From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Cashless, three years on

It has been three years since the authorities announced their push for a cashless transport system by 2020.

What’s happened since then? A decade’s worth of things in the outside world. Given all that, we’ve probably forgotten about the political storm this started by now, but they’ve clearly been pushing the envelope bit by bit, even if the overall timeframe is still delayed.

Of course, there was an uproar around social equality and access to payment methods when the initiative was first announced, but it appears that we’ve all largely begun to forget about it.

New ticketing machines (source: me)

Salami slicing

The opening of TEL stage 1 heralded the more widespread rollout of new cashless-only top up machines. These have always existed in some form since Transitlink rolled out the purple Add Value Machines with the initial FeLiCa based Ez-link back in the early 2000s. However, from TEL onwards, they’ve begun to replace the boxy Cubic machines — and are now the only form of ticketing services available at remote farelines (*) along TEL, like this one at the lift down to the new underpass at Stevens. Canberra station and those along TEL1 still have the big Cubic machines, but there’s only about one per station.

These new ticket machines don’t even sell paper (standard) tickets. Well, you shouldn’t need them anyway for the most part, seeing as one can now use credit cards directly at the faregates. If you need one, you’ll need to find a machine that can sell standard tickets, which probably means a trek to station control.

But let’s be real, if you’re a local, stop reading for now and do this. Touch your heart, ask yourself, when was the last time you bought a paper ticket? Do you use actual CEPAS cards or just contactless credit cards/mobile payment? Unlike elsewhere, you can’t even buy a paper ticket for a child, and paper tickets still have a significant markup over paying by card.

Furthermore, in Singapore, we’ve actually never accepted paper magnetic strips inserted into faregates for decades already. Previously it was a specially-encoded EZ-Link card that you had to return to a machine to get your $1 deposit back, unlike Taipei or KL where you have tokens you dropped into the gate on your way out. Now, we have actual paper tickets again, but these have an NFC chip and are reusable up to six times — though some of you may think these pose an e-waste issue. A part of me thus wonders, whether that limit can be extended; and when travel picks up again, if we should issue the Singapore Tourist Pass on such paper cards.

(*) a remote fareline is a set of faregates not directly visible to station control

I’m surprised this is still going on

The current situation has sparked a large push towards cashless payments anyway. The government has been busy introducing the (Chinese ripoff) QR code based PayNow system, through which one receives their stimulus checks. Interestingly the new top up machines as shown above also have what looks like a barcode scanner, which presumably makes it possible to top up a CEPAS card via PayNow and/or other mainlander friendly payment methods if and when they want to implement it, in addition to existing payment methods.

That said, it’s all on train stations at this point. Buses, on the other hand, still continue to accept cash payment. You’d think that dealing with buses first would have a much better return on investment, given the decentralized nature of bus service and having to empty the fare boxes at the end of every service day. London went to cashless buses a long time ago, for what it’s worth. Although, unlike us, they adopt a flat fare for buses, so all you need to do is tap on once and you can ride as much as you like for an hour.

But now, given the current situation as well as increasing attacks on bus drivers, the idea of installing plastic shields to separate the driver from the public is gaining traction again. A much more sensible solution than the American way of sealing off the front of the bus.

In any case, it makes one wonder, why not just declare that buses will no longer accept cash payment with a short grace period, then enclose up the cash box as well? One thing I can think of is that cash handling is still a source of employment for some people. Reducing the amount of cash that the public transport system needs to process could well result in layoffs, politically bad in the current environment.

It might be safer to say that we will never buy a bus with a cash box again, but hard to actually follow through on. Having the availability of cash payment be inconsistent on public buses may have the same effect as suspending cash payment altogether.

Of course, moving to solely-contactless payment on buses would still raise social equality issues especially once you talk about access to top-up facilities. Personally, I think this may be another good impetus to redesign the bus network, not only to provide better service, but even to strengthen the hub and spoke model and simplify fare payments too — recall that when you *enter* a bus, the full fare to the end of route is deducted, and you get a partial refund for tapping out “early”.

