Sydney’s long march to a paper-ticket-less transport network just got one step closer with the announcement on 23rd March 2016 that they are trialing new top-up machines with single-trip tickets. While this was always considered as the next step, it’s taken them a while to actually introduce it.
All over the transport network, boxes have been spotted which we believed would eventually turn out to be one of these machines. I, myself, spotted these well-camouflaged machines:
This one was spotted at Auburn station, 13th January 2016. This one pretended to be a brochure stand, but it was definitely out of place to any observant commuter. From the rear, the familiar Opal blue and white showed – I knew this was going to be one of those machines.
Same day, on the way home, this time at Lidcombe station. Another one wrapped in blue, masquerading as a “sign holder”, sitting inside a cubby a little too big for the machine.
And also, very recently, on 30th March, this one at Eddy Avenue at Central Station, having software loaded onto it and then, packed back up the next day as if not quite ready for deployment.
Ultimately, these could not have come a day sooner with long queues at top-up machines operated by TfNSW being a very common occurrence, to the point that I’ve sometimes walked to a nearby retailer to do cash top-up just to skip the queue. People also have had problems with auto-top-up and online top-up like myself, judging from the amount of page hits I get on my Opal woes.
The closest trial machine to me at the moment is Granville. Their machine’s ID is G-013. Life for G-013 started at around 10th November 2015, when the old full size TVM was removed to make way for something new.
They quickly installed ply sheet boarding, and left the area behind mostly empty. Sometime in-between then and now, they had bought in a new machine, wrapped in black plastic, and I saw them testing it once or twice on my commute to uni – but I never stopped long enough to grab a picture.
While the trial started on the 23rd March, I didn’t have a chance to meet the machine until 24th. Notice its ID in the bottom left corner.
This particular machine is a little wider than the original top-up machines, and features a glossy large touch-screen rather than the matte screens of the original. This unit only accepts card payment, and has a contactless NFC card reader for Paywave/Paypass transactions, but still requires a PIN, slowing everything down. The PIN pad is a metal pad with good tactile response, making it easier to use than the spongy hard plastic buttons on the old machine.
The first challenge for me was to use this machine to do a top-up. Unlike the existing machines, you must place the card into the Opal target holder itself for the duration of the transaction, otherwise the transaction is cancelled. This is sort of similar to myki, and makes life a little more difficult because those with a nice phone case or lanyard with a slot dedicated for Opal will have to remove it every time they use the machine to top up. The machine also has a lighted windowed “chute” where the receipts and tickets emerge.
It was found that the receipt printing on these units are slower than that of the original units, but the quality of the print is better, and the receipt stock is thicker. The receipts are also more compact due to denser printing.
Receipts from the old machines (left) are identified by the lay-out of the information as well as the hallmark clipping of the NSW government logo at the top. They also tend to have rough ends where the automatic cutter doesn’t do a great job and uses thinner stock. The new receipts (middle) are shorter, on thicker paper and have a denser text layout. They also have optical cut marks on the rear (right) which don’t seem to be used.
It was a positive experience interacting with this machine, although the glossy screen did produce a bit more glare. I enjoyed jumping the queue, as all the other people didn’t realize they could use this machine and instead queued up for the old top-up machine.
The Single Trip Ticket
On the way home that night, I couldn’t resist ordering a memento of the introduction of single-trip Opal tickets, so I decided to buy one with no intention of actually using it. The cheapest ticket, of course, is a single-zone child ticket – Granville to Parramatta fits the bill.
The default idle screen looks like this – a check your balance feature has been added, but is really not necessary since the old machines will read out your balance as soon as you tap, and you can just cancel the transaction from there. Instead, I shall buy a single trip ticket.
As I had too much in my hands, I didn’t have the chance to photograph the whole process, but you can select the number of tickets and type, and then the destination using a keyboard interface (which, I suppose, can be a little confusing at first).
Of course, then you have to actually do the payment using the pin-pad. Only once that succeeds will the machine then go on to print your ticket. The printing process is not quite as quick as I would have imagined. Then you are prompted whether you want a receipt or not … a lot of prompts, and a lot of waiting!
At last, you are rewarded with the promised goods in the chute. Because of the light plastic nature of the flap and the small chute, it wasn’t as easy to extract the items from the chute as I would have liked as the flap kept pushing the light-weight receipt and ticket out of the way of my hands.
Ultimately, I received my ticket, which I did not use.
The ticket is thermally printed on the top side – all of the black text including the machine, time of issue, date, stations, government logo are all thermal printed and can be varied. Maybe different ticket types will be introduced in the future – no problem, just use the same stock. The rear printing is pre-done, and clearly says non-reloadable ticket. The paper stock itself looks to be (likely) a continuous folded stock with perforations, where the machine segments them at the perforated edges.
I had to rummage for my receipt – and lo and behold, I managed to find a second receipt for someone else who had failed a transaction beforehand and left the machine. Between 20:55 and 21:05 (10 minutes), the reference number increased by 14, and the sales ref number increased by 9. I’m not sure what the convention is with this. Comparing the numbers from that morning, the reference number went from 1320 to 1399 (+79) and the sales ref number went from 716 to 868 (+152), so it seems unintuitive, but we can assume that the number of machine uses between 7:44am and 9:05pm is somewhere within that range.
