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Friday, January 7, 2011

It's Ugly: Caltrain 8-Ride and Monthly Pass Transition to Clipper

If you ride Caltrain and depend on the 8-ride tickets or monthly passes, you could be in a shock during the months of February and March as the paper version will not be sold. But have no fear, Clipper is here! Okay, maybe a little fear or a lot.

8-Ride Tickets
Big Changes in Policy with 8-Ride Tickets
  • Clipper card machines to purchase new cards and adding value are not at all stations. To make matters worse, passengers must buy their 8-rides at retail locations, automated machines at places like SF Muni metro stations, or online (with standard 3-day waiting period). Read more about how to add value. Until Caltrain can find a way to allow Clipper purchasing at their stations, you should make preparations now.
  • The card must be tagged-on at your starting station and tagged-off at your ending station. This means, if you have a zone one to zone two 8-ride, you tag on in zone one, and tag-off at zone two.
  • There must be at least a minimum $2.50 on the Clipper card at all times when using Caltrain. Used to be $1.25, but fare increase for 2011 has changed it.
  • You can have up to 24 rides stored on the card. When it drops down to at least 16 rides, you can purchase another 8-ride.
  • You can purchase multiple 8-ride tickets for multiple areas. For example, I can load a zone 1 to 2, and zone 1 to 3 on a single card; but be aware of the 24-ride limit.
  • Unfortunately, you cannot do zone upgrades, unlike the paper system. If you ride beyond your designated zone, you will be charged the e-cash fare; the system will not deduct one ride and the upgrade fee. Also, since there is a tag-out procedure, you can't buy a paper zone upgrade ticket to cover your butt.
  • You can tag-off at the same reader you tagged-on and get a full refund within 15 minutes (perfect when there's a train delay or incident). If tagged-off beyond 15 minutes, passengers get charged a one zone e-cash fare (or one ride if their 8-ride ticket covers just that one zone only).
  • It is unclear if someone has a three or more zone 8-ride and tag-off midway. Will it deduct e-cash or just deduct a ride?

Monthly Passes
  • Starting with the March pass, all monthly passes will be on a Clipper card only basis. If you have two or more zone purchased, you can ride VTA and Samtrans free (local fare credit) by tagging card to bus/light rail platform reader. VTA will be active in February, just in time for Caltrain's transition.
Big Changes in Policy for Monthly Passes
  • Unlike being able to purchase paper passes at station machines, there is no way to purchase a Clipper e-pass at your station machines. Look for retailers or enroll in autoload.
  • The card must have at least $2.50 minimum e-cash value at ALL TIMES when tagging-on Caltrain.
  • You can mix a monthly pass with an 8-zone ticket on a single card.
  • On your first ride for the new month, you must tag-on and tag-off for your pass to be active.
  • Once you do your first ride, you don't have to tag-on and off for the entire remainder of the month. The conductor will scan your card and will tell him/her what zones you are covered.
  • Optional: You can tag-on and off, but only do it within your designated start & end zones.
  • Zone upgrades are available, but you must buy a paper zone upgrade and show it to the conductor when he/she scans your card.

Akit's Point of View
I totally support a transition away from paper passes and 8-ride tickets, but the changes in policy makes it a total mess. Why didn't Clipper try their best to exactly mimic policies set forth just like the paper versions? Here's my list of arguments to this being a terrible transition:
  1. Ticketing machines can't handle Clipper monthly pass or 8-ride transactions. Very few vendors in San Mateo and Santa Clara county contracted to handle Clipper loading.
  2. Zone upgrades banned on 8-rides for Clipper.
  3. Still have to purchase a paper zone upgrade for a monthly pass.
  4. System unable to charge an automatic zone upgrade fee when a monthly pass or 8-ride is present and the passenger tags on and off.
  5. Unclear policy regarding what would happen if a 8-ride passenger exits at a zone less than what's designated.
  6. For e-cash only passengers, there is no day pass option; only paper will exist. Ride three times, get charged three one-way fares.
  7. If a monthly pass passenger has to tag-on their pass at the first day of travel for the new month, but decides to cut their ride short (e.g. take BART at Millbrae), one may be charged full one-way fare instead of pass.
  8. Why not just enforce a policy of tagging-on and off every single time? By allowing automatic charging of zone upgrade fees and handling appropriate charges for taking less of a ride than the designated zones purchased, it makes it easy.
Maybe Caltrain should have followed in the footsteps of Golden Gate Transit & Ferry. Instead of those complicated paper ticket books while operating a zone system, they simply gave all Clipper e-cash paying customers a discount. Passengers would not have to purchase zone specific tickets to get their discounted rides, they just used their card to get the equivalent and it helped infrequent passengers get an incentive to ride the system even more.

