Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

We’re not the only ones

with 5 comments

The Guardian reports this morning “Glaswegians revolt over ticket changes for ‘Clockwork orange’ subway system”. Like the Translink issue, the problem is that the new stored value “smart card” (in Glasgow called “Bramble”, in Vancouver called “Compass”  and in the Guardian compared to London’s “Oyster”) is being introduced at the same time as a significant fare increase.

some passengers have been angered by the withdrawal of 10 and 20 journey tickets, which took place in June, arguing that the new system will leave them paying considerably more for their journeys.

This is precisely the same issue we have with Compass.  It really surprised me that the (paywalled thus not linked) Sun actually produced a pro-Translink editorial on the subject. Indeed, I think this must be a first for that organ. It reads like a Translink press release, except that is criticizes those who use other media to voice their opinions. Because they differ from the official line, and the Sun, and, of course, in some respects with each other, they must be wrong.

The Guardian concentrates on the withdrawal of fare discounts. There is not quite the huge penalty for cash use for some kinds of trips as here – but there are definitely incentives to use the smart card. The problem is that these incentives are not nearly as good as earlier incentives to use transit more frequently. Paying up front for a bunch of tickets helps the organization’s cash flow. Not everyone makes two trips every weekday, so passes are not a universal answer. Monthly discounts work well for commuters, not so well for people who have a more varied trip pattern. The point about Oyster was that did not matter as the system would ensure users got the best deal going no matter how many trips they made. The policy in London at the time of its introduction was to encourage people to use the transit system.

Translink made two fundamental errors. The first was to use the introduction of Compass to raise fares in general. At the same time it has been forced to cut service in many places, to meet overcrowding elsewhere. It has not been able to do enough for the most crowded routes and at the same time it has caused considerable inconvenience to users who were already putting up with slow and infrequent services. The second was to ignore the lack of provision in the new system to open gates with existing magnetic media during the changeover period, which was going to have to be years not months due to the need to replace bus fareboxes that could not issue Compass tickets for cash. Due to the omission of this facility in the specification of the system, and the lack of funds to replace not yet life expired bus fareboxes, one type of “seamless” journey (cash on the bus transfer to SkyTrain and SeaBus) would not be possible. It is possible to buy magnetic readers for fare gates – or for ticket vending machines. It may have seemed expensive at the time, but in the context of a hugely expensive and uneconomic (it cannot ever pay for itself) crackdown on fare evasion, balking at the last few million having lashed out $170m of public funds seems obtuse. And by the way, Compass itself will allow for new kinds of fare evasion.

I frankly doubt that the idea of making people pay twice for one direction of travel really was thought of as a good incentive to switch to Compass. It sounds to me like people covering their rear ends after discovering an omission. And – to correct the false information in the Sun’s editorial – it was not “leaked”.  The bus operators were concerned that the passengers who found out about the need to pay twice would take it out on them. The operator is, after all, the most visible and vulnerable face of the organization. I have always preferred the cock-up theory of history to the conspiracy theory. That does not mean there is not evil in the world, just that bad things happen more often due to mistakes than deliberate malevolence. For reasons that we need not discuss here, Translink has long been incapable of admitting error. Yet it is run by people and therefore mistakes are inevitable.

The most egregious error now is that the view that Translink is using fare policy to deter ridership is gaining credence. The transit police in particular have taken to tweeting (and other communications) in ways which have convinced many that bus transfers will not be accepted anywhere on the system.

It is too late now to roll back the fare increases slid through as part of the Compass system. It cannot now be made to look like something that every transit user will welcome. It is not about being convenient. It is simply a worse deal than transit users now get. And Translink should admit that. The discount for ten rides is not nearly as good as with ten tickets. Don’t pretend that we should be happy with that. Translink could move back the day when the gates close until something can be done for those with bus transfers. Or operators could simply inform cash payers that they will have to pay at the station (not on the bus) to get the gate to open. After all, unless a fare boundary has been crossed, there is no revenue loss. Compromise is a solution that dissatisfies all equally. Translink  cannot now expect to win everything it wants. The ease of transfer is essential. We always have had an integrated fare system and retaining that ought to have been a prime objective in adopting any new system.

This is not to damn Translink and all its activities. This is not part of a “hate on” against this or any institution. This is pointing out that a mistake has been made and must be corrected. Pretending otherwise is simply not good enough.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 26, 2013 at 9:05 am

5 Responses

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  1. Educated folks like Stephen and Neal Jennings (link below) understand that this is a fare increase for those people who currently use discounted fare options (faresavers, employer pass). The $6 for a compass shouldn’t be called a fare increase, as it’s a one time cost of 50 cents. This is also a substantial fare increase for those who pay cash on buses and ride on train. Though this group will dwindle in the future, it still represents a few thousand riders a day. The opinion that this change is a fare increase is not false.

