Snapper could yet win the race to introduce a smartcard ticketing system in Auckland, but there could be a catch for the Infratil subsidiary, which may have to replace the Snapper cards it has issued in Wellington if it wants Snapper to be a seamless national payment system.
The company has been engaged in months of negotiations with officials after the Auckland Regional Transport Authority confirmed in October that it had selected French rival Thales to build an integrated ticketing system for Auckland. The New Zealand Transport Agency agreed to provide most of the funding for the system, on condition that Thales' clearing house would become the back-end system for integrated ticketing systems nationwide.
The agency hopes to develop a national standard for smartcards and card readers by mid-year and Snapper sister company NZ Bus is keen to install Snapper on its Auckland buses later this year, but a policy agreed at an agency board meeting in October was not to allow multiple settlement systems in each city.
Transport Agency partnerships and planning manager David Brash says Snapper might, however, be allowed to clear Auckland ticketing transactions through its existing arrangement with the Korean Smart Card Company as an "interim" arrangement, until Thales' back-end system was built.
The development is positive for Snapper, which could get months to establish its payment card in Auckland before Thales' system launches in 2011.
Snapper wants the agency to allow competing clearing houses in Auckland, that would be interlinked. The agency agreed at its October board meeting that was technically feasible, but nevertheless decided against it after seeking advice. Infratil last year threatened to abandon Snapper if it didn't get its way.
Brash says multiple linked clearing houses would be too risky and potentially costly, but the agency is "not saying no for ever". If Snapper could demonstrate the benefits exceeded costs, the decision might be revisited.
In a potentially less positive development for Snapper, Brash says that in its contract with ARTA, Thales will provide the Transport Agency with a "base document" to provide a starting point for implementing a standard for smartcards and readers. Brash says the specifications contained in an initial draft do not seem compatible with Snapper's existing cards.
Snapper could therefore be faced with the choice of either issuing different cards in Auckland — meaning Snapper cards issued in Wellington would not work in Auckland — or replacing the Snapper cards it has issued with new versions.
Snapper Services chief executive Miki Szikszai says the company is getting a "level of openness" from the Transport Agency that was not there before. But he was not aware the agency planned to use Thales specifications to develop the smartcard standard.
"We are working on the basis that this will be a genuinely open standard, which means everyone will have an equal contribution and voting rights."
While Snapper has an incentive to get its cards on to Auckland public transport as quickly as possible, it would appear in Thales' interests not to see a smartcard standard ratified until close to its own launch.
Transport Agency policy adviser Steve Budd says that once Thales tables its base document, the process will become more independent of the company. The agency has engaged Dutch company Collis to lead the technical work in developing the ticketing standard and says an agreement with Standards New Zealand is ready to be signed off.