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Monday, June 4, 2007

Translink Card Bay Area - How I would fix it

Ever since the Metropolitan Transportation Commission started their "Translink" program, I was there to help out their pilot program to test-out the program to assure that there will be no major problems to get it running in the future.

For about two or so years, I was primarily a pilot tester for San Francisco's Muni by using the product on their metro trains, but I was also issued a monthly sticker pass that I had to attach to my card to also use on other Muni transit vehicles.

One of the big advantages of the card is that I could load cash onto the card and use it on a limited number of transit agencies in the Bay Area, and I primarily stuck with BART, Golden Gate Ferry, and of course, Muni. I actually took transit more often just to try the card and visit some fun places like neighborhoods outside of SF and Great America.

Yet, out of all that "fun" of experimenting with the card, I hit several snags that made the experience interesting, but also rough on the edges. It was amusing that I contacted the Translink customer service center so many times that the people I talked to knew who I was.

The real problem with the Translink program stems from their poor implementation of the system, especially when it comes to installing the product on every single transit vehicle and station. When I was a tester for the program, the card worked very well on card readers that were permanently installed on train platforms/stations, and even the Golden Gate Ferry terminals. The permanently installed card readers were always on and 100% reliable, and that meant that I had a confident ride on-board public transit. The best experience is by taking the Golden Gate Ferry where all riders, regardless of being a daily user or infrequent user, would get the discount rate that was sometimes nearly 50% off the price of a ride across the bay. Muni Metro stations were not that bad, but because some stations only have one agent at one of the two booths, you sometimes had to tag the card and enter through the emergency gate. Caltrain was not so bad either, but the train conductors were not prepared to read the card, and had to fetch the card reader, which some had a little bit of a challenge to operate.

My solution: Install the program on permanent platforms first. Get it started on Caltrain first, because it will be the easiest to gain confidence with the public. Then, continue with installing it on BART, because the technology is already on the new faregates to read it. Lastly, get the product on the bus vehicles.

But let's talk about the bus vehicles. I've encountered a number of issues, including card readers that were marked "out of service" and not even turned-on. VTA buses were a real problem because it was supposedly installed on certain routes, but the readers were always broken. When they were installed on a majority of SF Muni metro trains, they worked when they were on; but when it was not powered-on, I practically had to teach the driver to turn-on the machine (just press the red button, and no it does not turn on the fire alarm... ok?). The problem with the card readers is that it has a slow startup time, and if you live at a bus terminal where they turn off their engines to not annoy the neighbors, you'd think that Translink sucks because the machine only operates when the engine runs. Plus, with the slow start-up time, would you just pay in cash or just say, I'll wait until the bus driver erupts in rage that he/she can't drive-off because you are still in front of the yellow line?

My solution: Why not put back-up batteries in each card reader, and when the bus is off, the batteries kick in, and when the bus is operating, it charges them. We have those electronic parking meters in San Francisco that runs on batteries (with no recharging capabilities), and they last quite a long time. Even better, upgrade the software for a quick start-up in less than 15 seconds. In just 30 seconds, the bus driver at the terminal is ready to leave after warming-up the engine.

Lastly, I've asked Translink on a number of occasions throughout the years about what's the progress, and they keep saying that it will be ready soon, and then later, and then years later. What's the delay? Can't they just cut the red tape and simply install it? If the price of the project keeps rising, wouldn't it be cheaper on the taxpayers if they just hurry and get it up and running?

I think the news said that the project originally cost about $38 million, but after all these years, it went through the roof to $150 million. If a contractor can rebuild a collapsed section of a highway ramp for a $5 million dollar bonus in less than a few weeks, would it be also worth it to just hire a contractor, train them, and give the company a nice bonus of lets say, $10 million to complete the project by a short deadline? If the project kept slacking-off and completion of the project would be in another two years, more than likely the cost of the project may hit $200 million; so if we are stuck at $150 million today, a $10 million bonus for a contractor to finish in lets say three to six months would be totally worth it.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments..

I have found Translink support lacking. When my card got blocked
(cause they lost my Commuter Check deposit) they were unable to unblock my card for two weeks. It would work on MUNI but not AC-Transit.

They told me to add a dollar at one of the kiosk machine to "force a update" to my card. When that did not work when they tried to fix the problem themselves and ended up stopping the card from working on MUNI also.

Eventually (a week later) they said they would replaced my card with a unblocked one but would not send it till I mailed my old one back ( adding another week to the process).

Ignoring the fact they were not able to unblock my card.
If they wanted to improve things they should be willing to send a replacement immediately on the promise I'll send my old card back instead of waiting to receive the old "useless" card first. (Or they should have allowed me to swap it the MUNI or AC-Transit store)

btw: the lost $140 in Commuter Check deposits have yet to be found and I have the card working off my personal credit card #.

Anonymous said...

I never held my breath with Translink. Trying to integrate 25+ transit feifdoms into a coordinated system will be neither fast or easy. It still took Washington DC 5 years (1999-2004) to integrate their SmarTrip card into their subways, buses, and parking garages. (And this was just one transit agency, Metro, who runs the subways and buses in a multi-county area covering DC, MD, and VA.)

However, SmarTrip's largest complaint is that it's still only a "pay per use" card. You can't load passes (day, weekly, monthly) onto the card, nor does it have a "fare ceiling", similar to Translink on VTA where you'll never pay for more than a day pass, regardless of how many times you ride the bus that day.

I've also heard that some Translink delays were attributed to the Cubic (they installed BART's new fare gates and ticket machines) legal threats against ERG (who won the Translink contract). Cubic has had a history of suing when they don't win contracts (even though they never bid on the Translink contract!) And you wonder why BART's new faregates weren't preprogrammed for Translink...

Anonymous said...

I used the Translink system for the first time today. While it was easy to "tag" the card and board the bus, there is one nagging problem.

If I have a Bart-to-Bus transfer and I use cash, I am entitled to a 25c discount, and only need to pay $1.50. However, using Translink (which is supposed to make this more convenient), it seems I lose the 25c discount and must pay $1.75, no matter what.

Did I need to inform the bus driver to switch to "transfer mode"? Or is this a lacking feature in the system and won't be corrected until Bart goes online with Translink (whenever that's happens)?

metzmash said...

Keep your eyes peeled...there should be a pretty decent-sized story on why the agencies can't get it together (and why MUNI won't let you transfer from trains to buses) via Translink on sfist.com pretty soon.

Anonymous said...

So far, I have been able to use my Translink card on all the muni vehicles equipped with them with no problem. Muni and Translink have said that it is not allowed, but the system is running. Ignore the "Testing in Progress" message on the readers. Go for it. Like I said, it's been no problem!