Negative balances on Opal cards amount to $2.6 million loss annually
Transport for NSW considered charging a $10 fee for new cards to tackle fare evasion and to promote contactless payment

Opal cards Beau Giles

The Australian state of New South Wales is losing $2.6 million annually to fare evasion in its Opal cards system. Fare dodgers are exploiting the possibility of traveling on negative balances. They do not pay the full fair for their trips and then start new cards to avoid paying the shortfall.

The Opal cards system allows passengers to tap on and off successfully even if they have only a few dollars left on their cards. If the journey costs ends up exceeding the minimum fare, the balance on the card becomes negative. This deficit is compensated the next time the user tops up its card. However, some passengers are discarding their Opal cards with a negative balance. They are getting a new one instead.


Why charging a $10 fee for new Opal cards?

Unlike other Australian cards such as Adelaide MetroCard or Melbourne’s mywiki, Opal cards have no cost. Passengers just have to top money and they can use it on trains, trams, buses and ferries throughout Sydney, Newcastle, the Central Coast, Wollongong and the Blue Mountains. Consequently, NSW taxpayers are subsidising the cost of every smartcard, including those used by tourist and by fare dodgers.

In order to tackle this situation, according to leaked documents, Transport of NSW considered charging a $10 fee for new Opal cards. The objective of the fee was to cover the production costs of the cards and to make up for the shortfall in revenue due to fare evasion, particularly at Sydney’s airport stations.

In addition, the fee on Opal cards should have encouraged ticketless payment. This would help cutting the costs of using retailers to distribute and reload Opal cards and of call centres to deal with customer enquiries.

Nevertheless, the Government turned down the idea. Transport Minister Andrew Constance said Opal was the foundation of the state’s public transport system and that there were “no plans to introduce any fee for new Opal cards”.


Hope on contactless payment

The leaked documents also reported that TfNSW was undertaking a project to encourage “Tap-N-Go payments. The 10-year project aimed for 90% of passengers to move from Opal cards to credit and debit cards and mobile devices within two years. This would eventually allow eliminating of Opal smart-cards and single-issue paper tickets from the transport network.

The transport agency stated Tap-N-Go would reduce state ticketing costs, combat the Opal cards fare evasion issue and benefit tourists and visitors.

Currently, contactless payment is in use in ferry and light rail networks. Trains are expected to join the list by the end of the year. Nevertheless, “there are no plans to replace the Opal card” with contactless payments for trips.