    But I don’t believe it is a genuine fare increase. For the rest of the transit riders who do not use discounted fare options, this will be a fare decrease. The compass fare will be less that the current $2.75.
    So in my opinion, this shouldn’t be a fare increase or decrease, it is a fare adjustment.

    And this is the reason for all the confusion. There are two groups of people that are opposed to this change: those that make educated judgements (stephen and neal), and those who are confused. The compass is a new thing in vancouver. Much of the population has never used a smart card for transit. The compass is also a change. People are generally opposed to change when things are going well. Why fix it if it isn’t broken?!

    But when the compass arrives, and the confusion and resistance to change dies down, then we will get a true perspective of how the compass has really affected fares and ridership.

    Maybe we won’t like the new system, maybe you will. In my opinion, whether it be a fare increase or decrease, the change in fares won’t be significant, and the convenience of smartcard technology will fare outweigh the fare adjustments.


    August 26, 2013 at 10:46 am

  2. I’ve stated in another comment thread that I believe the current 24% discount for buying a book of FareSaver tickets is an aberration that probably should never have existed in the first place. For that discount to disappear and be replaced by a more modest one seems perfectly reasonable for January 2014. Let’s be thankful we got a huge discount as long as we did.

    The fact that bus transfers and other magnetic stripe tickets like FareSavers won’t be accepted at SkyTrain systems is a separate issue and that one strikes me as a mistake that TransLink is now trying to sweep under the rug any way they can.

    I’m willing to bet someone at TransLink wanted a hard deadline on the use of existing FareSavers and figured that excluding magnetic strip reading from their new hardware was the perfect way of enforcing it. One day they’ll work, the next day they won’t. Requirement met. They either completely forgot that their thousands of buses would continue to issue magnetic tickets for years to come or believed that people paying by cash were soon to be extinct dinosaurs and good riddance to them.

    As with Stephen I’m going to resist the urge to imply malice and say that having to accept bus issued magnetic transfers was merely forgotten. By the time anyone in a position of influence remembered that buses give receipts for cash fare the contracts were signed and the final machine designs signed off.

    Instead of an apology and a temporary workaround we get spin. And TransLink wonders why otherwise calm, rational people harbour such hatred for the organization.


    August 26, 2013 at 3:38 pm

  3. TransLink is fond of using London as an example..even thought I bet none of them as been there or even looked at the TfL fares on the internet.
    The Oyster pay as you go does give a discount around 27% over paying cash (I only have checked a few fares. The list of adults fares alone takes several pages). If one make quite a few trips during the day Oyster cap the fare to a relatively economical maximum.
    London transit, like those in many European towns and in Japan, keep fares to a relatively low level (yes London’s fares are quite expensive compared to Paris’ ones, but everything is relative).

    Talking about Paris, its transit systems, just like all transit systems in France and in Japan, also those in Toronto, Montreal, Portland etc. etc. STILL uses paper tickets with a magnetic stripe for some fares.
    I am sure that they would much prefer that everyone uses a smart card but, like all good businesses, they try to appeal to people that are occasional users.
    In Paris a book of 10 tickets gives a 27% discount compared to buying a single ticket. The day pass is also a paper ticket w/ magnetic stripe.

    London transit, while it pushes the Oyster card to the forefront, DOES have tickets with a magnetic stripe…I let you find out which ones..not to many but they are there….

    Only one town in France so far, the town of Reims (300 000 souls in its metropolitan area) ONLY uses a smart card. It is actually a multi-use card (credit card/ transit card that can be loaded with several types of tickets and passes, for example one for the urban transit system and perhaps also another one for regional trains or buses/ electronic purse to pay for small purchases). They have been used in Japan for at least 7 years. I saw someone use one in 2006 in a small town near Hiroshima.
    The Reims card officially started in early 2011, when the new tramway was inaugurated.

    Red frog

    August 26, 2013 at 8:39 pm

  4. Alas Toronto is about to transition to an Oyster type card system. Fares are going up. The website is a mess (you start in English and wind up in French). Options of fare paying are limited.


    August 27, 2013 at 4:16 am

  5. Why do some Canadians always take about “Oyster type card”? What is wrong with talking about a Transit smart card! (there are all sorts of uses for smart cards, besides transit).
    Oyster was not the first one ever, not by a long shot. The first one came out in June 1996 in Seoul…

    Red frog

    August 28, 2013 at 7:57 pm

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