Many visitors to Melbourne complain about its myki public transport card, particularly the need to pay $10 for the card before you can use it.  But my visit to Sydney last weekend – wonderful in all other aspects – was spoiled by the ripoff Opal public transport card pricing experience at Sydney Airport.  Visitors to Sydney be warned.  I was shocked.  Let me explain.

First Experiences:  Visitors Arriving in Sydney

Like most visitors to Sydney, I arrived by plane.  I’m a public transport advocate and user whenever possible.  The huge ads in Sydney Airport claim (correctly) that it only takes 15 minutes to get to the CBD on the train, so it was a no-brainer to go down the escalators to the underground stop.  Very modern, very sensible (memo to Melbourne:  copy this connection please).

I went to the window to buy the Opal card.  Told the seller that I was going to the city, then the Blue Mountains next day (which I knew cost $8 each way for a 2-hour train trip), that I would be in Sydney for 4 days, returning to the airport.  He told me I should put $40 on the ‘free’ compulsory card. Some gem this Opal must be!

$40, I said??  Two years ago, I went into the CBD from mascot and it only cost a couple of dollars, thanks to the advice of a friendly customer service officer, recognising me as a senior.

Senior?, he said.  We can’t give you a senior card here (it’s advertised at the office).  You need to go to Central station to apply for one.  Cost to get to Central?, I asked.  $17, he said.  $17 I exclaimed??  It was only about $2 last time from Mascot, a station just across the way from the airport.

A captive market…at the Airport!

I walked away to assess my options.  They were few and not good (about the same as you have trying to park at a privatised airport).  Back into the queue I went, chastened, to buy the free adult (not seniors) Opal, put $40 on it and chugged it down.

6 stops later, I arrived at my hotel, some 200 metres from the station.  Fuming, I asked the concierge about the public transport system.  Smiling knowingly, he told me I could travel virtually anywhere on the system (train, bus, ferry) for a low price, that there was a maximum price of $15 a day and a maximum of $2.50 on Sundays (due to some recent government decision – perhaps an election is looming…).  The only place where this did not apply was….Sydney Airport.  I could travel to Mascot (before the airport) or Wolli Creek (after the airport) for a low price ($3 he suggested), but if I went to the airport, it cost $17. (Seniors  prices may be lower, but it was unattractive to go separately to Central to apply there for a separate card with unknown benefits, especially given it was almost 5pm on a Friday afternoon, so I didn’t ask him about that.)

This is market pricing at its best!  But what a terrible welcome to visitors to be so obviously ripped off at virtually the only station they are likely to enter (or leave) the system at.  And how depressing that a desired non-road government-owned public transport system charges prices that make a private cab fare to the CBD look economical and socially attractive, especially if you have to drag a bag more than a couple of blocks.

Fixing the Opal Pricing System

Perhaps I missed something. I’ve not heard others complain about this system, yet in Melbourne complaints about the $10 myki10 card are frequent.  But at least in Melbourne you can buy the card you need at the airport entry point and you only pay the $10 once, whereas in Sydney you pay the $17 twice (arrival and departure)!

Fixing Opal pricing would be easy.  NSW Government Departments of Tourism and of Transport, please take note!

  1. Treat Sydney Airport as a regular – not a special – station, thereby reducing fares to normal fares.  (This would of course encourage many local passengers to also take the train, thereby recovering revenue quite quickly through increased volume.)
  2. Provide a facility at Sydney Airport for seniors Opals, where it is needed.
  3. If there is any significant revenue loss from these moves, raise revenue by, say $0.10 per journey or per stop across the system. I’m sure this would be more than enough to compensate for the loss of revenue at Sydney Airport station itself.

Comparing the Sydney Airport and Blue Mountains public transport experience

The following day I took friends to the Blue Mountains on the same train system.  The journey lasted 2 hours each way.  It was very pleasant travelling, a cleaner came round during the journey to collect rubbish, the tap on/tap off system worked well, signage was good.  It was a remarkable experience for $8 each way.  Indeed, here the NSW general public is probably being ripped off by only charging $8, which seemed ridiculously low.

Such a pity to start – and end – my trip to such a wonderful city as Sydney with such a poor public transport experience.  Come on Sydney.  Lift your game!