Slow start to making Opal the jewel in city transport crown

Opal's no shining gem - yet

Few commuters used Sydney's long-awaited electronic ticketing system, the Opal card, when it debuted on Friday morning.

''GOOD morning!'' gushed the man in the Opal-branded polo shirt and cap as another passenger hurried past, avoiding eye contact.

''Don't forget to tap on and off with the Opal card,'' he added to nobody in particular.

The ferry riders at Neutral Bay wharf seemed unaware they were heralding a new era of transport history: Sydney's long-awaited electronic ticketing system that will work across ferries, buses and trains.

The Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, says more than 200 people signed up with Opal cards during the past few weeks, but few showed up on the opening morning.

By 7.30am desperation tinged the Opal man's voice. ''I'm excited!'' he said as another iPod-wearing passenger grunted past.

At 7.58am he could smile finally. An investment banker named Simon Kidston strode purposefully to the silver terminal and tapped his card on the screen. It worked.

Mr Kidston was the first non-government passenger seen by Fairfax Media to use an Opal card. Ms Berejiklian said about 40 Opal cards were used on the first morning of the trial.

Mr Kidston knows the technology well.

He has worked in London where smartcards have long been used for all forms of public transport.

''It was long overdue,'' he said.

Ms Berejiklian and her staff caught the same ferry. ''Today is a really important day for public transport,'' she said, brandishing her Opal at Circular Quay. ''Passengers who used it were really pleased with it.''

The Opal card is being trialled on the Neutral Bay ferry circuit, and the government says it will be available for all Sydney Ferries' customers by the end of next year. Trains will join the trial from mid next year and buses in 2014. Light rail will join some time in 2015.

The new system will cost $1.2 billion, which includes installation and about 15 years of operating costs.

Passengers can order Opal cards for free ( or call 13 67 25) and either load them with money or use them as an automatic debit like an e-tag. Trips on the Opal card will cost the same as they do on current tickets. But Ms Berejiklian will wait until next year to confirm the new fee structure and what incentives or penalties will be used to encourage people to sign up.

The rollout, Ms Berejiklian said, would be long and complicated, and could not be accomplished by her Labor predecessors.

NSW taxpayers continue to suffer from the previous government's aborted T-Card ticketing system, paying more than $300,000 a month in interest on debts of more than $100 million.