Sydney’s screwed-up smartcard, or why I wrote “Opal or Not”

The backstory behind Opal or Not.

Last year, Sydney started trialing its new “Opal” transit smartcard.  As a regular commuter on Sydney Ferries, the first service to roll out Opal, I awaited its arrival eagerly.  After all, they couldn’t possibly screw it up worse than Melbourne’s Myki, whose ludicrous cost overruns and sheer technical incompetence I had witnessed first hand earlier.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 10.39.12 PM

Alas, while Opal has indeed been lighter on the government’s purse and is mostly capable of registering card taps, Transport for NSW still managed to completely stuff up something that Melbourne didn’t: the fare structure. For many users including me, Opal is much more expensive, in my case translating to $332.80 more every year for the same commute.

Virtually every smart card in the world prices individual trips lower than the equivalent single fare, meaning it always make financial sense to use the card.  Not Opal: for ferries and buses, a single fare costs more than a trip on the TravelTen paper ticket, and only on your 10th trip of the week does the cap finally make Opal cheaper again.  And if, like me, you occasionally bike to work or work from home, meaning you use the ferry or bus less than 10 times a week?  You fall into the Opal Fail Zone, shown in red above: that’s the premium you pay for the privilege of using Opal.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 11.05.16 PM

But believe it or not, I soon found out that there were others even worse off than me.  Say you live in Dee Why, take a bus to Wynyard, and switch to the train to Central.  (Substitute with bus/train combo of your choice.)  Because Opal has no replacement for MyMulti, your commute is going to rocket up $728 a year, even if you travel five days a week!

chart_2(2)

Just look at that thick red slab of Opal Fail: if you’re commuting by bus and train, unless you’re doing it exactly 6 times a week, it never makes sense to switch to Opal.

Is it easy to figure this out?  Hell no, it takes an intimate understanding of Sydney’s convoluted fare structure and a whole lot of flipping between browser tabs to come up with the actual numbers.  The Opal website has some contrived examples, every single one of which shows Opal as cheaper, but lacks even a basic Opal fare calculator, never mind any way to compare to non-Opal fares.

Now I could have written feedback to Opal, which would have gotten me a form letter response with sneering thanks before getting chucked in the bin.  Or I could have written an angry blog post (well, I am writing one), which with some luck would have been retweeted a few times before being overtaken by Justin Bieber’s latest drunken antics.  But neither would have had any real impact.

Instead, I wanted something that would:

  1. Let people see exactly how the switch to Opal will hit their wallet
  2. Collect statistics on how many people are positively or negatively impacted by Opal, and by how much
  3. Ultimately make Transport for NSW to come up with a saner fare scheme that encourages all public transport use and does not penalize transfers.

So I spent a few evenings coding up a fare calculation engine (and Jesus Christ that was a pain, just look at this shit) and a few more slapping a web interface on top, and the result is Opal or Not.  Here’s hoping it was worth it!

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69 comments
  1. Jeremy said:

    Good job on the site, though I couldn’t get the bus & train combined journeys to work at all (will submit bug reports). One thing you should highlight as well about the bus fares is that the equivalent of MyBus 2 fare band for Opal starts at 3.0km, which is less than the old distance of “2 sections” where a section is 1.6km. Also, sections were elongated or shortened in specific places to make them make more sense on a specific route. This means that some trips like North Bondi interchange to Bondi Junction will be at the higher fare level (3km to 7km), and when you add in the penalty to change to trains that Opal has, a North Bondi to City commute will cost a HUGE amount more compared to today’s MyMulti 1.

  2. Chris said:

    No good.. the calculations are incorrect. For example a MyBus1 plus train journey from Epping to Central the correct MyMulti required is a MyMulti2 for $54. Your site is incorrectly comparing Opal fares with a MyMulti1 for $46. Get it right or remove the site, it’s misleading.

      • Chris said:

        You’ve now added Quarterly tickets, kind of pointless since the overwhelming majority of commuters purchase weekly, fortnightly or monthly tickets. Your comparison figures will now will be heavily bias towards paper tickets as Quarterly tickets will always be cheaper than Opal.

        • jpatokal said:

          Which is a problem because…? Note that the results show Monthly tickets as well, and for most routes you’ll find that the monthlies are also cheaper than Opal.

