By Stanley Baldwin O. See | GMA News Online | April 23, 2015

The Philippines’ rail system is taking one step forward to the future with the news of a new unified ticketing system to be launched soon. While the physical rails and trains remain in limbo, the Automatic Fare Collection System (AFCS) introduces a smart contactless technology that rivals those of our Asian neighbors like Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia.

The Philippines may be a decade or two behind our regional peers, but with the expected rollout by AF Payments Inc. of the system starting in May with the LRT-2, Filipinos can ditch the old insert card-pass through-remove card process in lieu of tap and go.

Besides information regarding scheduled testing (June for MRT-3, July for LRT-1), not much detail has been presented to the public beyond the name of the card to be used (beep), the cost of the card (P20) and the minimum and maximum amount of top-up or load (P11 to P10,000).

Below are details and quick comparison of some our Asian neighbors’ card and fare collection systems:

Octopus (Hong Kong)

Owner/operator: Octopus Cards Limited

In use since: 1997

Technology: Built-in chip using Radio Frequency (RF) coupling; Near Field Communication (NFC) for Octopus Mobile Sim

Transaction speed: 0.3 seconds

Covered lines/transport companies: Mass Transit Railway (MTR), Kowloon-Canton Railway Corp. (KCRC), Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB) Company, CityBus, Hong Kong and Yaumatei Ferry (HYF), Airport Express

Exchange Rate: HK$1 - P5.77 (as of writing)

The Octopus system is used in almost all mass transport options (electric trams are the exception) in Hong Kong and Kowloon islands. One can buy an Octopus card at the airport for HK$150 (on-loan, standard adult card) with a HK$50 deposit and HK$100 initial value. The card can be used for the Airport Express to go to either Hong Kong or Kowloon stations.

With a maximum of HK$1,000 value, the Octopus card can also be used at the MTR, KCRC, city buses, taxis and ferries. It is virtually accepted throughout Hong Kong as there are Octopus readers in convenience stores, supermarkets and a whole lot more. Another advantage is that fares using the Octopus are a bit cheaper compared to fares using a single journey card.

AF Payments' beep card may have a smaller initial cost and larger maximum load value, but it would be hard to find another system more accepted that the Octopus.

EZ-Link (Singapore)

Owner/operator: EZ-Link Pte. Ltd.

In use since: April 2002

Technology: Built-in chip using RF; NFC for My EZ-Link Mobile application

Transaction speed: 0.2 seconds

Covered lines/transport companies: Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), Light Rail Transit (LRT) and public buses

Initial cost: S$12 card (S$5 non-refundable, S$7 card value); S$500 maximum load

Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) charges, retail shopping, dining (food & beverages), government services and more.

Exchange Rate: S$1 - P32.82 (as of writing)

The fare collection system of the island nation of Singapore is as simple as it is efficient. EZ-Link cards can be purchased at any station in the MRT network and, like the Octopus, can be used to pay for a variety of transportation, retail shopping and dining transactions. That the national government allows this system as payment for its services doesn’t hurt either.

The cost of buying a new card is fairly cheap compared to the Octopus and ICOCA. In addition to the EZ-Link smart card, a small rail map and sleeve/jacket is provided to protect the card from wear and tear. Like Hong Kong’s Octopus, train and bus fares are cheaper using an EZ-Link card versus a single-journey ticket.

ICOCA (Japan)

Owner/operator: West Japan Railway Company (ICOCA) IC Operating CArd

In use since: November 1, 2003

Technology: Built-in chip using RF

Transaction speed: n/a

Covered lines/transport companies: Japan Railway lines (except Shinkansen or bullet train), subways, buses and monorails.

Initial cost: ¥500 with ¥1,500 stored value; increments of ¥1,000 top-up/re-load value (¥10,000 max)

Exchange Rate: ¥1 - P0.3778 (as of writing)

There are about a dozen mass transit smart card systems in Japan but I will focus on just one: ICOCA. Offered by the West Japan Railway (JR) Company, this smart card is primarily used in the cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. The ICOCA can be used in all JR trains, subways, buses and monorails. But for me, the coolest use case of the card is on vending machines.

Since 2013, ICOCA can be used throughout Japan including the Tokyo-Kanto area (JR East), Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Hokkaido. Sadly, the card cannot be used on bullet trains (shinkansen) and other private lines in and around Japan. Unlike the Octopus and EZ-Link systems, train and bus fares using the ICOCA cost the same as buying a single journey ticket.

MyRapid Card (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Owner/operator: Prasarana Malaysia Berhad

In use since: n/a

Technology: Built-in chip using RF

Transaction speed: n/a

Covered lines/transport companies: RapidKL LRT System (Ampang and Kelana Jaya Line), Monorail, Bus, Gombak & Ampang LRT station Park & Ride facilities

Initial cost: RM10 with RM5 stored value; minimum RM10 top-up/re-load value

Exchange Rate: RM1 - P12.21 (as of writing)

Kuala Lumpur’s MyRapid card costs the least but certainly does not compare to the wide range of features and applications that the first three smart cards offer. Light rail, monorail and buses within the RapidKL’s network are covered by the card and nothing else. This card cannot be used to ride the ultra-modern KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) Express from KL Sentral to the airport.

In lieu of payments for shopping and dining, the MyRapid card serves as a discount card to various establishments and restaurants.

‘Beep’ card

I am lukewarm about the name "beep." It does not sound hi-tech nor does it convey anything related to Filipino culture, spirit or history. Something like "JuanTap" or a recursive acronym like "Tap and Pay (TAP)" might suit the new AFCS better.

Once the AFCS system gets rolling I do hope that it would be of great convenience to everyday Filipinos using Metro Manila’s three main lines. — BM, GMA News