Anyone who takes a bus in Wellington knows about Snapper cards – the little red credit card lookalikes that make a voice blurt: “Please Don’t Forget to Tag Off”, “Card Value Low” and, most ominously, “Insufficient Funds” as you board.
They let you travel at a discount to cash fares and some day, hopefully, they’ll be in a lot more shops and cafes than they are now. They’ve had their teething problems and probably discourage the congenitally introverted from ever taking public transport with their braying messages, but they do seem to work.
By the end of this year, says Tim Brown of Infratil, which launched Snapper in Wellington, they could be in use on all bus lines, rail services, ferries, taxis and even the Wellington cable car.
He already has a Wellington Stadium pass with a Snapper card built in that knows he’s a season ticket-holder, creating a secure entry system to the big games that beats the pants off the mauled bits of cardboard that most of us punters use to get through the turnstiles.
The Snapper system uses world-class technology that stands the daily test of 25 million transactions in the teeming public transport systems of the South Korean capital, Seoul, and it’s cost less than $11 million to get to this point.
Imagine a system like that, says Brown, in operation on Auckland transport when the Rugby World Cup is on. You could leave the house without your wallet and take buses, trains, taxis and ferries to get to Eden Park, swipe your way into the game, buy a beer in the stands and get home again – all with just your Snapper card.
That is Infratil’s vision. Brown says it could be implemented well before the Rugby World Cup, draw on lessons from the Wellington launch to go more smoothly, and best of all, not a cent of ratepayers’ money would be involved.
Except that it will probably never happen. Instead, says Brown, the Auckland Regional Transport Authority will spend many times what Infratil proposes and may, if all goes smoothly, have a pilot scheme in place by some time in 2011.
ARTA controls the introduction of electronic ticketing for the country’s biggest city, and is so ideologically opposed to a private sector solution, says Brown, that it is hard-wired to expect the successful implementation of Infratil’s solution to be “all a horrible private sector mistake”.
As a result, ARTA and its chairman, Mike Lee, will end up giving Aucklanders something very like a Snapper card, at very much greater cost, through a French rather than a local provider, and none of this in time for the Rugby World Cup. Infratil have beaten several paths to the door of Transport Minister Steven Joyce, whom Brown says would have “killed it (the ARTA process) in five seconds” if he could have, but the system must grind on.
In the process, he notes, ARTA has already spent $11 million – more than it cost to implement the whole Snapper system in Wellington – just to hold the tender process for Auckland’s system. It appears almost certain to see a contract awarded to the French provider, Thales, who will have no more than a pilot scheme in place by 2011.
Worst of all, says Brown, this will all be done on the public purse when private money would willingly take the risk and do it at lower cost.
Now, of course, Brown has an axe to grind. He must be particularly steamed to have the head of the New Zealand Transport Agency, Geoff Dangerfield, dismiss the Snapper as no more than a “bus-based stored value card”. Dangerfield is in charge of thinking about a national e-ticket system, which of course Infratil would love to run.
As Snapper’s CEO Miki Szikszai said yesterday: “Obviously we need to have a chat with him. We have a different view of our capability.”
Infratil was also unsuccessful in challenging the way the ARTA tender round was conducted and, in the best Kiwi traditions of giving a dog a bad name, Snapper and Infratil are in danger of just looking like sore losers.
ARTA’s Mike Lee is certainly rampantly unsympathetic, telling BusinessWire recently: “Infratil have their own semi-integrated ticket which they are now trying to foist on Auckland, lobbying their friends in government. It’s not up to international standards.
“Infratil would increase their monopoly influence over Auckland. All my advice is that the Snapper card and Infratil don’t come anywhere near the winners but want political influence by holding up the process.”
But hang on – Snapper is in place and working in Wellington, and is clearly lower cost than whatever process ARTA proposes since it’s already spent more on a tender than Infratil spent getting it up and running. And if ARTA isn’t a kind of monopoly, then what is?
And as Brown gleefully observes, a Sydney local government effort to introduce e-ticketing has only just been abandoned after years of enormous cost, for a system that was supposed to be in place for the Sydney Olympics, however long ago that was.
Why would we trust local government to do this sort of thing well, he argues?
Infratil’s interest in this is naturally profit-driven – it owns the bus companies in Auckland and Wellington and it wants to capture as big a slice as it can of the spending on transport, coffee, buns, and newspapers that go with the working day while automating its cash handling. No doubt it earns interest on funds deposited on the thousands of cards in circulation.
But if the alternative -public ownership – requires far longer, potentially greater execution risk, lost opportunity for a showcase world sporting event, and unnecessarily large costs to taxpayers and ratepayers, what are we gaining from all this? Why does it matter who owns it as long as it works and doesn’t cost us all more than it needs to?
So here’s a suggestion. Next time you find yourself listening to Bill English rabbiting on about New Zealand’s feeble productivity and the need to do things quicker, smarter, and cheaper, and you’re not quite sure what he means, think of this example.
Even if Tim Brown is only half-right about the hurdles a good idea faces in this country, we should all be very worried. It’s no way to run a bus service, let alone a country.