          • Chris. said:

            This statement “After 5326 comparisons, 52% found Opal cheaper, saving an average of $ 187.97 yearly, and 47% found Opal more expensive, costing them an average of $ 294.36 yearly.”

            Earlier today this was about 80% found Opal cheaper, now this figure becomes less with every search due to the inclusion of periodical tickets which account for only 4% of tickets sold. It’s not representative of the vast majority, perhaps you could add a drop down allowing visitors to select the ticket they normally purchase as part of the search, i.e Daily, Weekly, Fortnightly or 28 Day Ticket then compare the results with Opal to that of their ticket period purchase?

        • But they *are* legitimate tickets available for those who can afford the initial outlay for the potential savings, of course – remembering that only 4% of tickets sold for Sydney’s public transport are periodical tickets (monthlies, quarterlies or yearlies).

          Of course, those 4% who are ‘saving’ money outlaying the money now, whether or not they use it (sick days, annual leave, holidays etc) all year – are going to be those most vocal about the increase with Opal fares.

    • Kevin said:

      “Get it right or remove the site”.
      You must be some kind of government shill.

      • Kevin said:

        “You’ve now added Quarterly tickets, kind of pointless since the overwhelming majority of …”
        You are! You are a government shill.
        As has already been pointed out, people who buy long term tickets only buy them once and then used them numerous times. Hence the bogus ’4% or 7%’ claims about tickets ‘sold’ don’t take into account the fact that these tickets represent a far greater percent of ‘journeys taken’.

      • jpatokal said:

        Looks like you’re right: “Chris’s” IP is in the 203.9.151.0 – 203.9.151.255 range, aka State Rail Authority of NSW!

        • Patanjali said:

          Some people are not too bright are they? And I bet they thought nobody would find out.

          I wonder if website owners will have to inform people under the new privacy rules of what information is being gathered about them by site logging systems? There are no personal names, and generally most people have dynamic IPs allocated by an ISP, so it is not possible to identify them as they are a small fish in a very big pond. However, in this case, the information is especially telling as it reveals the poster’s company directly, which means, given the time and date of their post, that they could be hunted down using the company’s own logs, and face possible disciplinary action (assuming they did it off their own bat).

          They need to try anonymous browsing next time.

  3. On a ‘straight line’ computation, Opal does cost me more, as I used to by a monthly or quarterly (depending on planned holidays). However if I make one train trip a month on the weekend to a destination not covered by the periodical, and usually I make at least two such journey’s, I’m ahead.
    It’s similar for my wife, but in her case, until the buses are ‘Opalised’ she will be sticking with monthlies as there is no gain until all her weekend travels become ‘free’ under the Opal ‘Travel Reward’ system.

    If they alter the Travel Reward system due to ‘gaming’, this advantage might disappear. I only win with Opal as now all my weekend travel is free.

    As far as I can see, all 5 day commute only customers are better off with a monthly.

    Before the ‘MyZone’ simplification, both my wife and I used to buy periodicals dated to our next planned holiday. After MyZone, it was calculate if a quarterly fitted, when it expired see if a monthly fitted and work down to the holiday date. Annoying.

  4. Great site – reinforcing what I already knew to be true. No matter which way you splice it, it’s actually still cheaper and more convenient for me to drive to work than it is to catch public transport, to the cost of about $150 a month! There is no incentive for people who live in outer suburbs and drive to use public transport. I would love for the train to be a smarter option, i would also love to see a reduction in traffic on Sydney roads, but until the train actually is a better option – it’s just going to keep getting worse.

    • jpatokal said:

      I think you’re just reinforcing your own prejudices there, my friend. Do you really think driving to work costs less than $150/month?

    • Wow, so you’re saying the purchase of your car, car depreciation, rego, insurance, petrol, service and road tolls cost you $150 a month driving to work? If that’s the case, you should start up a mini-bus business, you will be rolling in cash! :)

  5. dmsantaman said:

    this can easily be fixed by transport nsw. just increase the fares on all paper based tickets.

  6. Jas said:

    Umm even if there is a “known issue with the distance calculations to city center destinations not squaring exactly with the official rule book”… mount druitt is way out. It should be a Mymulti 3, and in which case I save 3 dollars a week. Not much but still cheaper. Your site is misleading. As someone else pointed out as well, hardly anyone buys quarterly etc.

