Next Generation Specialist
Transport Planning and Engineering Consultants

The New NSW Electronic Ticketing System (Opal Card) – Could it be improved?

opal card

In September 2011, the NSW Government announced that it would be introducing an electronic ticketing system called Opal [A]. It was to be phased in slowly to eventually replace all current tickets in Sydney, Blue Mountains, Central Coast, Hunter, Illawarra and Southern Highlands.

Currently, Opal is available on Ferries (except the Manly Fast Ferry), trains in the City Circle, T4 Eastern Suburbs line out to Bondi Junction the T1 north to Chatswood and the 594/594H and 333 bus routes. The full roll out of Opal on the rail network is planned to be completed by the end of 2014. Planning for the introduction on the light rail system is currently under development [B]. Ultimately it is expected that the Opal card will replace the current ticketing system on all government run public transport and private buses. In addition to reloadable Opal cards, limited life, non-reloadable Opal cards will also be issued [C] to make it easier for tourists and one-off trips.

The NSW Government is promoting a number of benefits of the system such as automatic top-up so you never have to queue for a ticket again, $2.50 travel all Sunday and free travel after 8 paid journeys in a single week. There is also a travel cap of $15 per day from Monday to Saturday. A big benefit is that the system also allows a transfer period between the same modes of transport without a fare penalty. The example provided on the Opal website is reproduced here:

“You need to go from North Turramurra to St Ives Shopping Village on the 594 bus, meet someone for coffee then continue from St Ives to Town Hall on another 594 bus. At North Turramurra you tap on when boarding the 594 bus and tap off when exiting the bus at St Ives Shopping Village. You have a coffee at St Ives and catch another 594 bus into the City 30 minutes later, tapping on when you board and tapping off as you exit the bus at your destination.

Because your transfer is made within 60 minutes, you will only be charged one fare corresponding to your whole bus journey, compared to two fares currently.” [D]

The proposed Opal system does however seem to provide benefits for customers that take a single transport mode but what about the users that regularly use more than one mode for a single journey?

This is where the benefits of Opal need to be closely examined. Although in general we support Opal, the cost for people travelling by more than one mode of transport using Opal could actually be higher when compared to the cost of the MyMulti ticketing system introduced in 2010, which currently provides train and ferry travel within certain zones and unlimited bus and light rail journeys.

The Opal terminology is explained as follows:

  • A Trip is travel on one route, one mode. When you transfer to another route or service, you are commencing a new trip.
  • A Journey consists of one or more trips on eligible services where transfers between services occur within 60 minutes*
  • A Transfer occurs at the end of a single trip. It is a change of transport mode or route, to another service or route, to continue a journey. Transfer made within a standard transfer time of 60 minutes* combines trips into a single journey.

* 60 minutes applies to all services except the Manly ferry service where the standard transfer time is 130 minutes from tap on.” [E]

A quick look at the 2011 census information for public transport trips by number of modes for Greater Sydney, compared to other Australian capital cities, is summarised in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of Selected Australian Capital City Public Transport Mode Journey to Work Data

opal traffic engineer sydney

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

Table 1 indicates that in Sydney, approximately 14% (57,204 customers) of all journeys to work including public transport used more than 1 public transport mode. This is lower than Melbourne and Perth which account for approximately 17.5% and 20% respectively. While there are many factors that could explain this result, both Melbourne and Perth use a zone-based ticketing system rather than the Sydney style trip based system. The zone based system allows customers to use any mode within that zone which provides greater flexibility and trip choice for customers.

Under the current system in Sydney, customers are more likely to remain on, for example, the same bus all the way to the end of the route, rather than swapping to a train that could be quicker.

This can result in service inefficiencies that require many bus routes to converge on a single location, that are almost empty by the end of the route, rather than encouraging transfers and reducing the total traffic and number of buses which would make the entire system more efficient. One example of this is Elizabeth Street in the Sydney CBD.

Opal Card vs MyMulti

Let’s look at a couple of example commutes in Sydney that require more than one mode of public transport:

  1. Daily commute from Coogee to North Sydney – Current ticket – MyMulti 1 quarterly cost is $484 [F], $7.53 per day based on a 5 day week with free train and ferry travel included within Zone 1 and unlimited bus travel on weekends in other zones.
  2. Daily commute from Manly to Sydney Town Hall – Current ticket MyMulti 3 quarterly cost is $676 [F], $10.52 per day based on a 5 day week with free train and ferry travel included within Zone 3 and unlimited bus travel on weekends in other zones.
  3. Daily commute from South Wentworthville to Wynyard Station – Current Ticket MyMulti 2 quarterly cost is $567 [F], $8.82 per day based on a 5 day week with free train and ferry travel included within Zone 2 and unlimited bus travel on weekends in other zones.

The Opal fare information provided for buses is summarised in Table 2.

Table 2: Summary of Opal Bus Fare Costs [D]

opal traffic engineer 

The major change and benefit of the system here is that distance between stops is now calculated based on distance ‘as the crow flies’ rather than the route of the bus. This provides a benefit to customers who travel between locations and buses follow different routes.

For Commute 1, from Stop 203471 (Arden Street near Coogee Beach) to Stop 2000191 (Bent Street near Phillip Street) is approximately 7.4km which would require a $3.50 bus fare in each direction. Including a $3.30 train fare in each direction equates to a total daily cost of $13.60 [D]. After 8 journeys the rest of the week is free which equates to a weekly cost of $54.40. Over 12 weeks this equates to $652.80, $168.80 more than the current cost of a quarterly ticket. It is noted that regular commuters will take annual leave across the course of the year however, it is clear that it will be significantly more expensive for people across the course of the year than the current MyMulti system.

For Commute 2, under Opal you would hit the $15 per day maximum ticket charge ($7.00 one-way from Manly to Circular Quay plus $3.30 each way for the train [D]). Over the course of a week, even with the 8 journey maximum cost, this would be $60 per week. Over the course of 12 weeks this would equate to $720, $44 more than the current cost of a quarterly ticket.

For Commute 3, from Stop 2145525 (Coleman T-Way Station) to 2150355 (Parramatta Interchange Set-Down) along the Liverpool to Parramatta T-Way is approximately 2km or $2.10 each way. Parramatta to Wynyard station is in the 20km to 30km range which is $4.70 each way [D]. Over the course of a week, even with the 8 journey maximum cost, this would be $54.40 per week. Over the course of 12 weeks this would equate to $652.80, $85.80 more than the current cost of a quarterly ticket.

While these trips are only examples, there are many possible combinations where regular commuters will be considerably worse off financially over the course of the year. We have not looked at the proposed light rail route out to Kingsford and Randwick however if the penalty remains for changing mode, it is likely that it will not achieve its full potential in successfully removing buses and cars from the road network.

The introduction of the Opal ticketing system will provide a number of benefits and certainly it is near impossible to provide benefits to everyone, however as the Opal smart card provides for the ability to manage fares according to mode and location, perhaps the time has come for Transport for NSW to alter its charging of individual trips and consider a fully integrated public transport ticketing system which looks at journeys instead. By enabling fully integrated journeys across the network and not penalising customers for switching modes, it might encourage more people to get out of their cars and in turn, reducing traffic.

There are many historical hangovers in Sydney’s public transport system which are being improved by the current government, but perhaps it is time for a change of the complicated fare structure to one that does not penalise customers for changing modes on the same journey?








All references last accessed 13 January 2014


Matthew Houlden
Alan Stewart