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TransLink's Compass rollout pushed back further

TransLink
TransLink's Compass card still isn't ready for prime time.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

TransLink is further delaying the full launch of its long-promised Compass payment card until at least late fall due to poor performance of the mobile card readers on buses.

Officials cited inadequate speed and reliability for passengers boarding buses in holding off on any further rollout of the $194-million system, which is far behind schedule and over budget.

TransLink chief operating officer Doug Kelsey said the validators on buses are  frequently taking longer than the target 0.3 seconds to read a card – sometimes "a couple of seconds."

Even worse, the validators are misreading cards more than eight per cent of the time, compared to TransLink's expectation of "far below one per cent."

That means huge numbers of passengers would often be overcharged if the system rolled out as is.

"If it gives you a misread and you haven't tapped out correctly, that's going to take money out of your bank account – you're charged for three zones instead of one," Kelsey said. "Envision if you had an eight per cent error rate on groceries scanned at the supermarket."

But Kelsey insisted he remains confident smart card contractor Cubic Transportation Systems will solve the outstanding problems.

"I believe we're doing the right thing," he said. "I'm not disappointed. I'd be very disappointed if we implemented this before we were ready."

The reliability problems are limited to the 5,000 mobile validators on buses – Kelsey said readers on SkyTrain, SeaBus and West Coast Express are generally performing well.

But he said a broad rollout can't happen until the cards work properly on the buses as well.

"I won't roll out West Coast Express and the other segments until they solve this. It really has an impact on how people move around the network."

TransLink had hoped to switch West Coast Express passengers over to use of the Compass card by late summer, but that has also been delayed without a new target date.

TransLink says the next Compass card project update won't be until October.

Once WCE passengers are using Compass, Kelsey said the the cards could roll out next to students with U-Passes, then three-zone transit pass users followed by others.

"We're segmenting the rollout. You implement one, you take a pause. It's not a race."

Kelsey said TransLink's go-slow approach has also worked well in resolving other issues.

The launch was previously paused last year over concerns about the web interface where passengers can load more money on their cards. Kelsey said the website troubles have been fixed with just minor tweaks remaining.

There's no indication when the accompanying fare gates – which were to have been operating by fall of 2013 – will be closed and begin holding back fare evaders who don't pay.

TransLink is also continuing to sell FareSaver prepaid tickets indefinitely – it had intended to discontinue them last January as part of a broad Compass rollout.

Asked if the smart card project was stuck or if there was any potential of abandoning Cubic as the provider, Kelsey said no and noted TransLink has a long relationship with Cubic, which also runs SkyTrain ticket vending machines.

"This will be successful."

 

Smart card trouble elsewhere

Cubic Transportation Systems is being targeted by lawsuits in Chicago, where users of the firm's transit smart cards allege they've been repeatedly overcharged.

But TransLink chief operating officer Doug Kelsey said the Compass system here isn't susceptible to the same problems, in part because it doesn't let users tap with other credit and debit cards instead.

One of the world's oldest transit smart card system is bracing for similar trouble.

London's transit system has begun to accept other contactless cards besides the system's Oyster card, prompting officials to warn riders to beware of "card clash" where they could be charged twice if they tap a wallet with multiple cards in it.

TransLink's fare gates and smart card project was previously estimated at $171 million in 2009 dollars.

Provincial and federal government contributions cover about $70 million of the budgeted cost.

TransLink originally opposed installing fare gates, arguing revenue recouped from fare evaders – then estimated at $7 million a year – did not justify the high costs.

But the system was mandated by then-Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon as a way of easing public fears about crime on SkyTrain and TransLink planners decided accurate ridership data from smart cards would greatly help in improving the transit system.

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