If you don't know what the heck Clipper is, I wrote a great guide giving you all the info you will ever need.


Anonymous said...

Please note that the minimum e-cash required for Caltrain products remains $1.25.

Akit said...

The only problem with Caltrain is the maximum fare after the new fare hike is $12.50.

The maximum negative balance of a Clipper card is $10.

So... if you subtract 12.50 to 10.00, it equals $2.50 MINIMUM FARE.

murphstahoe said...

"Unclear policy regarding what would happen if a 8-ride passenger exits at a zone less than what's designated."

Tag on, tag off. System checks if you have a product that exactly matches what you did. So if you have a 1-3 eight ride and ride from 1-2, it charges you for a one way zone 1-2.

"Why not just enforce a policy of tagging-on and off every single time?"

A large percentage of Caltrain riders have monthly passes. At 4th/King at Rush hour, 300 people might get off a single train. The difference between 30 of them needing to tag off and 300 needing to tag off - all the while boarding passengers are trying to tag on = a mess.

Additionally, late arriving passengers would need to run halfway down the platform in some instances to get to a reader - if they have a pass they can just jump on the train (Caltrain has done a pretty crappy job with reader locales and numbers).

Anonymous said...

Akit, thanks for all the useful information. Here's some more for your bag of tricks:

* As you mention one can use a transit debit card at the muni metro machines to load a card instantly. However, it appears that it is not possible to buy a Caltrain eight-ride that doesn't terminate in zone 1. The machines say "how many zones do you want" but they are really asking: from zone 1 to which zone?

I called Clipper and they said they would refund my 8-ride. Now I'm wondering if one of those "Other retailers" in the retail location list may actually be able to perform this service. I do feel sorry for anyone on the peninsula who has a transit debit/credit card and has to use clipper, since there is nothing down there but those walgreens.

* I boarded the L line and the reader was out of order. I went to the next reader down and it was out of order too. So, I took my seat. The scary part was that when I disembarked, I noticed that the readers were working. So, what could I say to the fare inspector in this situation? Perhaps I should just get a seat really close to the reader so I can tag it quickly when it comes back up? :-)

Akit said...

Sorry, you can't use a transit benefit debit card at the retailers like Walgreens. It has to be a place that solely sells transit media.

The debit card has so many restrictions that your other alternatives is their website, order by phone, or try the old Clipper automated machines at places like the Temp Transbay Terminal and SF Ferry Building Golden Gate Ferry Terminal.

The funny part about the Muni metro trains is, if half the car is not working, try the other two on the other side. It looks each half of the train car operates independently.

Anonymous said...

if you load more than one 8-ride Caltrain pass on your clipper card, does the 60 day expiration start on the date you purchase, or the date you use the first ride?

Akit said...

I don't know what would happen to the expiration if you add an additional 8-ride on your card. This wasn't mentioned on their website.

thielges said...

Hi Akit - Nice summary. This transition is essentially an unannounced fare increase for anyone who had used 8-ride with zone upgrades. Also the Clipper version of the 8-ride exposes users to a risk that didn't exist with paper tickets. If you forget to tag off then you're charged the max fare. That mistake was impossible with paper tickets. Single ride users are exposed to the same risk but at least they still have the option to buy a paper ticket instead to protect against this problem.

