Brian Rudman: Snapper may have missed the boat

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Snapper transport card. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Snapper transport card. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Most Auckland bus travellers have experienced that embarrassing moment when they swipe their fare card and the machine fails to read it, chanting back "please try again".

It's little delays like this at boarding and exiting that Auckland's much trumpeted new $98 million integrated ticketing system is supposed to avoid. At a crunch meeting today, Snapper Services, the provider of these "validator" machines, face some tough questioning about its future in the integrated ticketing scheme.

One thing seems certain, Snapper will be very lucky to get off with a "please try again" message from their partners, Auckland Transport and New Zealand Transport Agency, the clients of the new ticketing system, and the designers, Thales, the French technology giant.

Snapper has already missed one deadline to prove its system could link into the Thales system and meet the technological performance standards outlined in NZTA specifications. Sources say the problem is not just the interface between the Snapper and Thales systems.

Also of concern is that current Snapper card readers are not up to specifications, critics pointing to their being "slow and prone to error" as outward signs of this problem.

One informant says the required speed performance for such a swipe card system is around 300 milliseconds, while the Snapper reader takes more than twice as long. That's when it doesn't have a hiccup.

This speed difference might seem insignificant, but it leads to queues as people tag on and off the bus or train, and to delays over a journey.

The failure to meet the targets has resulted in the initial, 100-person trial of the Thales system involving bus, train and ferry services being put on hold, leading to possible delays of up to two months.

Within Auckland Transport, patience is running out with Snapper and its investment company owners, Infratil, who together have been delaying Auckland's integrated ticketing project from day one.

Back in 2009, Snapper tendered for the lucrative overall contract and lost out to Thales. Snapper, a sister Infratil company to Auckland's main bus operator, NZ Bus, queried the decision through the legal system and lost. At the time a furious Snapper chairman, Paul Ridley-Smith, defiantly told the Herald, "We're not going to plug into Thales. We have a perfectly functional, 100 per cent effective, totally integrated ticketing system, so why would you build another one?"

In a confidential report to Infratil's August 2009 board meeting, Mr Ridley-Smith admitted, "If Snapper can't expand into Auckland then its business will be permanently sub-economic and it might have to withdraw from Wellington."

Refusing to lie down, a year later, Snapper persuaded NZTA and Auckland Regional Transport, despite Thales' objections, that if allowed to install their Snapper system in Auckland buses, they would ensure they were compatible with the Thales system.

In March, with the help of a $1 million, ratepayer-funded advertising campaign, the Snapper card was launched under the guise of being Auckland Transport's HOP integrated ticket. Snapper quickly moved to establish its card, not just as a public transport smartcard, but as a debit card for use in taxis, coffee shops and the like.

For Snapper, the added advantage was access to the substantial float of cash, deposited without interest, by the 93,000 card holders.

Now, it seems Mr Ridley-Smith's promise is coming true, but not for the reason he gave. He said, "We're not going to plug into Thales." The reality seems to be, it's not so much a matter of will not, as cannot. Well, that's not totally accurate as the much vaunted Rugby World Cup "A Pass" transport ticket was successfully used across different transport modes. But that was a simple identity card which didn't have to work out distances travelled and the like.

It's already been announced that commuters will have to swap their Snapper cards for Auckland Transport-supplied, Thales compatible, HOP cards, starting in July. Now it appears that short of a miracle, NZ Bus will have to replace the year-old Snapper validators as well. Though where you pick up 600-plus, new compatible card readers at short notice is another question.

What does seem obvious is that the promise of a fully integrated ticketing system by the end of this year is at risk. At today's meeting, Snapper should be told if it can't deliver, to get off the bus.

It's already had two chances to try again, and failed. It's time to finally admit defeat.

- NZ Herald

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