The ABC and Fairfax reported that a series of documents had revealed the Government had considered introducing the $10 charge to cover the production costs of the cards and also make up for the shortfall in revenue from passengers not paying their full fares. This is particularly an issue at Sydney’s airport stations.
According to a December report by the NSW Audit Office, in the year to 2017, $2.6 million in revenue was lost through negative balances on Opal cards which was never recovered. This represented 0.2 per cent of total revenue.
The amount lost since Opal cards were introduced had reached $4.2 million by July 2017.
And it’s an increasing problem, with the Audit Office report stating the number of Opal cards with negative balances had increased from 363,000 during 2015-16 (with a negative balance of $1.3 million) to 776,771 (negative $2.6 million) during 2016-17.
Nowhere is this loss bigger than at the two airport stations where a “station access fee” of $14.30 is levied on each passenger.
A short 10-minute trip from Central station to the domestic terminal during peak hour costs $17.84 including the train fare and access fare.
Adult train fares can cost as little as $3.34 in peak hour, meaning sneaky passengers could tap on with just that amount on their card and then tap out at the airport leaving a negative balance on their card of more than $14 which might never be recovered.
Fairfax reported that the “majority” of discarded Opal card with negative balances had last been used to tap out at the Domestic and International airport stations.
That would mean at least $2 million in underpaid tickets has been lost at those two stations alone.
Transport for NSW (TfNSW) estimated 22 million trips are taken annually by fare evading passengers, split between trains and buses.
The Audit Office recommended: “TfNSW should implement measures to prevent loss of revenue from passengers tapping off with negative balance Opal cards.”
But the Government appears to have cold feet on the $10 card fee plan which would have gone a long way to recovering the lost airport income.
Transport Minister Andrew Constance said Opal was the foundation of the state’s public transport system and there were “no plans to introduce any fee for new Opal cards”.
It was also reported that TfNSW was part way through a $500 million, decade-long project to wean passengers away from the current Opal system to tapping on and off with credit and debit cards and mobile payment platforms such as Apple Pay.
If passengers used their own bank cards to pay for travel, TfNSW wouldn’t have to worry about clawing back negative balances.
Already, ferry and light rail users can travel with just their contactless cards; trains are next on the list with contactless rolled out by the end of the year.
The aim is for 90 per cent of passengers to ditch Opal in favour of other payment methods.
TfNSW said the $500 million figure for implementing contactless fares had since been revised down by two-thirds but did not give an aim for passengers to transition.
Mr Constance said: “Contactless payments are available as a convenience to customers but Opal cards would still be able to be used.”
TfNSW would not comment on how much money is lost to negative balances each year at the airport stations.