Feeder bus routes charge a fare capped at 3.2km, so you *could* theoretically get away with not tapping out on a feeder bus and not get financially penalized. Redesigning bus networks to provide more feeders could also help with bus operations as well, but that’s a topic for another day if ever. But in this context, with a low-fare feeder service, it could help passengers get to a train station or other top up facility by just draining the card value, and reduces the cost such “free riding” imposes on the operators.

On gatekeeping

I came across this Japanese blog on smartcard payment systems. The open loathing of banks and credit card companies is honestly quite nauseating (but understandable, considering what Japanese banks are like, apart from the credit card companies), but there’s some interesting points to take away here if you can filter away the noise, much like Alon Levy and his pet issue of construction costs.

The main point of contention this blogger has is that by embracing contactless credit card technology, which tend to be slower at the gate, we (Singapore) in particular take two steps forward and three steps back especially once put in comparison with the considerably performant homegrown CEPAS standard. He argues that not only is EMV technology slower in terms of raw technical communications, additional latency is added by the need to phone home to the credit card issuer.

If you’re Cubic Transportation Systems you’re probably laughing out loud here and asking yourself “why does this matter?”. He contends that due to the structural restrictions of Japanese train stations versus their daily loads, it’s vital to have quick gates able to process larger amounts of passengers quickly than implementations in the West — 60 passengers per minute (1 per second), twice that of the West. But does this *really* matter in Singapore? The subway environment here means that you would simply be passing on the crowding issue to something else, typically lifts or escalators. If that’s still a problem the brute force approach of adding more gates can still be taken, especially if this is cheap and possible.

You can go elsewhere on that blog and see glowing praise of the “IC Cards as a Platform” concept embraced in Japan and in Hong Kong. Frankly speaking, I don’t think it ever really took off in Singapore. I remember using my ezlink card to buy 50 cent ice creams at McDonalds, a facility removed in 2009 with the CEPAS migration (but added back recently when McDonalds started supporting CEPAS). Don’t forget the fact that like most Western countries, other retailers had already gone ahead with contactless bank cards long ago, and the LTA/Transitlink is simply playing catch-up — and it doesn’t really matter because transportation is chiefly a public service and thus should follow and not lead. That said, what can be accomplished on SimplyGo portal is basically very similar, albeit with “bring your own card” and tying them together online.

I thus believe that Japan — and China, with all the QR based payment systems that are probably equally bad or even worse — may just be seeing the Galapagos Effect at work here. The unique circumstances of the transit environments elsewhere may allow them to do that sort of thing, but that requires evaluation on its own merits here. It might work for ICA, but in a transit environment I’m not sure if even facial recognition is going to pick up, especially if the Western liberal types get their way.

Things go up and things go down

For most working professionals, the monthly passes typically aren’t worth it. And to enjoy concession prices, you typically need to use a concession card issued by the authorities.

Moving to contactless bank cards for most adults makes me ponder the possibility of doing something like TfL’s capping scheme, where an account can spend no more than the cost of a daily or weekly ticket on transportation. For people who use public transportation frequently in a day, this could help keep the cost of transportation low for them.

If there still remains a significant constituency of white-collar workers who have the ability to work from outside the office, this might even encourage more discretionary travel using the public transportation network, especially if people have already “paid for it” with their regular travel. Which sinkie doesn’t like free stuff? Keeping the caps may also help insulate commuters from the stinging effect of fare increases, helping the lower income who may need to travel around more for work to stay afloat.

That’s just an example of the many things we can do with a much more advanced fare system. Maybe even things like allowing someone to use their phone or SimplyGo account to add a top up to their child’s or parent’s concession card, which could help the social equality issue mentioned earlier.

And at the end of the day, how much will cash actually be missed? That’s what I’ll leave you with here.



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