04 July 2014

Opal is a welcome development, but the fare structure is flawed

The long overdue rollout of Opal in Sydney continues apace, with more and more buses now accepting the cards and the best value paper tickets being retired in about 8 weeks

Unfortunately, my usual bus company are yet to launch their readers, and with my last ever quarterly expiring in September I face yet more price increases as I won't be able to use Opal the whole way or buy a periodical Multi - meaning I have to fork out for the ever annoying traveltens until I'm allowed on the bus

Anyway, I digress, hopefully my bus company will roll out by September and I'll be fine

What I did want to talk about was the savings - while the media and many commentators point out that many people will be worse off under Opal, I keep seeing comments like 'What is everybody whinging about? I save $2 a week!'

The government propaganda is correct - the majority of people do save money with Opal, and judging by the amount of people who queue up every day I'm perfectly happy to agree most benefit from the new structure

That's not the problem, the point is that the savings on offer are vastly lower than the current offerings

What the fuss is all about

Weekly/Fortnightly ticket savings: from $1 per week (MyTrain 5) to $3.40 (MyTrain 3)
Monthly losses: vary widely from a weekly equivalent of $4.50 (5 again) to 35c (3 again)
Quarterly losses(13 weeks): from $4.86 per week to $13.08 a week (that's a simple 1 through 5)

So you can see that if you used to buy a ticket from the Blue mountains (or Wyong, Gosford etc) every week you'd now save $1, but if you used to buy a monthly you'd be paying $4.50 more each week for Opal, a quarterly works out at a cost of over $13 a week extra

Now, quarterlies and yearlies might be a lot of upfront cash but for a simple monthly ($100-$200 upfront) that's $216 bucks a year more (working off a 48 week year) and for the frugal person on a quarterly it's over $600 extra! (Basically a 25% and a 50% fare increase respectively)

The fact that a lot of people regularly bought a Weekly or Fortnightly really doesn't matter, they either weren't smart enough or didn't have the means to pay for a longer ticket - bully for them, they save at most $163 over a year, while people who choose to take the cheaper options can lose well over $600

And that's just the trains...

While longer distance commuters are discovering that Opal will cost them (and longer distance travellers are the ones who tend to buy those big periodicals because their transport costs are significant and the savings largest), anybody who needs to get a variety of transport loses even more

I'm not going to bore you with more scenarios, but those who use MyMultis can lose up to $1000 a year, in short, because the MyMultis existed to give those who needed a bus and a train (or a ferry) a break from paying for both. In my own case I basically get bus travel with my train ticket - it doesn't make sense that someone in the western suburbs should pay hundreds or dollars more simply for living some distance away from Sydney's fairly limited train network.

Not any more, if you change modes, you pay full fare for each trip (or journey, or whatever it is) - that's a clear change in policy.

Now, there are always going to be winners and losers - people who alternate days and locations, or don't work a full week may lose out on the weekly reward and end up paying more than before, but could also win on reduced single fares and the ability to use off-peak fares. Swings and roundabouts will always apply in this situation, but the penalty to those who use more than one type of transport is extreme and an unfair penalty on those who really have no choice.

Ultimately, those close to the city can catch buses, if not trains, the whole way, those in major suburbs along the train lines can use them - those a long way from the city more than often need to get a bus to a train interchange. In a city where a 25km trip from Parramatta to the CBD takes well over an hour on a bus or 25 mins on a train, we simply can't use buses the whole way.

This is why they built the T-ways into Blacktown, Parra and Liverpool - to get us to the trains! But now those people who rely on this particular form of transport provided a few years ago by the state government are now going to be slugged with increased fares.

And that's my problem, I don't mind a bit of swings and roundabouts, that always happens but they have effectively removed discounts worth hundreds of dollars for a significant minority of travellers - had they just removed quarterly train tickets or MyMultis there would be protests, yet that is effectively what they've done but they get away with it because we finally have a smartcard system.

Some would say Sydney Trains are revenue raising, I would argue it's simple laziness - unlike other cities, they couldn't be arsed to factor in multi-modal costs, and simply charge people the same old train/bus/ferry fares - while removing the over-riding MyMulti platform, which was created for the very reason that the Opal system now reintroduces.

Personally, I think people facing a 25-50% fare hike should be complaining, yes some (most, even) people will save a bit of money, but for a lot of people this is a huge cost increase.

That said,  I am of course happy we finally have a real system and there are pros and cons:

Good points:

Buses are cheaper in general
Those on singles/weeklies make a small saving
No major prepayment needed
You don't need to buy tickets
Off-peak fares available
Unlimited travel

Bad points:

Savings are minor and replace much larger ones
Penalty for switching modes (this is fair why, Gladys?)
No savings for those who don't work 5 days (sick day, anyone?)

The silver lining

The 8 trips thing can be easily manipulated - on Monday/Tuesday just hop on a city circle ride, or get a bus for one stop during your lunch (technically speaking you could spend Monday making a trip once an hour 8 times and only pay $15 for a week)

The bad news is, that for those who used to be on Quarterlies you'll barely break even on your old fare - a lot more effort for the same price (but the old monthly travellers do pretty well, based on my experience)

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