    • jpatokal said:

      Can you provide more detail at https://github.com/jpatokal/opal_or_not/issues/9 ? The train-to-MyMulti approximation is crude, but Mt Druitt to Central + bus already compares to a MyMulti 3 ($63/wk).

  7. I commend you for your efforts and I agree the Opal site should have a calculator, however adding the Quarterly cards makes your argument look a lot better than it is in reality. How many people do you know actually buy the Quarterly and Yearly tickets? Forking out $520 in one go every 3 months is a big ask for some people, unless you don’t have a home loan or have good cash flow. I guess one good thing about the Opal is that it is a pay as you go so if you are sick for a week or end up losing your job or have to travel to a different zone sometimes, you’re not stuck with a paid off ticket you can’t use.

    • jpatokal said:

      The site compares Weekly, Monthly and Quarterly to Opal, you can take your pick. But at the end of the day, Quarterly is obviously the cheapest option for those who can use it, and Opal can’t match it.

  8. Heli said:

    Actually the opal is free after 8 trips each week. I can’t access your calculations site, but I’m presuming as per the blog post this presumes 10 trips is the free limit.

    I buy weeklies due to uncertain work arrangements (rather than yearly etc).
    My weekly train ticket is $28, while eight trips on Opal $26.40
    plus I don’t have to deal with the ticket machines or pull my ticket from my wallet.

    I of course can’t comment on combos, buses or ferries, but straight train travel is fine.

    • jpatokal said:

      The blog post describes ferries, where Opal is “free” after 8 trips, but only becomes cheaper after 10 trips. For example, for MyFerry 1, after four days you’ve paid $44.80 with Opal vs $38.40 with TravelTen, and only on tenth trip does TravelTen become more expensive ($48.00).

      • Heli said:

        Ok, fair enough.

  9. SPQR said:

    ‘Virtually every smart card in the world prices individual trips lower than the equivalent single fare, meaning it always make financial sense to use the card. Not Opal: for ferries and buses, a single fare costs more than a trip on the TravelTen paper ticket…’

    Is Opal less than an actual single fare? TravelTens are a subsidised multi-buy ticket. This comparison was a little laboured.

    • jpatokal said:

      Opal is also a “subsidised multi-buy ticket” — last I checked, Sydney’s fare recovery ratio was on the order of 35% (read: 65% subsidized).

  10. I kind of wish your website was called “Opal or no pal”

  11. Can i point out that you are missing out the off peak charges as well. I know my trips gets alot cheaper during those times. I’m on the T2 Line from Fairfield to Central during peak hr is cost 4.70 and off peak 3.29. So if im late going to work or if i stay back and catch a later train i’m actually saving more.

    Its been 2 weeks since i’ve used my Opal and i’ve spent roughly $50. If i have to paid a fortnightly it would of been $81.
    Also Opal is more flexible and time saver, never have to line up for a ticket.

  12. Nic Fulton said:

    Great site. It would be great if you could add the off-peak pricing too. With a paper ticket you can buy an off-peak return after 9am. But with opal you only get the full off-peak return saving is the return leg is ALSO off peak. Otherwise you risk paying more as the return leg is peak again – this is not true on the paper ticket.

  13. JB said:

    I do buy a yearly ticket – because its cheaper!!. Most people I work with who do the same commute also have yearly tickets. I travel from central to Penrith Mon – Fri. I am definitely disadvantaged under new system – I will need to make some short bus trips up the rd (making sure its at least an hour after I arrive at work) to get a coffee during the day on mon, tues and weds to ensure I hit my 8 trips earlier at a lower amount, otherwise I am out of pocket.

  14. Steve-O said:

    Fuck Opal. The system is so easy to rip off at the moment that I almost never pay full fare. Can’t see it changing under Opal.

  15. CC said:

    Your result are wrong for Woy Woy to Wynyard on 5 days…it should read Opal $$50.40 My Train weekly $52….so Pal Opal is ok for that journey

  16. Norbert Zeck said:

    I am just wondering where the statistic came form that only 4% of train customers using quarterly tickets. Just about everyone I know and leaves on the central coast and commutes to Sydney uses quarterly tickets. We are already disadvantaged by paying higher grocery prices now we get punished again. It seems if you don’t leave inside the Sydney metropolitan area you are being treated as a second class citizen.