The current 8-ride Clipper implementation is seriously flawed. Caltrain should delay the discontinuation of paper 8-rides until the problems are fixed. That would be as easy as simply not updating the software in the ticket vending machines.

I understand the desire to migrate to Clipper, but it should be done in a way that doesn't harm Caltrain riders. Shouldn't riders benefit from this expensive Clipper change rather than suffer ?

Akit said...

thiegles: Thanks for the comments.

The 8-Ride system is flawed with Clipper, especially when people want to go further and can't do so without paying full fare or adding a second 8-ride on their account.

To talk about the tag-off policy, it's the same policy used by Golden Gate Transit and BART to make sure people are paying the accurate fare. Sure, it's not fair to forget to tag-off and lose a chunk of cash, but it's the only way to make sure Caltrain and Clipper are not losing money by fare cheats.

During TransLink's pilot program almost a decade ago, the readers had buttons people would press to tell what zone they wanted to go, but that meant someone could fare evade and pay only $2 for a ride that really costs triple that amount. The tag-on and off policy made it to avoid cheats, but at the same time, make customers grumpy.

Akit said...

Whoops, my apologies for misspelling your name.

thielges said...

Akit - the ability to specify how far you intend to travel when tagging on is exactly what is needed to prevent the "space out max fare" risk. Caltrain audits tickets on-board to catch cheats. All that is needed to catch the fare cheat that you describe is for the Caltrain conductor to notice that you limited your ticket to a stop before where the conductor is doing the fare check. This is exactly what happens with paper tickets. There's no reason why Clipper cannot model the way that paper tickets work this way.

(and no worries about the misspelling, that happens all the time with an odd name like mine. And mispronunciation is even more common :-)

Akit said...

In my POV, I prefer the current system because if I want to stop short for some reason, at least I can exit and not pay extra. Might also benefit those who are forced to exit due to a delay ahead.

thielges said...

Though there's benefit to your short-ride scenario, I think that more people will space out the tag-off and pay max fare more frequently than have a mid-ride change of plans.

But why stop there ? We can have the best of both worlds. Allow the user to set a zone limit at tag-on time. If they decide mid-ride to stop short then only deduct the fare for the shorter ride at tag-off time. This is also possible with the Clipper hardware, all it takes is some programming.

Imagine that - after all of the millions spent Clipper could actually provide a benefit to 8-ride users.

If deployed as designed now I predict a lot of riders angry about being charged for tickets to Gilroy for making a common honest mistake.

Anonymous said...

I used the "ShopSafe" feature of my Bank of America Visa card to generate a special card number which can be used by Clipper only - I do this for all online purchases (including other recurring charges). I wondered whether there was a problem when Clipper hadn't debited my credit card account by the 5th of the month.

I called in, and learned that their charge was declined. In the past, this has happened when the vendor used a different name (e.g. "Clipper Card" rather than "ClipperCard"), or made multiple charges in one month.

Naturally, Clipper didn't notify me of this but just blocked the card. My online account didn't indicate any problem - it showed that I had an April pass on the card.

I "updated my billing information" with a new card number, and after that Clipper waited an extra business day before charging my card, and then subjected me to (as noted elsewhere) to a 3-day wait before downloading the new data.

I had no problems with paper passes for 33 years - I started on Caltrain in 1978. But Clipper has been a total mess, with a significant, time-wasting problem every month.

Anonymous said...

I just ticket on caltrain because I accidentally entered the zone I was in, instead of the zone I was going to. I was in a hurry on my way to the airport and have only ridden caltrain once two years ago. I swear the machine only asked "what zone." I assumed it was asking what zone I was in and would then ask what zone I was going to, because I thought that maybe every caltrain ticket machine was programmed the same way. I thought 2.75$ seemed sort of cheap, but didn't realize what had happened until it spit out the zone 4 to zone 4 ticket. Not wanting to miss the train I just got on and figured I would tell the ticket checker when he came around. When he came around he wasn't having it and wrote me up for fare evasion.

When I went back to look at the machines when I got back from out of the country they say "select destination zone." My question is, does anyone remember them at one point saying only "what zone?"