GO Transit drives smart card plan

GO Transit’s 15-year-old fare system of paper tickets and passes and optical readers is “”pretty much unique in the world now,”” says Eve Wyatt, manager of information technology for the provincially owned commuter rail and bus service that covers Toronto and surrounding areas. Other transit systems

that had used similar systems have already phased them out. GO wants to do the same.

That led to a year-long trial of smart-card technology on GO’s Richmond Hill line, which runs from downtown Toronto to the city’s northern suburbs, using smart-card technology from ERG Transit Systems, an Australian company specializing in smart card installations for transit companies.

Like many pilot projects, it hit some snags. Technology upgrades and modifications could have fixed them, but GO decided not to implement the technology system-wide. Instead, a broader plan now calls for most transit agencies in the region to share a single system, probably using smart cards.

GO started design work for the pilot in 1998. One complication was the transit operator’s rather sophisticated fare system. GO riders can buy single tickets, two-ride tickets, 10-ride tickets or monthly passes.

Wyatt explains that GO wanted to keep the Richmond Hill line’s fare structure consistent with the rest of the system, allowing riders to either load cards in increments of two or 10 rides or buy a month’s worth of riding. For single rides GO continued selling paper tickets.

Public receptive

Wyatt says ERG’s system couldn’t address all GO’s needs off the shelf, so some customization was needed. A major area of customization was accommodating the GO fare structure. Another was sales reconciliations. With the paper system, ticket sellers must add up cash and credit and debit slips manually at the end of every shift. GO wanted the new system to do this electronically.

Michael Laezza, ERG’s vice-president of sales for the Americas, says the level of customization wasn’t unusual for this sort of project. Many transit systems have complex fare structures and other such needs, he says. What was unusual about the GO trial, Laezza says, was the decision to convert part of the system completely — other than still issuing single-ride tickets — to smart cards. In a San Francisco trial using ERG’s technology, for instance, only about 5,000 riders got smart cards. The idea behind GO’s approach was that it would have made the technology easier to extend to the whole transit system after the pilot, Laezza says. On the other hand, such a trial takes longer than one with a limited number of participants.

The pilot got under way in June 2002 with the installation of card readers in the line’s five stations. Cards were available at GO ticket offices and third-party retail outlets. Wyatt estimates about 4,000 people used the cards. There were about 10,000 cards issued altogether.

“”We were happy with the results in that the public was extremely receptive,”” Wyatt says. For the first few days, extra staff were at stations to help with any problems. And there were some problems, Wyatt says, including power difficulties and trouble with some of the hardware. But most passengers were patient. “”They realized that they were part of a pilot.””

Some problems went beyond equipment hiccups. For instance, with the paper system, a credit or debit card is authorized while the ticket agent issues tickets. Since two things happen in parallel, the process is fairly quick. With the smart-card system, card authorization had to happen before the transaction could proceed, Wyatt explains. That slowed down the sale. GO didn’t change the process for the year-long pilot, but would probably have had to modify it if the system had become permanent. Because of GO’s zone fare system, the system as implemented also forced some riders to use more than one card, Laezza says. If a rider bought a pass to ride between the Richmond Hill and Union stations, he says, and then wanted to travel to a station in between, the fare was different and therefore the passenger needed a separate card. Further customization could have fixed this, he adds.

Readers were awkward

Another issue was portable card readers. GO riders board trains without going through turnstiles or being checked at the door, and inspectors move through the cars doing spot checks. The portable card readers they used were heavy and awkward. “”We were dealing with a generation of equipment that was proposed originally back in 1999-2000,”” Wyatt says. Today smaller readers based on personal digital assistants (PDAs) are available.

Catherine Johnston, president and chief executive of the Advanced Card Technology Association of Canada, says glitches are normal at this stage in smart-card development. “”I think everybody goes through some growing pains when they start with any new technology,”” she says. “”They’ve learned things from it, and they can apply those as they move forward.””

That’s what trials are for, says Laezza.

Johnston notes that London, Hong Kong, Chicago and other cities have successful smart-card systems for transit fare payment.

GO is now working with municipal transit agencies from Oshawa to Hamilton — except the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), which is involved only as an observer — on plans for a single regional fare system. Robert Hollis, GO’s project manager for the GTA fare system, says the participants are developing specifications and hope to issue a request for proposal this fall. “”We’re still in the process internally of looking at the lessons learned”” from the Richmond Hill line pilot, he says. But, he adds, the experience will prove useful.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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