that still happen? I used to think it rather romantic to read about both passenger and cargo ships sailing to/arriving from exotic ports. I suppose it’s just the Manly Ferry now or those cruise ships that look from a distance like some luxury “live animal export” container ship.

    Memo to self: check copy of Courier Mail on Saturday.

    Anyway, on topic. I’ve had no problem in Brisbane with my travel card, however I rarely use it for train/bus or train/ferry trips, usually just the train, and I enjoy the convenience of topping it up online or at my local railway station. My only criticism is that the machine could be placed in a spot where the glare from the sun doesn’t prevent you from reading the data – or perhaps I’m just getting old. 🙂

  24. Allan Moyes


    You are bringing back the memories now with that comment on the F27. My first flight from Sydney to Canberra – the view along the coast heading south before we turned inland towards Canberra. Aaahhhh.

  25. Mari Lou

    This is just the governments way of saying that they have introduced something new. A few years ago it was Keneally who brought in the “MyZone” ticketing system, whatever difference that made and now we have Opal. Sydney will NEVER match up to other modernised countries because the people in this city have half a brain.

  26. Ben Sandilands


    The shipping cadet ran a column that listed arrivals and departures yesterday, today, tomorrow and the next day, and kept a list of ships in port, including at anchor or at remote dolphins, such as in Gore Bay or Balls Head and Birchgrove from memory.

    The shipping reporter (God) occasionally deigned to allow the cadet to do real stories, and go out with the Customs launch or Stannards launch before dawn to climb aboard the great liners at the heads, where the voyage PR would have selected the ‘victims’ or celebrities for you and the photographer (with the big plate film cameras of those times) to interview and photograph. The process of entering the harbour, berthing and getting passengers through customs and immigration took hours.

    Some liners, particularly the Matson Lines luxury numbers, had a magnificent polished mahogany or teak work table to which telephones were connected on docking so that reporters could file their stories to the office, and then enjoy a really long lunch at the captains table, after which the sensible decision was usually made to go straight home rather than into the dry part of the office, in the building, as distinct from the pub across the road in Broadway. It was, for a 17 year old, part of the golden age of broadsheets and tabloids.

  27. Suti I

    To bring some Airline/Airport talk back into this, one can now take a bus from the Domestic Airport to the CBD for $4.50 — beep on at Domestic on the 400/410 bus, then get off at UNSW for another bus into the CBD and it should only cost you $4.50 all up due to the free transfer system.

    This is the beauty of the Opal card system — flexibility.

  28. Suti I

    Actually, correcting the above.

    Catch the 400 to Botany road (a couple of stops) then get on either the m20, 309 or 310 into the city would be the quickest.

    M20! – People can get to near Chatswood for $4.50 from Domestic Airport!!!

  29. moa999

    Or better yet speed wise.
    400 from Dom-Botany Rd (Mascot Stn), or Int-Rockdale Station.
    Domestic-City = 2.10+3.30=5.40
    Intntl-City = 2.10+4.10=6.20
    or free if you have hit your weekly/daily caps

    Note that only some 400 buses (those from W, R depots) are presently Opal active.

  30. Matthew Geier

    For those people saying ‘why didn’t they buy city X’s system. Well ignoring the fact that every city has different ways of doing public transport fares, with Sydney having a particularly complex one (but still nothing on some German urban areas, you really DO need local knowledge to get the right ticket!)

    Opal is being implemented by Cubic. Cubic’s history in this area is Queensland’s GoCard and London Oyster among others. Queenslands concept of zones probably is a closer match to London, so GoCard probably closer to the original concept of Oyster than many.
    Also Oyster is 10+ years old and a lot of the original systems are obsolete. (And being replaced, apparently some Sydney Opal work has gone back to London to enhance Oyster!)

    Compared to Melbourne’s Myki, (Kamco, who had NEVER done a PT ticketing system before!) , Opal is getting a dream run. Only mostly minor glitches and occasional bad press. Myki became a state election issue and the politicians panicked and tried to simplify the system mid implementation.
    The other cities in Australia that managed to implement smart card ticketing before Melbourne and Sydney have significantly lower PT usage which would have enabled the implementing contractors to find their feet before the onslaught.

    Both Sydney and Melbourne are much harder to crack with what appears to be significantly more critical and less tolerant occupants than the smaller capitals. We seem to be busier and grumpier in the two large capitals.

  31. comet

    And you didn’t even get to the privacy aspects of Opal…

    You either have to give your full name, or link it to your credit card, so that ASIO and other secret government agencies can track you indefinitely.

    Every time you use an Opal card, it will be logged. ASIO will have a computer screen with a calendar. Click on your name. Click on any day on the calendar, and a map will be displayed in ASIO’s offices, tracing a red line along your movements for that day.

    Sydney is in a bad way. Transport is its main problem. It’s sad that the city was already off to a bad start, and will get worse.

    Madness motorways. All the research says don’t do it. The only people who correctly predicted the traffic flow numbers for Sydney’s cross-city tunnel are predicting chaos will ensue from WestConnex and feeder links that direct more traffic onto the Anzac Bridge.

    Funny how the city never learns. Every time they create a new motorway, or widen an existing one, the traffic situation gets worse.

    Look at the M4. Around Auburn it was widened to about 8 lanes across. And it’s completely choked during peak time.

    State governments always got transport wrong.

  32. Damon

    …additional options for the tin-foil hat brigade.
    Some may think there is nothing wrong with a government-run, internet-connected database knowing all of your movements 24/7/365. Others may reflect on recent revelations from Snowden and others and reflect.

  33. michael r james

    Why “we” keep getting it wrong on city transport, is simple. As the cliche goes, follow the money. Good article in the Business section of Fairfax today. Extract:

    Victoria’s $1 billion per kilometre road – who wouldn’t rail against that?
    Michael West, August 2, 2014
    East West Link.
    Actuary Ian Bell has kindly put some figures around this for us, deploying what scant information is in the public domain. Bell puts the capital cost of this road at up to $18 billion for 18 kilometres, a grand $1 billion per kilometre. One could be forgiven for thinking that the business case for the East West should be made public so the people who are paying for it could discuss it. Alas, not so.
    How would this be funded anyway? Were it a usage charge, Bell estimates the East West Link toll at $24 a full car trip. That racks up against an estimated $13 toll for Sydney’s big WestConnex project for a trip from Parramatta to the airport.
    Bell is pulling his data from a leaked Macquarie Bank report. The NSW government is also keeping the WestConnex base case a secret (capital cost estimated at $15.6 billion).]
    [Naturally, the real winners from the road deals are bankers, lawyers, accountants and assorted experts who so indispensably provide their advice. These people are the road pushers. There is more money in roads than rail, and besides, rail is for the peasants.
    The answer is that transport planning in Australia is missing.
    In all this, the question of whether rail might be a better long-term option than road is passed over ….. The hoi polloi as usual have no say. Road versus rail? In the least, we could do with a comparative national study looking 50 years ahead.]

    “Look at the M4. Around Auburn it was widened to about 8 lanes across. And it’s completely choked during peak time.”

    That’s a perfect example of Braess’ Paradox.

  34. cud chewer

    I came a little late to this thread, so I won’t go into detail.

    I just wish to comment that I’m getting a bit tired of certain “transport experts” who have alterior motives and much of this simply boils down to sour grapes over the NWRL.

    Nuff said..

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