Does The Opal Card Actually Save You Money?

Over the past few months, we have conducted a number of consumer investigations to help you save money without changing your lifestyle. Our Netflix and IKEA stories have been so well received that we’re continuing our series of investigations. Playing our role as the Mythbusters to your finances.

With the roll-out of the new Sydney transit card, Opal – we thought it was time to take an in-depth look at it.

What is the Opal card & why is this study important?

Opal is the same type of mass-transit ticketing system as the Octopus card in Hong Kong, Oyster in London and Myki in Melbourne. The card presents a big step up from the former, convoluted Sydney public transport ticketing system, comprising of duration based train and ferry tickets and number-of-ride based bus tickets, all around a zonal network system. Locally, Sydney’s trains, with 1 million customer journeys per weekday is going to be by far the biggest test for this new system.

The adoption has been staged slowly with a September 1, 2014 mandatory cutover from 14 “paper-based” tickets, including the popular monthly, quarterly, weekly and off-peak daily return tickets. With this cut-over, the vast majority of Sydney commuters have switched to Opal.

The biggest concern over the past few months has been whether or not Opal saves Sydney commuters money. Early reports (here and one which Pocketbook contributed to) suggest the reality is very different to the various pieces of PR from NSW Transport (see billboard example above).

Given the almost compulsory adoption, we decided to carry out a more comprehensive investigation, and perhaps settle it once and for all.

Finding 1. Most people (86%) don’t save money with Opal, and they actually pay on average 10-15% extra.

Now to the subject of impact on regular spending. What we did was to analyse the average monthly spending for two samples:

  1. The entire Sydney train commuters base.
  2. The subset of Sydney commuters which have shifted their spending from paper tickets to Opal cards.

Of course, as we assume that heavy travellers are more likely to switch to Opal, we anticipate the numbers from the latter sample will be bigger.

What we see is that in the aggregate case, the spending increases in the month of April, the month after the critical March 26th rollout date. However there is no noticeable increase observed in September – the other important date in the implementation plans.

The net-effect here, is that we see the average Sydney commuter increase their spending from $64 a month in March to $76 a month in September (a 19% increase). And for those heavy travellers that have gone to Opal from paper tickets, and increase from $86 in March to $96 in September (a 10% increase).

This is actually only an increase of $2.24 a week, or 45c per workday. So most people probably wouldn’t really notice it – but moving to Opal doesn’t actually save money for most people.

opal-card-avg-spend

Finding 2. The 14% of commuters saving money under Opal are most likely buyers of the MyTrains Weekly tickets.

In short, some people do save money. But it’s a minority.

Out of the sample that have switched from paper tickets to Opal over the last 9 months, only about 14% have saved money.

However, what we notice is that the average spend prior to Opal for the 14% that saved money is $134 a month (roughly $31 a week) and $33 a month for those that are now spending more money under Opal.

These aggregate numbers are particularly interesting (more on that later), however, we did notice that 30% of those that used to spend over $134 a month is also now worse off.

Without understanding how exactly commuters are using their tickets, it’s difficult to tell exactly what the optimum user to switch to Opal is. But clearly, the shift from duration-based ticketing system (ie weekly, monthly etc) to trip-based ticketing clearly affects wallets.

But here’s a theory…

What we suspect is that there are multiple and complex financial models at play when Sydney Trains make their ticket pricing decisions. And here might be why.

When we examine those that save money today with Opal, the average spend of $31 a week appears to be mighty close to what Sydney spends on the paper MyTrain Weekly Train tickets. Here’s the last MyTrain Weekly ticket prices for major metro hubs to the CBD – and you would assume most commuters live in the area inside a circle which connects these hubs on a map:

  • South (Hurstville to City) – $35.00
  • North (Chatwood to City) – $35.00
  • West (Strathfield to City) – $35.00
  • Northwest (Epping to City) – $41.00
  • Southwest (Bankstown to City) – $41.00

Using Opal or Not. We can see that if you commute to work 5 times a week. Opal gets you a saving of 6% to 8% for each of these scenarios. And that’s what we think the 14% of people are – Weekly ticket buyers who have made the switch.

