Monday, June 1, 2015

The problem with the Compass Card and other systems like it

During the Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, the top reason that I heard why people were voting no was because they didn’t trust TransLink. While three recent massive SkyTrain shutdowns, and the CEO snafu earlier this year didn’t help built confidence in the agency, it is the delayed launch of the Compass Card system that really seems to have gotten under people’s skin.

The irony of this whole mess is that the provincial government actually forced TransLink to install faregates and the Compass Card system. It was also the provincial government that required the plebiscite. So if we end up with a No outcome, the province is at least partially responsible for that outcome.

Most transit smartcard systems throughout North America had a rough start fraught with delays, cost over-runs, and contractual challenges.

Transit agencies in North America with smartcard systems deployed on buses require people to tap a reader when they board a bus. TransLink added a twist by requesting a system that could be used by people to tap a reader when they board a bus, and tap it again when they get off a bus.

This system was designed to allow automatic calculation of zones travel. The design would also allow TransLink to move to a distance-based fare system in the future. By having a tap-on/tap-off system, TransLink would also get more detailed information about transit service utilization.

The biggest mistake that TransLink made when deploying the Compass Card system was thinking that they would be different than other North American transit agency; somehow being able to have a smooth and fast smartcard system roll out. This considering the added tap-off complexity.

TransLink recently announced that they are restarting the roll out of Compass Card to transit users. U-Pass holders will be using Compass Card this month. West Coast Express customers can get the Compass Card starting this month. TransLink indicated that it may be moving to a tap-on only system for buses as it rolls out the system to more users. Problems with tapping-off on buses was delaying the launch.

Last year, I posted about Calgary Transit’s CONNECT smartcard system. Like the Compass Card, the project started back in 2009.

The Calgary Transit CONNECT smartcard project was supposed to have been launching in the summer of 2012. This didn’t happen. At the same time, the project went over budget. Things got so bad that Calgary Transit ripped out all of the smartcard readers from its buses and the CTrain system, and cancelled the project.

Things started up again in late 2013 when Calgary and its smartcard vendor agreed to a new contract. The system was reinstalled, and was scheduled to be in-service sometime in late 2014.

This week I’m back in Calgary, and I see that the CONNECT smartcard system is still not in service.

According to a March 2015 article in the Calgary Herald, Calgary Transit is taking its time to get the roll out right.

“We are being diligent with our testing,” Collins said Tuesday. “We want to ensure the electronic fare collection system works well for our customers before we launch it.”

The Calgary Transit website states that “a launch date will be announced once the system has passed testing. We want to ensure we are providing customers with a reliable, easy-to-use and convenient system.”

A little further away in Toronto, the Presto Card smartcard project was started back in 2007. The Toronto Transit Commission is expecting the system to be fully rolled out on its network in 2016.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that smartcard payment systems are highly-complex, and can take close to a decade to fully implement. Promising a system that will function in a shorter time frame will only lead to frustration and upset customers.

It will be interesting to see who will be first to roll out their smartcard system to most transit users, Calgary Transit or TransLink. So far, TransLink is winning.

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