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Monday, April 19, 2010

TransLink's Reliability on Muni is Tanking

Last weekend is the worst experience for me using my electronic "Muni only" pass on vehicles and the Cable Cars. I've never seen such poor performance from the equipment, from ones with blank screens (no power), all three color lamps lit (out of order), and a handheld card reader saying "no."

In a recent conversation, I spoke to one of the operators about the reliability of the readers. He noticed only 60% of the readers are working (in other words, 40% are busted). I asked him if he was given any training on it, he received some training, and is required to report any problems during his inspection of the bus before leaving the yard. We agreed that within the past month, the reliability of the card readers on Muni vehicles has been hitting new lows. That conversation alone answered most of my questions from a previous blog post.

Here's a list of frustrating issues I've noticed on April 17th and 18th:
  1. In the mid-afternoon on Saturday, I rode the K-Ingleside outbound on vehicle 1534, and while the air conditioning was busted (it was very humid), the card readers on the vehicle had all the lights active (out of order). 311 was not very helpful in filing a report: My message, their response, my reply, and their lazy excuse.
  2. In the evening on Saturday, I rode the Mason line Cable Car from the Wharf to Powell, showed my card to the conductor, and he pulls out his reader and received a "NO" message in red letters on his screen. He tried a couple of more times and received the same thing. He took a look at the card's "products" and noticed the "M" pass was on my card. He let me go since I had a valid pass, but he and I were scratching our heads on what the hell is going wrong with the program.
  3. Since I was concerned that my pass may have been wiped out, I took a test run on the Muni metro and my pass was recognized by the fare gates, but the train I boarded also had the three color lights lit.
  4. Around noon on Sunday, I rode the 38-Geary outbound and when boarding, the reader's screen was blank (no power), the driver told me that it was broken and let me go.
Reliability is a key problem for TransLink for mobile devices installed on the vehicles, and the handheld card readers that are used by Cable Car conductors and fare inspectors. It's poor enough for Cable Car conductors to refuse to carry their readers with them, but worse when the reader says "no" when there is a valid pass.

I will say, reliability on the metro fare gates is excellent. I've never seen a reader ever go "out of order," although on a couple of occasions, the turnstile didn't unlock when I got the green light to enter.


Something very strange is going on. In my observations and reading other blog posts (like Eye on Blogs) just within the last 30 days, things have turned really sour. Muni and the TransLink folks needs to work on this problem. Could it be a software problem, or is it the reliability with the electrical systems?

The big day when TransLink becomes Clipper is just a couple of months away. While Muni is giving away their remaining stock of TransLink cards to the general public (the old cards are OK to use when name change happens), why give out more cards when the poor reliability of the system is already costing the agency thousands of dollars in lost fare collection?

I may be an advocate for TransLink/Clipper for it's potential to save agencies money and making it easier to pay for transit, however, the reliability of the system must be their highest priority. The TransLink management board meets Monday, March 26th at 2PM and I hope the board members are reading this (ESPECIALLY NAT FORD), because they are going to give an earful to the contractors who are executing the TransLink/Clipper program.

I am highly considering to tell Commuter Check to mail me a paper "M" pass starting with the June benefits period instead of having funds added to my debit card which is used to buy the TransLink e-pass.


Erorg said...

This weekend the same thing happened on the "non-electrified" Stanyan-33 line from Potrero...BOTH DIRECTIONS to/from Castro and 18th.

ALL 3 LIGHTS - Saved myself $2.00 per ride! YAY!

Personally, I dont care if the Translink doesnt work anymore, as long as the operator lets me ride!
Im starting to think it might be better that they dont work.

Akit said...

The only big concern is if the fare inspector catches you for not tagging the card. Odds are quite low of being caught on a bus line, but much higher on the metro.

Colin T. said...

I've been a TransLink user since before it was available on Muni, since I also ride AC Transit. When it first rolled out on Muni in "beta" or whatever, reliability was poor (maybe 50% tops), but that was at least understandable. Reliability subsequently improved, and stayed good until this past weekend when it was just awful. I rode about 10 vehicles all over town (N, 38, 22, 24, 44, 31) and only ONE had working TransLink readers. I'm guessing something specific was going on this weekend, rather than some more general trend.

James D said...

The reliability of Translink is ridiculous given that other cities like London and Hong Kong have similar systems with vastly higher volume and fewer problems. I know SF doesn't have a budget like those cities but it's not like they're inventing new technology.

The good news is that since switching to Translink from fast passes I get about 1/4 of my MUNI rides for free.

Editor said...

I reported a Translink outage to @sf311 via Twitter this morning - N Judah, car 1478, "A" side - all readers out.

After your (Akit's) experience reporting a Translink outage to @sf311 this weekend, I was curious as to whether a staffing/shift change would affect the response when reporting Translink outages.

I got the same response - call Translink at (877) 878-8883 or email custserv@translink.org.

This was a different response than I had received even a week ago, where the @sf311 staff member issued a ticket# for the incident.

This afternoon, I decided to call Translink and see what was up. I spoke with a professional gentleman named Roman who confirmed that email and phone are our only two options as riders.