    • jpatokal said:

      It appears that TfNSW’s claim is carefully worded: 4% of *tickets*, not customers, are monthly or longer. So if Mr A buys a yearly 1x/year, and Mr B buys singles 2x/day = 730x/year, then 0.1% of tickets are yearly!

  17. Rei said:

    When i try to add another trip (2 trips, 4 destinations, 5 times per week) the site doesn’t calculate and gives me the following message:
    “No need to specify train transfers, just enter origin and final destination.”

    • jpatokal said:

      Sorry, only simple round-trips are supported for time being. See http://opalornot.com/faq.

  18. Frequent Traveller said:

    Of course, your long term ticket comparisons are only valid if you assume:
    - you are never sick
    - you never take holidays
    - you work public holidays
    - you never travel off peak
    - you never work late and take a cab home
    With these assumptions the additional cost of Opal will always be overstated.

  19. Tim M said:

    Fortunately for my travel route and frequency Opal is marginally better than a weekly ticket. A key issue for my using Opal is to avoid the time it takes to buy a ticket. How should this be valued? what is the value of the convenience of an Opal card?

    • Kevin said:

      Try measuring that value when more people are forced to use Opal and the queues for the Opal card readers get longer and longer. The Opal card readers are slower to register than the current paper ticket readers, and when a train pulls into a station you get huge lines of people trying to leave the platform. We witnessed this in Melbourne when Myki was introduced.

      • Tim M said:

        I have not had a similar experience. It appears to be about the same time. Or rather I have not noticed a significant delay. I have had a couple of instances where it just did not recognise the card and I had to swipe it again.

  20. Patanjali said:

    Many people criticised the Melbourne PTC zone-based system of the 1990s and 2000s, but it was way ahead of the mess the Sydney’s ticketing systems are now.

    As a contractor, I could buy a 10x2hr travel card that meant I did not lose out because there were public holidays. Also, I could buy them ahead of time, as with ALL the tickets, and they worked across all transport by default.

    Plus the fact that the fares were 60% of those of Sydney’s when we came here in 2006.

    There are still too many options, as can be seen when going to buy a ticket at a machine. The old Melbourne system had a lot less.

    I know the Melbourne system had to change from the old point-to-point tickets, as the cost of providing and supporting the old tickets used up 98% of their cost. As was once stated by a transport king-pin, “transport should be free because they will lose less”.

    It should still be on the table about having free transport, as there are so many overheads (transport officers to check tickets, barriers/ticket booths/kiosks and their maintenance) that I really wonder if many have actually done a fully holistic analysis of the end-to-end costings of the whole system. It may certainly bolster numbers and take many cars off the streets, though lots of people seemingly want to get stressed out on Sydney’s narrow road lanes!

    And how many actually pay? I remember many years ago, the train I was in arrived at Frankston station, promptly disgorging hundreds of skinheads who just run out of its doors and straight over the fence, with the station attendant helpless to do anything about it. I see many still go through the open and unattended wide barrier at Parramatta station (though many will have paid). If people know how regular that is at both ends of their journey, many will take the opportunity to save $50+ per week.

  21. CazzaP said:

    You’re actually being kind to Opal with these calculations – especially in comparison to a multi weekly ticket. The Opal always starts its week on a Monday. The weekly ticket can start any day of the week and, if you use it first time after 3pm, you get 7 1/2 days travel. Not only that, but you can use it for the odd additional trip as well on any form of transport, for no extra charge.

    I travel in from Manly. Unless I know that I will be using the ferry every journey from Monday to Friday (or one day at the weekend as well), I can’t get any joy from using the Opal card.

    I’ve used it for a whole week only once in the 6 months or so since I got the card. And it felt so stressful trying to make enough trips to reap the benefit that I won’t be using it again in a hurry.

    I do love using it on a Sunday though, where it is only $2.50 to go anywhere and back!

  22. crozdog said:

    Congrats on the top effort. Thanks.