Routes Opal ($) MyTrain Weekly ($) Opal Savings on Weekly
South (Hurstville to City) $32.80 $35.00 6%
North (Chatwood to City) $32.80 $35.00 6%
West (Strathfield to City) $32.80 $35.00 6%
Northwest (Epping to City) $37.60 $41.00 8%
Southwest (Bankstown to City) $37.60 $41.00 8%

Finding 3. There is an almost certainty that close to 50% of people won’t save money even before looking at actual spending.

So we’ve looked at actual spending from our data. Let’s take another approach and model the impact of the new pricing based on previous ticket prices vs Opal and estimates released from Transport NSW.

Below is a chart of monthly and quarterly tickets compared to new Opal estimates.

Routes MyTrain Quarterly- spending per week ($) MyTrain Monthly – spending per week ($) Opal
South (Hurstville to City) $27.22 $31.75 $32.80
North (Chatwood to City) $27.22 $31.75 $32.80
West (Strathfield to City) $27.22 $31.75 $32.80
Northwest (Epping to City) $31.89 $37.25 $37.60
Southwest (Bankstown to City) $31.89 $37.25 $37.60

We know from NSW Transport, monthly & quarterly tickets “represent about four per cent of all tickets sold”. But like we always say, don’t take the headline number for granted until it is tested.

So let’s build a very simple scenario, in a world with only monthly and daily tickets. In a typical month there are roughly 21 work days involved. So let’s suppose Sally decides to buy daily tickets only, and Lisa decides to buy the monthly ticket.

In this month, Sally then purchases 21 tickets, and Lisa 1 ticket. Lisa would have purchased 4.55% of total tickets (1/22 total tickets) but would have been 1 of 2 people commuting every single day. That’s actually 50% of people – not 4% as the Government stat will have you believe!

And this is why by our estimation, if the longer term tickets form 4% of total tickets as the Government suggests, then there is almost a lock that close to 50% of people will be worse off under the Opal ticketing system even before looking at the actual spending data.

Finding 4. At least 1/3 of the other 36% (86% minus 50%) worse off can be attributed to culling of off-peak Daily Return tickets.

It’s difficult to explain directly why another 36% of people are worse off. But in our investigation, at least a third of the rest can be attributed to the removal of off-peak return tickets.

Official numbers state that there are 16.6 million off-peak return tickets bought every year, which would account for just over 12% of the annual 281 million total customer journeys (“Return” being 2 trips – 33million total trips, and 12% is 1/3 of 36%).

For commuters travelling after 9am, off-peak Daily Return tickets were an ideal option to save dramatically on travel. A return ticket from Hurstville to the City for example before 9am would cost $9.20, and $6.20 after 9am. Opal today, comes in at $6.97 after 9am. Meaning this population is slightly worse off by 77c a day.

Finding 5. Opal card adoption has gradually climbed as expected, but not as much as Transport NSW suggests.

Lastly, we looked at the % of commuters using good ‘ol paper tickets versus Opal cards, and how that’s changed over time. You can see from the graph, there’s quite a rapid increase over the last 8 months from 16% in January to 62% in September. Furthermore, our data appears to lag slightly behind official announcements which suggests a tripling of adoption from Feb to May from 80,000 to 250,000 (where our numbers suggest a doubling only), and then tripling again to 810,000 in late August. Remember however, our numbers suggest actual top-up/purchase of the Opal card by commuters, where as the official releases only tell the story of total cards issued.

opal-card-graph2

So the lesson is – travel more frequently?

Based on our back-of-the-book calculations, we can see that at a minimum, 62% of the population should be worse off with the Opal ticketing system. This leads us to believe that our 14% of people saving money isn’t too far off the mark. And particularly with increased spending pegged at an average of 45c per day, it’s very easy for Sydney-siders to be oblivious to where their money has gone.

The good news is for those that used to buy MyTrain Weekly tickets for their daily commute, they’re probably better off today under Opal. For others, well many are taking advantage of the free-after-8-trips rule.

