Tapping beneath the surface

Searching for an Opal in the rough.

Art by Shania O'Brien

Opal /ˈəʊpəl / noun: An amorphous, iridescent gemstone, deposited at a relatively low temperature. Background may be nearly any colour of the visual spectrum, but, in the rarest cases, is black.

Opal card /ˈəʊpəl kɑːd / proper noun: A plastic smart card, measuring approximately 85.6mm x 53.98mm; the ID-1 international standard card size. Background may be black, green, gold, light blue, or silver. Probably toxic if eaten.


In first year, I lost my Concession Opal card after a few months.

The next one lasted over two-and-a-half-years.


On Sunday, January 17th, I board a 440 bus to Leichhardt at 8:55am.

I take my grey Concession Opal card out of my pocket and press it against the card reader at the front of the bus, hearing the anodyne chime confirming the success of my tap-on.

The trip costs 39 cents.

When I catch the bus home at 2pm, I repeat the process. Yet, no chime comes. Not even the harsh, slightly humiliating buzz suggesting failure.

I try the other readers to no avail.

Were all the readers broken? Was my card broken? Can Opal cards even break?

The Opal website tells me I had used the card 7806 times.

I tap my debit card instead and pay the full fare.


I spend a week or so in mourning and order the next card.

It arrives within 5-7 business days.

At 3:40pm on Friday, February 19th, a journey to work aboard a 370 is my last.

After a mere 179 uses, it, too, unceremoniously refuses to tap-on when I try to go home.

What the fuck?


My tribulations have scarcely afforded me the certainty of an error code. The readers have shown me neither an Error 90 (digital seal is corrupt) or Error 93 (card contents corrupt).

Opal doesn’t respond to my email enquiry about the apparent lapse in the reliability of their machines and cards.

Research leads me to @TheOpalUser, a transport aficionado, Opal blogger, and proud owner of the 273rd Opal card ever issued. Sadly, he is unable to comment due to his proximity to Transport for NSW.

I try emailing Transport for NSW directly, to see if they can explain themselves. They never respond.

I wonder whether the ISO/IEC 7810:2019 Identification cards — Physical characteristics global standard could shed some light on this malfeasance.

A PDF copy costs 58 Swiss Francs — around 80 Australian Dollars.

Stonewalled at every turn.


I wait almost a month before ordering my next card.

I dutifully log in to the Opal website and name it ‘Patty’s Card IV.’

I’ve gone from putting the card in my pocket by itself to returning it to my wallet every time it gets used, sandwiching it between several other cards – its fallen brethren among them.

One day, I ask a bus driver at Central whether there’s something wrong with the readers when my card doesn’t seem to work.

He answers with a perplexed look and an uncaring “Nah mate, have a go with the one further back.”

‘Patty’s Card IV’ lasts just over a month.


The tyranny of the Sydney public transport system is well-documented; the (potential) virtues of fare evasion, extolled.

International students can’t even use Concession cards, for reasons known only to the decrepit overlords of Transport for NSW.

But, could the apparent unreliability of Opal cards actually be the linchpin of a larger conspiracy?

A planned obsolescence scheme in which faulty readers eventuate in a scenario where commuters must pay a greater fare lest they risk feeling the wrath of… 

Transport officers / ˈtrænspɔːt ˈɒfɪsəz / plural noun: Veritable mall cops of the Sydney public transport network, identifiable only by their perplexingly-small shoulder-hung satchels and four digit badge numbers.

Or maybe I’m just really sick of having to order new cards.


It’s been proven that Melbourne’s Myki readers can run DOOM.

So why can’t Opal readers seem to work?

I surreptitiously record the sounds of strangers tapping on and off the bus after noticing the slight variation in the pitch of the chime depending on which type of card is used.

My calculations and limited knowledge of music theory leads me to discover that a tap-on with an Adult card chimes at A5 (or 880Hz), while a Concession card chimes at G#5 (or 830.61Hz).

A mere half-step difference in Western music theory.

I do not know what to do with this information.


‘Patty’s Card V’ arrives in due course.

I treat it very carefully and don’t even peel off the activation sticker.

I hold my breath every time I use it.

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