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Cities take note of TransLink smart-card program’s successes, growing pains

Compass Card is a year behind schedule, and other transit authorities are watching TransLink to see how it will tackle obstacles to phasing in the rest of their ridership.

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As the Vancouver region transit authority struggles to fully develop a smart card for access to transit, other Canadian transit services are watching closely to learn lessons in developing their own systems.

From as far as Alberta, other services have taken note of glitches and other troubles with the Compass Card program, which is a year behind schedule in being fully phased in for an estimated 420,000 transit passengers.

There are about 80,000 such cards being used by low-income passengers, staff with the regional transit authority TransLink and clients of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. TransLink next plans to provide the cards to West Coast Express regional transit customers.

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But TransLink won't say when it hopes to fully roll out the cards as part of a project originally budgeted at $171-million, but now expected to cost $194-million.

"We are certainly watching Vancouver with interest," said Lorna Stewart, director of technology projects for Edmonton Transit, adding her system is keen to learn from others. "I think we feel their pain because big technology projects have a lot of elements."

Edmonton Transit is preparing a request for proposals to develop a smart card.

Vancouver region transit users now buy tickets for individual trips, day passes or monthly passes. With Compass, passengers could bank transit-fare payments on a plastic card they would sweep over scanners on buses and in Canada Line and SkyTrain stations to pay for access.

Customers would be able to load funds onto the cards. When transit users now lose monthly passes, they face significant replacement costs. With Compass, the balance could be transferred, online, to a new card.

Calgary Transit is also watching as TransLink develops its own system. "We are interested in what other transit systems are doing and are always looking for lessons learned," spokesman Ron Collins said in an e-mail exchange.

TransLink welcomes the scrutiny from peer agencies. "I don't mind," Mike Madill, TransLink's vice-president of enterprise initiatives said in an interview. "What we're doing is introducing something that is going to be really great for our customers. If other systems can benefit from that, that's great."

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Mr. Madill refused to say when the cards will be fully available.

"We do not have hard, set dates because we want to make sure that before we go to the next phase, we have got the quality of the customer experience down," he said. "It's really, really important for us to make sure the customer has a good-quality experience. If that means we're not providing hard set dates then so be it."

He said other transit systems in London, San Francisco and elsewhere have offered TransLink advice. "Our peer agencies have told us to take it slow and make sure we get it right."

Other Canadian transit agencies have plunged into transit smart cards.

More than 1.1 million transit users in the Toronto region, Hamilton area and Ottawa use Presto cards for access to transit. This year, Presto will be deployed on the Toronto Transit Commission – Canada's largest public transit service – as an option for 1.76 million daily TTC passengers. In Quebec, a number of transit agencies across the province use the Opus card. More than 5.7 million Opus cards have been issued since their 2008 introduction.

TransLink is seeking $5.5-million from the federal Gas Tax Fund to cover costs for fine-tuning Compass readers on buses, noting in a May report that work is needed to upgrade links between fare-card readers and central computers.

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Cubic Transportation Systems of San Diego, which developed the technology, declined comment on the Compass Card situation.

Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor now heading the city program at Simon Fraser University, says he wonders whether the roll out is being delayed so the card doesn't become an issue in the looming referendum on Vancouver region transit funding.

Mr. Price helped test the card for a few months. He said he found it hard to get used to swiping the card when he got off buses, and scanners were occasionally unresponsive.

But he says Compass will provide relevant data to help manage transit. "Things will go wrong. It's technology. There just isn't a roll out I am aware of that hasn't had to go through teething pains."

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More


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