No more free trips on the Opal card, says new proposal

UPDATE 5/09/16 Free rides on Opal cards end today for public transport commuters in Sydney, who will receive a 50% discount once they reach eight trips a week instead. For some, the changes will hit hard.

“As someone earning a pretty average low wage, I rely on these free trips to get around on the weekend,” Francesca Wallace, 21, told AAP.

"I think it can be safe to say I’ll be opting to drive or walk instead of getting public transport,” she said.

UPDATE 18/05/16 NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance confirmed the government will axe free Opal fare perks today, citing not enough evidence it was being used as the reason. Opal card users will be charged discounted fares at 50%
off after their first eight trips per week instead. 

Despite earlier reports of an Opal fare increase, the government decided to
keep card prices and fare bands the same. There have also been zero
changes to Opal card daily, weekly or Sunday fare caps.

After a recent report by the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART), public transport fares might increase by up to 4.2% each year for the next three years - including axing the much loved free trips NSW commuters currently enjoy.

At present, public transport users pay for the first eight trips made in a week and subsequent trips are made for free. Over the last year, commuters have made $150 million worth of free journeys this way. Under the new recommendations from IPART, this scheme would be axed in favour of a 50% discount on trips after the first eight.

The original recommendation, from the draft version of the report released in December 2015, was that passengers pay for the ten most expensive trips made in a week, up to the weekly cap of $60. The current report reiterated that this scheme was the preferred approach, however, Transport for NSW advised that this wasn’t possible in 2016 due to technological constraints.

The news comes as commuters prepare to ditch Opal cards all together in 2017, replacing them with debit and credit cards.

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IPART Chairman Dr Peter Boxall said that while public transport is becoming increasingly efficient, and the operating costs per trip are expected to fall by around 5% in the coming years, overall operating costs are still expected to rise, from the current $4.8 billion to $5.6 billion in 2018-19. The increases in costs come from Government expansions to public transport services, including the CBD and South-East light rail extension and the Sydney Metro.

“Some fare increases are needed to ensure the additional costs are not borne entirely by taxpayers, but also by those who use public transport the most,” Boxall said.

“This determination means that fares will continue to cover around 25% of efficient costs, with taxpayers funding the remaining 75% reflecting the benefits public transport provides to the whole community such as reduced congestion and cleaner air.”

The weekly fare cap also came under scrutiny, with recommendations that it be raised to $64 in 2016-17 and then again to $72 by 2018-19. Other recommendations regarding fare caps included an increase from the $15 daily Adult fare cap to $18 Monday to Friday, rising to $20 in 2018-19.

Seniors won’t escape price hikes either, with the Gold Opal Card daily cap recommended to increase from $2.50 to $3.60 (20% of the Adult daily cap). IPART cited a 74% increase in pensions over the last 11 years as justifying the affordability of increased fares.

Commuters using more than one mode of public transport in a trip may benefit, with a $2 rebate under the new recommendations when a trip is split between two or more modes of transport, including trains, buses, ferries and light rail, rather than fares being integrated as one trip. Passengers travelling off-peak may also see some savings, with a proposed increase to the off-peak discount, from 30% to 40%.