Roman confirmed that there is no Translink Twitter account (which sort of makes sense, since they don't own the name anyway) - even though there is Translink on Facebook. And @SFMTA doesn't seem to be a manned Twitter account anymore.

Unfortunately at Translink - every single customer service issue is funneled through the same custserv@ email address. If you've ever had to deal with that email address, it's not fast, and rarely is the issue solved with the first set of emails back and forth.

According to Roman, Muni operators (drivers) have a direct line to report issues to Translink 24/7 - but as civilians we have their regular business hours, the phone tree, etc.

I dunno about you guys, but I'm busy enough with life that reporting a reader outage is a courtesy that I extend to Translink and SFMuni as a citizen-owner and fan of public transit. In effect, Translink and SFMuni get an extra set of eyes, for free.

I guess they don't see it that way.

SFMuni Fare Inspectors are inconsistent with their understanding of (and/or communication with) Translink FastPass purchasers.

I have had more than one Fare Inspector tell me that an untagged Translink card - with a monthly Pass on it - is the same as not paying. I've had others call that bullshit. Neat, huh?

Like everything else - it comes down to consistency and setting expectations.

For now - Translink is consistent in its inconsistency. So is SFMuni.

My expectation is that Translink may or may not work, and SFMuni Fare Inspectors may or may not choose to fine me if the readers aren't functioning and I'm unable to tag my card.

Which frankly – sucks.

Joe said...

An N had out of order readers on Saturday evening. I haven't had much trouble on trains before...

Endymion said...

I encountered problems yesterday, when I boarded the 45-outbound at Columbus and Green, at approx. 11:40am, bus no. 55545. I think this bus might have a faulty reader or two, since it's not the first time I've had a translink problem on that bus.

The reader at the front of the bus would not read my card. After two attempts, I told the bus driver I would tag the reader in the back - it worked. A person boarded at the next stop, and he also had to tag the reader in the back.

I also encountered problems on the 41-inbound Monday afternoon. Both readers were out. Not the first time as well.

Erorg said...

Akit - The only big concern is if the fare inspector catches you for not tagging the card. Odds are quite low of being caught on a bus line, but much higher on the metro.

Me - Thats their own fault if I couldnt tag because the readers were down, they should still be able to see I have eCash or Passes in my card. Aside from that, Muni Fare Inspectors have a duty to know which stations are having fare gate issues, and possibly give people some form of pass to let OTHER inspectors know that you entered that station. I personally would not mind being cited and contest a ticket because of their lack of maintenance for Translink.

Akit said...

Under "what constitutes proof of payment" on Muni's website says that a TL card with passes is acceptable, but never explicitly says that it is necessary to tag the card. Might come in handy when experiencing a broken reader.


Erik said...

This morning on a 71L the translink reader was broken (as it's been about 1/3 of the time for the last few weeks) but there were fare inspectors riding. They wrote one ticket to a woman who had a translink card but didn't pay the cash fare.

I had a fastpass on my card but they told me that they had been instructed to write tickets even for fastpass holders if the translink card didn't get scanned, though most of the inspectors weren't doing so. Apparently there is some loophole that people have been using where if you can avoid scanning your card early in the month then you end up only having to pay for the fastpass every other month.

Akit said...

Erik -- That's some strange stuff from those fare inspectors: why write tickets for valid e-pass holders, even if the equipment on vehicle is broken?

Just like my most previous comment, the POP website doesn't explicitly say that an e-pass holder must tag their card. Similarly, Caltrain e-pass customers only need to tag their card once, and the conductor can easily scan their reader to find out if the pass is valid for the regions they are traveling.


Erik said...

Akit - The inspector said that there was some way of scamming the system into only charging you for a fastpass every other month if you could avoid scanning your card early in the month, which was why they had been instructed to write tickets for people with fastpasses who didn't scan their card. I was on the way off the bus when she said that so I didn't get a chance to ask her to clarify. She did say that probably most of the inspectors wouldn't actually write you a ticket for that even though they had been told to do so.

Akit said...

Erik -- That's a first I've ever heard of some kind of way to scam the system.

I wonder if that's some kind of rumor mill around the inspectors or not.

This entire fiasco makes me doubt if I really want to buy an e-pass for May. I'm really thinking of getting the paper pass.

Erik said...

She said something like "we don't really care but translink wants us to be writing tickets for that".

Editor said...

Erik - she said specifically "we don't really care but translink wants us to be writing tickets for that"?

Interesting set of priorities...

I wonder if that's for auto-load cards only?

Erik said...

I don't remember the exact wording, but there was definitely mention of "we" (meaning either fare enforcement people or Muni in general, I don't know which) not caring but Translink wanting people cited for not scanning fastpasses because of some kind of loophole or scam or something that could result in a autoload fastpass not needing to be paid for every month.

Anonymous said...

this is why I'm sticking with paper fast passes as long as I can. I think it might be loose connections on the translink readers which is made worse by the overcrowded train
cars. I ended up holding onto the back of it because it was the only place i could reach and I noticed it cycling between losing all lights and display and showing a normal screen. With the cars packed so full there will be people holding onto and leaning on them.