The card number is suffixed with (c) for contactless, and (i) would indicate chip card. I wonder how much they lose on fares to the card processors – given that many food shops won’t let you use EFTPOS under $10, buying a $2 ticket with a card seems to be potentially unwise.
Sales of single trip Opal cards have no Opal number. Also, single-trip Opal cards are sold with a set distance band and must be used on the same day, so cannot be “stashed away”.
Of course, as these are Opal cards, they are contactless cards despite the glossy cardboard outer appearance. By taking a photograph with the card backlit, the internal metallized antenna traces are clearly visible – and the chip itself resides between the two larger pads near the four dots arranged in a square. Because of their cardboard nature and the use of a Mifare Ultralight C chip, they are only used for limited-use applications as they aren’t durable enough for long term use and do not store much data.
The chip is just underneath the word “and”, and a tiny bulge can be felt on the card. Internally, the card has a model code of FLR314M0, but that didn’t lead me to the actual manufacturer on a brief search. Neither did the stock code of MD1608, which is probably a TfNSW internal designator.
While this is relatively wasteful, without developing a “collection” system, or enforcing a deposit and refund on a reusable card which raises equity concerns, cycling plastic cards through for single-trip uses seems inadvisable. The good thing about the ultralight series tickets is that paper-type cards can be made at very low costs – around US$0.02 to US$0.08 in bulk. The cost of a magnetic stripe ticket is likely to be slightly less, although once the maintenance costs are factored in, may be more expensive in the long run. Recycling such tickets is probably an issue due to their non-paper contents as well.
What’s on the card?
The card itself is based on a Mifare Ultralight C (MF0ICU2) which has 192 total bytes of memory in 48 pages of 4 bytes, with 36 pages used for user data.
A read-out of the contents from NXP Taginfo tells us that it is practically all sectors locked/protected by a key. The lock bytes are 0x39 and 0x00. This corresponds to a block lock on OTP, lock on OTP, blocks 4 and 5 which are locked as read-only.
The Mifare Ultralight C features 3DES authentication, and based on AUTH0 (2Ah) and AUTH1 (2Bh). It requests that authentication is required from page address 04h onwards (i.e. protecting all sectors from OTP onwards) and the necessary protection is 0 (bit 0) which means read and write access restricted. Thus, it indicates the whole card is 3DES key restricted.
 * 04:A6:34 1E (UID0-UID2, BCC0)  * F2:C0:4C:80 (UID3-UID6)  + FE 48 39 00 (BCC1, INT, LOCK0-LOCK1)  * AE:74:C3:23 (OTP0-OTP3)  xp -- -- -- --  xp -- -- -- --  .p -- -- -- --  .p -- -- -- --  .p -- -- -- --  .p -- -- -- -- [0A] .p -- -- -- -- [0B] .p -- -- -- -- [0C] .p -- -- -- -- [0D] .p -- -- -- -- [0E] .p -- -- -- -- [0F] .p -- -- -- --  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX [1A] ?p XX XX XX XX [1B] ?p XX XX XX XX [1C] ?p XX XX XX XX [1D] ?p XX XX XX XX [1E] ?p XX XX XX XX [1F] ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX XX XX  ?p XX XX -- -- (LOCK2-LOCK3)  ?p XX XX -- -- (CNT0-CNT1) [2A] ?p 04 -- -- -- (AUTH0) [2B] ?p XX -- -- -- (AUTH1) [2C] ?P XX XX XX XX [2D] ?P XX XX XX XX [2E] ?P XX XX XX XX [2F] ?P XX XX XX XX *:locked & blocked, x:locked, +:blocked, .:un(b)locked, ?:unknown r:readable (write-protected), p:password protected, -:write-only P:password protected write-only
Unfortunately, it also means that the cards are of very limited to no use after they have expired as the contents cannot be rewritten without knowing the key, and the OTP bytes and lock bytes cannot be arbitrarily reprogrammed.
The end of the era of paper tickets is almost over, after so many years of the state government saying they would bring in a new system. I’ve gone through high school, and university twice by the time this has happened. The new machines will also help to ease top-up queues which is also great news. The implementation using disposable cards may seem wasteful, but that’s exactly what the ultralights were designed for, and their implementation seems based on sound advice.
I suppose it’s another milestone in Opal’s journey to being the only ticketing system in use – but it’s not the only one. This week, I witnessed all of Central Station’s North Concourse barriers shut down resulting in the need to walk around to the Grand Concourse to tap off and prevent a default fare.
I also managed to see on my way in, an Opal train reader pole at Flemington with one reader malfunctioned – maybe it cooked too long in the morning sun but with only a few poles, it resulted in frantic passengers hoping to quickly tap on and jump on board.
There’s always a first time for everything!
It’s probably also a good time to look back on my paper ticket collection, which has garnered several laughs. Farewell magnetic stripe technology!