    However I wonder if the tool could be improved a little? I ask as:
    1. The tool only shows 1 trip. What about the return journey? Most commuters don’t sleep at their desk all week ;-)
    2. I couldn’t see how to represent trips to multiple destinations to obtain the overall picture of my weekly travel in 1 place. I travel by bus to a station then use a train to 1 suburb on 2 mornings returning the same way in the afternoon & on another 2 days the same occurs, but I go to a different destination station.

    • jpatokal said:

      1. Not following you here? The site shows return fares.
      2. Complicated itineraries like this aren’t supported, sorry. But try both stations and see if your fare changes.

      • Patanjali said:

        That you are having this discussion highlights the absurdity of having so much complexity.

        If one has to spend as much time working out which is better as trying to get a home loan, the time effort is out of all proportion to the possible savings.

        Perhaps that is what they are banking on — people will just give up and accept the ‘new order’.

        They have obviously been taking lessons from the mobile phone industry!

      • Patanjali said:

        I think you have proved your point — that the new cards are a dubious ‘improvement’, with difficulty in determining its particular or overall advantages.

        I think people should complain to those running Opal, rather than have you trying to correct Opal’s shortcomings, with no remuneration for your effort. You know the tale about perambulating goalposts/cheese.

      • crozdog said:

        OK, but it isn’t obvious that it is a return trip.

        When I enter each journey it shows me being in front using opal for each journey, however that is not a accurate like for like comparison of my weekly travel in its entirety. Today I buy a mymulti2 which covers all of my travel for $54. I have to get a multi2 as half of my train trips are 2 stations beyond the boundary of multi1.

        I’d like to be able to compare my current journeys in their entirety against Opal, however the calculator as it stands assumes people are only travelling between 2 locations (ok 3 if you include a bus trip with a train trip).

        I’m sure there are also people who catch 2 busses & a train or 2 trains & a bus as part of their daily commute – I know I have done that previously. But again the calculator does not allow that in its current form.

        • Patanjali said:

          I don’t get the sense that this site is meant to provide exhaustive comparisons, but rather be indicative of the dubious advantage of Opal. In that it succeeds.

          Be reasonable and appreciate the scope of the site. If you want more, you can always offer to pay for it!

  23. Tim said:

    Good work with the site. I commute daily on the train and take occasional ferry trips – both significantly cheaper on ‘paper’ tickets (quarterly train and MyFerry10).

    I signed up for an Opal with great excitement card the day they launched on the Neutral Bay loop. But I have only used it a handful of times. It is sad that the Government has built this system with great potential but will not set fares in such a way to promote its usage.

    I will continue using the quarterly train tickets until they’re phased out or the pricing is aligned (which I’m well aware may be effected by increasing the price of paper tickets rather than cutting the Opal prices…)

  24. I said:

    This site is helpful only if your travel is limited to going from home to work and back. One or two nights out per week plus a ferry ride on the weekend and Opal definitely makes a difference. In particular with the cap at $2.50 on Sundays.

  25. Mary said:

    I travel on a quarterly ticket. Government has not made any comparisons using the monthly, quarterly, etc tickets to prove to the commuters that using the Opal is cheaper. Honestly why make comparisons with the daily, return or weekly tickets only? The NSW Government has introduced the Opal without taking into consideration the plight of daily commuters, and the rising cost of living. There are not advantages in using the Opal card…. honestly how many people use the train every weekend…. You have done a good job, calculations based on 5 working days… I dont travel to the city on weekends using the train, and perhaps many people dont either. Thus, the Opal does not work in our favour.

    Moreover, what happens when trains dont take us to our destinations, as they so often dont these days… trains dont run on time, etc…. why then should we paying so much more for such services?

  26. Jack said:

    I use quarterly and have found the Opal card can not save my money at this moment.

  27. Andrew said:

    My Opal card cost $45.36 per week OFF PEAK if I travelled in PEAK $64.8

    OpalorNot…
    MyTrain Quarterly – $47.44
    MyTrain Monthly – $55.50
    Opal -$60.00 – THIS IS WRONG
    MyTrain Weekly – $61.00
    MyTrain Singles – $86.00

    So make sure you check YOUR trip!

    • jpatokal said:

      Please provide details at https://github.com/jpatokal/opal_or_not/issues. And remember that Opal has a $15/day fare cap, which combines with the 8 paid journeys rule to mean that most people max out at $60/week.

