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Transportation

No ticket? No problem on Japan's bullet trains

Shinkansen lines to offer e-ticketing as railway companies battle airlines

Three JR railways will offer a new e-ticketing service covering eastern, western and northern Japan, starting March 14, allowing for faster passenger boarding and lowering gate maintenance costs.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Starting March 14, passengers on Japan's high-speed shinkansen trains will no longer need to buy paper tickets.

Three of the country's regional railway operators -- East Japan Railway, West Japan Railway and Hokkaido Railway -- will offer the service, which will enable passengers with registered IC cards to ride on shinkansen trains without printed tickets. Central Japan Railway and JR West, which already operate a similar service called Smart EX, plan to incorporate Kyushu Railway into the new service in the spring of 2022. 

The goal for all these companies is to make Japan's world-renowned passenger railways even more convenient. The Hokkaido and Hokuriku shinkansen lines, which serve northern Japan, in particular, are aiming to become more competitive with airlines.

The new e-ticket service covers all shinkansen lines operated by the three companies: the Tohoku, Joetsu, Hokuriku, Yamagata, and Akita lines. Ticketless shinkansen travel will be available through any of 10 of IC cards popular with customers, including JR East's Suica; Pasmo, issued by subway operator Tokyo Metro; and Icoca, an IC card for commuter railway customers in the Osaka area.

At present, passengers can book and board shinkansen trains using the Mobile Suica smartphone app, but not with IC cards. The lack of e-ticketing leads to long lines at ticket offices and vending machines, especially during busy holiday travel seasons. The three JR companies predict that faster, easier ticketing will encourage more people to use the Hokkaido and Hokuriku shinkansen lines, which face fierce competition from airlines.

To use the service, customers register their IC card on JR East's Ekinet ticket reservation website or JR West's e5489 website. Once the card is registered, riders simply book a seat online, touch the card on the reader at the gate and board.

The e-ticketing service is not the first smart card system designed for the shinkansen. JR Central and JR West have had the Smart EX service, which covers the Tokaido and Sanyo shinkansen lines, since 2017. Passengers using JR East and other shinkansen operators have long hoped for something like it. Although the new service has been a long time coming, it offers improvements over the Smart EX service.

The new system uses cloud technology for ticket authentication, simplifying maintenance and updates. With Smart EX, ticket gates at each station process booking information and other data stored on IC cards. The new system uses a central server to manage and authenticate the data.

When the passenger holds the card over the reader, the reader contacts the server, verifying that the booking information matches the information encoded on the IC card. If there is a discrepancy, the gate closes. Central servers are easier to maintain and update than individual ticket gates, saving time and money.

The new service makes for a better customer experience as well. The Smart EX requires passengers to print out paper tickets at ticketing machines when traveling with a group or with children; the new service allows up to six people on a single booking, with each person able to board using their own IC card. Children of elementary school age or younger can use their child IC cards.

JR East will terminate its Mobile Suica shinkansen ticket service when the new service takes effect. But it will continue the Touch de Go service that lets members ride on nonreserved seats for the Tohoku, Joetsu, and Hokuriku shinkansen lines using IC cards charged with electronic money. This service covers a limited area near Tokyo and has many business customers. It will be maintained in parallel with the new ticketless service.

"We want to make 50% of the use of shinkansen ticketless by the end of fiscal 2022," said JR East President Yuji Fukasawa. The company believes the shift to ticketless travel will ease congestion at stations and lead to more satisfied customers. It also says maintenance costs will fall and allow for more efficient use of station space.

There will be two different ticketless services for shinkansen lines. The one starting in March will cover northern Japan: the Tohoku, Hokkaido, Joetsu, Hokuriku, Yamagata, and Akita shinkansen lines. The service for the Tokaido and Sanyo shinkansen lines, which run through central and western Japan, will be extend to the southern island of Kyushu in the spring of 2022. Interconnection between the two services will likely be the next step, although there are relatively few passengers who transfer from one shinkansen line to another.

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