The idea here is to front-load your week with smaller trips using the bus network in order to take advantage of trains later on in the week. There are now a community of users who publicly discuss how to seek-out these loopholes, and it is now something the NSW Transport Minister actually endorses.

So what’s a solution to a consumption problem? As it appears… consume some more, even when you don’t need to.

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Notes on our data and methodology

  1. Our data comes from the real-spending of Pocketbook users, with all data de-identified, aggregated and analysed internally to protect security and privacy of our users data.
  2. We have more than 100,000 Aussies using our app. Out of that batch of 100,000, we sampled 21,000 of them for this study. We do this by using a method called k-means clustering.

11 Comments

  1. Beau Giles   •  

    Hi.

    In regards to finding number three; you should also look at usage – periodical tickets (weekly or longer) account for 50% of *usage*, with 8% using monthlies or longer.

    For finding number four; “Opal today, comes in at $6.97 after 9am. Meaning this population is slightly worse off by 77c a day.”

    However, Opal introduces an afternoon off-peak period which didn’t exist on paper. From the linked SMH article;

    “The chief executive of the Council of Social Services of NSW, Tracy Howe, said: “Many low-income earners – such as people with caring responsibilities or in insecure employment – take advantage of travelling in the off-peak.

    “For these people, any price increase is a blow.”

    Using the example of Hurstville to the City;

    “A return ticket from Hurstville to the City for example before 9am would cost $9.20, and $6.20 after 9am.” An Opal off peak fare is $2.87, so a return (e.g., leave after 0900, and don’t commence travel between 1600 and 1830) – would be $5.74, or 46c.

    • Bosco Tan   •     Author

      Thanks Beau, as always. The 4% exercise is just an illustration to say how 4% of tickets is actually a lot of people. If we expanded the model to assume 50% use a weekly ticket and 8% use monthly, where we get to is 8/1226 tickets being monthly (0.65% – way off the department’s number). This is assuming out of 100 people, 50 will buy daily tickets, 42 will buy weekly and 8 will buy monthly.

      Thanks for the tip on the other off-peak ticket, clearly there’s another population that is saving money also.

    • Andy   •  

      I’d suggest it works a little something like this – someone who buys a weekly for say 48 weeks a year is treated as 48 different people buying tickets (they don’t know it’s the same person). But someone on a yearly ticket is counted just once as 1 person.

      So in this example, those 2 people – 50% better off, 50% worse off. But because the weekly person is counted 48 times, they say 48/49 people are better off and only 1/49 worse off.

  2. Fee   •  

    This was a great article, but I felt as though the information was intended to push out a minority increase. For example, the calculations on Finding 4 assumes the user is worse off after paying for 10 trips a week, when the eight journey cap comes into play providing a weekly saving of $6.24.

    My partner & I both travel to work. We catch a bus to Strathfield station, then a train to Town Hall & St Leonards. In the previous zones system, since we don’t catch a train from Croydon, we were two stops (& Strathfield is a major stop) into the next zone bracket. The cheapest way for us to travel was to purchase a MyMulti 2 ticket that would be valid for a week from first use. As we catch a bus to the station, we would need to ensure we had bought them in advance (i.e. Woolies, 7Eleven, etc.) instead of purchasing at the station. These tickets cost us $56 per person per week.

    Using the Opal system, we are actually saving a fair amount of money. My partner is charged $2.10 for the bus, then transfers to the train to Town Hall for $4.10 giving a total of $6.30 for the journey. Once he hits eight journeys for the week, it has only cost $50.40 for a week’s travel – a saving of $5.60. I am charged $2.10 for the bus, then I transfer to the train to St Leonards for $4.70 giving a total of $6.80 for the journey. Again, once hitting eight journeys, this is a cost of $54.40 giving a saving of $1.60. Combined, this saves us $7.20 each week or approx. $354.60 over 48 weeks. If we have a chiro appointment or do a grocery shop (with more than an hour between getting off the train & getting on the bus) we save even further as the $2.10 bus fare is then calculated as an individual journey.

