Back in August Auckland Transport kicked Snapper out of helping to deliver integrated ticketing in Auckland. Subject to any legal battles over whether compensation is due or not, this was the final line in a very sad and sorry tale about Snapper’s involvement in Auckland’s integrated ticketing system. A tale that goes back quite a few years.
The NZ Herald, and ourselves, have recently received a huge amount of information on the whole Snapper/HOP debacle – released under the Official Information Act. It may take a while to dig through the details of this all, but we shall give this task a go – because a huge amount of public money has gone into integrated ticketing plus a huge amount of time seems to have passed while we debate the whole issue. The Auditor General’s investigation into this whole shemozzle, which should provide us with some final answers around the whole sorry saga, is apparently on hold until Snapper’s legal battles with Auckland Transport have been resolved. So for now let’s just take a look through what we have – in particular looking at these two questions:
- What were the reasons for Snapper originally not being chosen as the preferred tenderer for Auckland’s integrated ticketing solution?
- What pressure, if any, did the government end up putting on Auckland Transport to allow Snapper to launch the Snapper/HOP (from now on referred to as SNOP) card early last year?
We’ll see what other interesting stuff we come across on the way.
A useful place to start is an NZTA Ministerial Briefing from September last year which provides some background information on integrated ticketing generally, but in particular the issue of branding and the inter-relationship between the SNOP card and other, future (at that point) HOP cards. Helpfully, the briefing summarises some of the technical details of the Thales system and how it differs from the Snapper system – so from the start we can begin to get an understanding of the potential difficulties in integrating the two:
From reading a bit more detail in other documents it seems that DESfire is what’s typically used for public transport based smart-cards. It does what is a reasonably simple job really really well and really really quickly. The Java JCOP is more commonly used for contactless cards purchasing small items. Like what Snapper does in terms of micro-retail payments.
Looking at another, more detailed, document – a presentation to the NZTA board – this distinction is highlighted further. The Thales system is designed around providing a really good solution for public transport and provides very fast read times by not complicating things too much. The presentation, from 2009 and as part of the process of informing and educating the board about integrated ticketing before NZTA signed off on their pretty significant financial contribution towards the project, noted that the Thales system was of excellent quality and didn’t raise any concerns about ARTA’s choice of them as the preferred supplier:
The presentation has quite a lot of discussion around the extent to which third party equipment should be allowed in the system. There are a range of ways in which third-party equipment can form part of the integrated ticketing system – from different machines, different cards right through to separate systems and ‘clearing houses’. NZTA’s preference was to have as little third party equipment as possible, because this made the system a lot cheaper and a lot simpler.
So to answer our first question, it seems like Thales was probably chosen as the preferred supplier because their technology delivered better on the core goal of the integrated ticketing project: a smartcard for public transport purposes. Snapper’s different technology was more based around micro-retail. My experience with my SNOP card is certainly that it feels really really slow in using the card to have it register properly. I can put the card in front of the reader while still walking and find that it only registers when I’m just about to get beyond easy arm’s reach. With public transport efficiency so intertwined with reducing dwell times, slow readers are something you want to avoid.
The second question is perhaps the most politically sensitive, as touched upon in an NZ Herald article yesterday – the question of how much involvement central government might have had in persuading Auckland Transport to allow Snapper to become involved in the system even after they had lost the tender to Thales for being the preferred supplier. Here are the key points from yesterday’s article:
Labour transport spokesman Phil Twyford says correspondence between Wellington smart-card supplier Snapper and the Beehive shows the Government forced the former Auckland Regional Transport Authority to let the company join the Hop ticketing scheme after awarding the main contract to its rival, Thales.
Auckland Transport has since dumped Snapper for allegedly missing performance deadlines, a claim which the company denies.
Mr Twyford says Government denials of political interference are contradicted by a letter from Snapper chief executive Miki Szikszai to former Transport Minister Steven Joyce after a meeting in 2010.
Mr Szikszai wrote that he understood Mr Joyce’s “expectations are that … NZ Bus should be free … to implement Snapper equipment and join the Snapper scheme in Auckland.”
Here’s the letter that Mr Twyford is referring to. With the key extracts below: Perhaps reinforcing the likelihood of Steven Joyce wanting to get Snapper involved (perhaps hoping that the Thales solution would fail and Snapper would be able to take over the whole thing?) are a series of questions Joyce asked back in late 2008, when he had first become Minister of Transport and was obviously just coming to grips with the project for the first time. His questions were:
- Why do we need a nationally transferable integrated ticketing system?
- Why do we need to spend $100 million on an integrated ticket system for Auckland when Snapper has been provided for free and privately?
- Can this project be stopped?
I think we obviously need to give Ministers a bit of leniency in their first couple of months – as without knowing the details these seem like reasonable questions to ask. But they certainly do give us the impression that Joyce was favourable towards Snapper and unfavourable towards the ARTA preferred Thales solution right at the start of his time as Minister. Fortunately the Ministry of Transport recommended strongly against stopping the project – and obviously that never happened.
I’m still working my way through the documents, which are in chronological order, and I imagine there might be quite a lot of more interesting stuff in recent times when it became clear that Snapper was failing to get things working with the Thales system – leading to them being cut from the project. But that will have to be the subject of another blog post.