  28. Alice said:

    Off peak can be more expensive on OPAL!
    People who generally travel in off peak need to check whether paper or opal tickets are better. For paper tickets off peak is any ticket purchased after 9am. The government has added a new peak time if using the opal card. If you travel between 4pm and 6 or 6.30pm and use your opal card you now get charged the opal peak rate. So if i travel from St Leonards to Town Hall at say 12 noon and return at say 5pm i pay $5 for a paper return ticket and just over 10% more than that if i use opal card ($5.51) .
    I swap between paper and opal depending on travel times .

    Lots of the replies above sound like they are coming from the ministers office or from the dept of transport!!

  29. E said:

    Just got my OPAL – I’m in Hornsby, travelling to the city, and occasionally Parramatta (which made it worth getting OPAL)…wondering, if on Monday morning I wake up and go for a jog to Waitara station and catch a train to Hornsby at 6am for $2.31, and then jog back home, shower and get ready for work and catch the train at 7:30 for $4.70 to go to the city, will that count as two trips?

    If I did the same on Tuesday & Wednesday I would reach 8 trips before catching the train home Wednesday evening, effectively saving $7.20 a week? Can you confirm this is true and I might start a new fitness regime :)

    • jpatokal said:

      The only source of truth for Opal is TfNSW, but if I’m reading this right, as long as you’ve got more than 60 minutes between your trains, they would indeed count as two “journeys”, and you could hit the eight-journey Travel Rewards in 2.5 days.

      • Patanjali said:

        I think it’s strange how you just wanted to indicate some issues, and all of a sudden you’re the new oracle.

        Funny how the web makes a single person seem the same as a million tonne gorilla!

    • Patanjali said:

      Isn’t that a question for Opal? After all, they are the one’s actually offering, and being paid for, the service.

  30. ideasman88 said:

    Jani I just wanted to complement you with the good work you are doing. I don’t drive so I will always be a public commuter. While Sydney public transport is not the best in the world its one I have grown to love. Unfortunately, the rollout of the Opal card will mean high fares particularly for people like me who use a yearly travelpass to save. With a travelpass I know there is a maximum amount I can spend on my transport in one year. That is not possible with the pricing changes done on the Opal card. I hope with your efforts to highlight the various issues with the Opal card the state government can find a way to help commuters like a cap on my travel costs like what my travelpass gives me now.

  31. Steve Publican said:

    Applaud the efforts on the site but I travel to the city from Chatswood on a semi-regular basis of roughly four days a week. What I can’t see is where the off-peak discount with Opal is calculated? I only have to catch a train at 9am and I’m at work by roughly 9:30 and it’s about $1.20 something cheaper. Outside of peak Opal is definitely cheaper and more than often I’m working late or not wanting to travel at peak because I can get a seat :)

  32. Eric said:

    One request, which is something that surprised me… It might be worth including an off peak calculation.

    I usually travel to work in the morning during peak hour, but leave in the off-peak.

    Never thought about this before, but the opal only charges the off peak fare in the evening.

    On a regular commute, this actually means that I’m saving almost 20% on my previous weekly ticket. Not sure how this compares to quarterlies etc, as I haven’t bought them previously.

    Great site though, and good to be able to compare, particularly with quarterlies – never really thought about them before! Thanks for taking the time and sharing it.

  33. Katherine said:

    I have an Opal card. It is saving me between $20-30 per week depending on my travel times. Yet your website says the Opal would be more expensive for me. You appear to have ignored a lot of options like off peak Opal. Why would you spread misinformation like that?

      • Patanjali said:

        Some people are just so unreasonable. They expect you to be thoroughly diligent, yet they do not even bother to read your caveats that explicitly state the shortcomings.

        I think some people don’t think, but as you write, feel ‘entitled’. What did their last slaves die of?

        Personally, I suggest that you have raised the issue so that some news outlets have pointed to your site, but to cater for people that are so unreasonable as to expect you to do what Opal does not, is probably going to give you too much grief. I say, quit while you are ahead!

        To those who have come here expecting a thorough fair comparison, perhaps you need to direct your disappointments with Opal for not providing it. They are the ones who want your money, so it is their lack of due diligence that you need to deal with.

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