    I understand people who would purchase yearly & quarterly tickets might be frustrated at paying more, however I believe the number of commuters who are affected by this is minimal in comparison to total commuters. There are also additional environmental savings with the removal of paper tickets that aren’t seeing much airtime.

    Side note – you guys are doing a great job & I can’t wait to see what comes next from my beloved pocketbook!

  3. Bosco Tan   •     Author

    Hi Fee,

    Thanks for the comment and the additional analysis. We’ve tried to restrict the analysis here to Train commuters only, so we haven’t necessarily captured your use scenario.

    As far as the Train tickets go, the way we’ve worked to get to finding 4 is that anyone that’s taking advantage of the 8 or more trips would be “weekly” or longer ticket buyers previously, so the cap would be comparable to the prior discount on these longer-term tickets.

    I’m also very certain that if you have a hybrid commute, with both busses and trains, then I’m sure the analysis need to dig deeper, analysing scenarios of MyMulti vs the Opal cases. Which unfortunately will require a whole heap of additional work.

    To the point where yearly and quarterly ticket purchasers. The idea of Finding 3 is to show that when we take the Government stat of 4% of tickets being these longer-term tickets, the actuality when we do the maths is that it’s actually a significant portion of people. Our estimate is that it’s between 20% to 50% of regular commuters.

    Anyhow, thanks for the additional information here, it’s great to hear that you’re saving some money! And thanks for the kind words on Pocketbook, we’ll keep cracking on!

    • Beau   •  

      Bosco,
      The government does actually release data on ticket types, etc, which might be an interesting read if you haven’t already. Eg, the Compendium of Sydney Rail Travel Statistics 8th Edition – http://www.bts.nsw.gov.au/ArticleDocuments/79/r2012-11-rail-compendium.pdf.aspx

      If we look at Finding 3 again, the stats reported by the government show that 5.6% of journeys (journeys, not tickets issued/purchased. are taken using periodical (monthly (8,607,767), quarterly (5,319,792) and yearly (2,735,115) MyTrain tickets (out of 299,214,247 journeys)

      Looking at MyMulti tickets, 1.8% of journeys are made using periodical (monthly (1,564,916), quarterly (1,557,638) and yearly (2,173,583) tickets.

      (or, 7.4% were made with monthly, quarterly or yearly tickets. We’ll round that up to 8 for simplicity)

      Again – these are journeys, not tickets issued/purchased/sold.

      • Beau   •  

        Looking at weekly tickets, 6,734,601 MyTrain Weekly tickets were issued; 78,182,912 journeys.

        For the MyMulti Weekly ticket(s), 4,028,419 tickets were issued; 35,324,332 journeys.

        • Bosco Tan   •     Author

          Hi Beau, that’s interesting. This seems to be inconsistent now with the 4% of tickets number they were quoted saying. Will investigate.

    • Andy   •  

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there with doing comparisons of “regular” commuters – this would be why your analysis is so different from the government because they’d be including all the people who buy the single and return tickets a few times a week or less in their “90% are paying less” stat. Sure those irregular commuters might save a few dollars a year on their occasional trips, but the people who are paying a bit more each trip are people who use the trains almost every single day, so the cost increase is magnified for them and over a month or a year it adds up to a significant price increase.

  4. Johnny Apollo   •  

    Its costing me around $10 more per week now. There are times when I work back and so miss their free trip travel window between Mon-Thu (which accrue to allow you the free trips on Friday). I can’t work to the railway timetable (lets face it, they can’t either) so my weekly fare has effectively gone from $41.00 to just over $50. Whenever I see an open barrier at Townhall, I’m through it!

  5. DishWasher   •  

    I used to buy concession Travel 10 MyBus 1 at 8.80$ a pop for ten trips.

    I am working as a merchant banker earning fair money, one way trip was at 0.88c. I was not entitled to use this student bus trick and I havent been caught in 4 years during my daily route.

    Opal card will not be saving me money at all!

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