No ticket to ride at Sydney train station

Imagine you are a stressed Sydney motorist and you have finally decided to leave your car at home and take a train to the city. You arrive at a major station like Epping during normal operating hours and want to buy a ticket. The ticket windows are closed:

Fig 1: Staff instructed by rail management to vacate ticket window for other duties

The vending machines for single paper tickets have been boarded up:

Fig 2: No tickets to ride here

Fig 3:  Modern touch screen vending machines installed only a couple of years ago have already been removed 1)

These machines printed out paper tickets and allowed payment by cash. Now there are only machines to top up a recently introduced smart card (Opal card) but where can you buy an Opal card if you don’t have one? In consternation you ask a supervisor overseeing the gates/barriers and you are told to go to a small newsagent around the corner. Here it is:

Fig 4: Opal card sales outsourced to private Newsagent. Easy.

If the shop is closed (for whatever reason), that will probably be the end of your good intentions. You wouldn’t like to look in the area around the station which other shops sell the Opal cards. And your train is gone anyway.

The problem is obviously known. On the Sydney Trains website purchasing tickets it says:

“Please ensure you have a valid ticket (and concession card if required) before travelling.

If you do not have an Opal Card and both the station ticket office and ticket vending machines are closed, you can buy a ticket at your destination.”

That will mean trouble when caught by an inspector or at the destination. In all likelihood they will at least charge you the maximum fare on your line. I wish first time users good luck.

1)As of writing this article, there was still a set of paper vending machines remaining in another location of the concourse but it is only a question of time until they’ll be gone, too

How it all started

The Opal card was introduced in June 2013 after the previous government had failed with a similar card, the Tcard, due to technical problems, at a cost of at least a $100 million. For many, Opal card fares were more expensive than paper tickets. This issue was debated ad nauseam in the media and one article with some calculations can be found here.

Fig 5: Monday morning queue to buy weekly paper tickets

Queues at ticket windows create political headaches for Transport Ministers, especially at election time. A smart card is one solution. In order to motivate passengers to switch from paper tickets to the Opal card, ticket windows started to close at 14:40 in February 2015. The public reacted with cynicism, the standard Australian response when governments do unpopular things for their own benefit.

A couple of months later:

Fig 6: Don’t come here

Only when asking station staff would one window be opened for your personal attention. Is that not a good service.  Buying tickets to NSW destinations outside the Sydney Trains area or even interstate will require staff to contact a booking office in the city, a lengthy procedure for which you need patience and which you better do at a travel agent. And who would want to travel by long-distance train anyway?

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Click mouse on platform 1

The boarding-up of ticket windows follows previous pioneering innovations introduced at Sydney stations. Computer terminals including keyboards have been moved out of their safe platform staff offices right onto the platforms, accessible to the public.

Fig 7: Staff is leaving this computer terminal to supervise departure of trains

Fig 8: Click mouse to view next train

All these staff reductions and changes have to be seen in the context of an unnecessary and risky downgrading of double decker trains to automatic single decker trains in 2018, on the new line from Rouse Hill to Epping and also in the existing tunnel to Chatswood. This topic was covered in these 2 posts:

Sydney mismanages transition to driver-less single deck trains (part 2)

Sydney plans to dismantle rail infrastructure built just 6 years ago (part 1)

Summary and conclusion

The NSW government wants to privatize Sydney’s rail system in salami tactics because it has become too hard for the rail bureaucracy to manage the whole system, including Rail Unions. Queues at ticket windows, overcrowded platforms and late trains all pose recurring career risks for Transport Ministers and their hire&fire departmental directors and consultants. So it is better to outsource this risk, e.g. to Hong Kong based operators instead of training and motivating long serving existing staff. Are we not living in the Asian Century? So in the grand scheme of things you have to put up with minor inconveniences like not being able to buy a paper ticket at a rail station.