Metro’s TAP System Moving Forward, But Some Snafus Remain for Bus Riders

Wednesday, Metro experimented with locking the gates at the North Hollywood Red Line station and unlike previous experiments with locking the gates, outside of an article on The Source, nobody seemed to notice.  As with previous gate-locking experiments, there was little confusion among commuters.  Most “Tapped” their way through the gate while those with paper or Metrolink tickets were aided by staff.

Based on a sharp reduction of email complaints about TAP, the program seems to finally be rolling smoothly with the only confusion still coming from bus drivers.  Some drivers are still having trouble selling and properly charging TAP cards.  Every couple of weeks, I receive an email complaining about TAP, and everytime, they come from a bus rider.

The most recent letter came from “KW”:

I get on the bus.  There’s $5 in my hand, and $12 on my TAP card.  “I’d like to buy a Day Pass please.” The driver gestures to the machine and can’t take my cash because there is more than $5 on the card already.  I tap my card in good faith, assuming that $5 has been subtracted and that I am now good to go with a day pass.  Several hours later, after zig-zagging round town running errands, I am horrified to find that my TAP card is now empty, with a full fare (no transfers) being deducted each time I got on a bus, and that I am stranded a couple of miles from home without any change (you can bet I’d spent that $5).  Luckily, this all happened before dark and I was able to walk back in relative safety.  It would have been an entirely different story a couple of hours later.

While this is a pretty awful story, the good news is that with her card number, Metro could fix the financial problem and refund KW’s money.

So I call the number on the back of the TAP card.  A very weary customer service type tells me that no, there is no way to claim a refund, and it’s not her problem that Metro haven’t trained their bus drivers how to add a day pass to aTAP card. Apparently it happens a lot. There is no training schedule.  No idea when the problem will be fixed, if ever.  She has no interest in helping me or suggesting a workaround for this problem in future.  Thank you and good bye.

Obviously, I’m pissed, because I spent $12 on bus fares when I only intended to spend $5.  I’m also pissed because there is no way of preventing this ever happening again, other than walking to the subway station and buying a day pass at the machine – which adds considerably to my journey time.

I’d be pissed too!  I talked to Matt Raymond, Metro’s Chief Communications Officer, who is directly overseeing the TAP program after the earlier rollout follies.  Raymond responded that complaints about Metro’s bus drivers and TAP is way down because they have been trained in selling and charging TAP cards since we last checked in on the program back in February.

When forwarded KW’s letter, Raymond expressed confusion because the agent should have been able to help KW get a refund, and it should have taken about two minutes.

The good news for bus riders is that it is still possible to purchase TAP cards on the bus simply by buying a day pass.  While the cards will only have one days value at the time, it’s a simple matter to either visit one of the Metro ticket counters or visit the TAP website where you can load value on to the card.  Raymond reminds us that going through the website takes a day for the value to load on to the card, but visiting a window does it immediately.  He also says that the number of people buying TAP cards on the bus has gone down from several thousand a day to several hundred.

While Streetsblog has received a lot fewer complaints about TAP in recent months, its possible that the reduced number of complaints is because of fatigue not that the system is running smoother.  Let me know your recent expereinces with TAP and Metro, has it been getting better?

  • Anonymous

    I’ve never had a problem with TAP, though I’m an infrequent user of it.

    These complications are definitely disheartening to hear.

  • Joe B

    The reduced complaints are definitely because of fatigue. Why should I bother complaining if nobody is going to bother to listen?

    The system broke down in several places here:
    (1) TAP wouldn’t allow KW to purchase a day pass with cash. This should be fixed.
    (2) There was no indication that KW purchased a single fare instead of a day pass. The system should have different visual and audible cues for “single fare purchased”, “day pass purchased”, and “valid pass used – no purchase necessary”. This should also be fixed and, if the user mistakenly purchases the wrong product, the bus driver should be able to correct the purchase on the spot. (Actually, it would be even better to get rid of the day pass and have fare capping instead, but I’m told that that’s impossible due to the obsolete technology that Metro has purchased.)
    (3) The customer service rep did not know how to fix the problem. She should be trained. Also, other operators should be tested to ensure that they know how to offer refunds: if they don’t, then they should be trained (or the refund process should be made easier), and the process that initially failed to train them should be revamped.
    (4) Since KW gave Metro a valid and useful bug report, she should be rewarded. A thank you/apology letter letting her know that the problem has been fixed and a free day pass would be appropriate compensation for her long walk and her frustrating phone call/letter to streetsblog.

    But if Metro is not going to do the above, or make at least some attempt to correct the problem, why should I take the time to write bug reports for them?

  • Irwinc

    The question still remains… why can’t Metro implement an automatic daily $5 fare cap on Metro only fare?

  • Eric B

    My lack of complaining is through fatigue.  Metro could solve the problem by either reprogramming TAP to implement fare capping or by training their drivers, but so far refuses to do either.  I was harassed by Metro Customer Relations for reporting my last bus driver day pass loading fiasco so I just gave up.  My bike is a free alternative to dealing with the hassle.

  • Tim Buchheim

    Daily caps would solve so many problems.  They’ll always have problems like this until they’re implemented.  When paper day passes go away, it’ll just get worse without daily caps.

    I’m just glad I can _finally_ register my TAP card online.  At the time I bought mine (a few months ago) it would just give me a database error whenever I tried. (Apparently because my card’s serial number wasn’t in their database.)  I contacted their customer support and they said it was because I’d bought my card at a Metro Rail station.  Huh?  Apparently their database knew about cards sold at Ralphs but not cards sold at Metro stations?  I don’t know whether they’ve since fixed it for real or whether they’ve just added some of the older cards like mine to their database.
    There’s still so many other problems with their system, though..  the website is just plain unusable (randomly slow, confusing interface … you can’t add a card from the list of cards on the “fare products” page, for example.  You have to somehow know to find the “balance protection” page instead.)

  • Anonymous

    So where are these LA Metro ticket counters?   Are those the four listed here?:

    http://www.metro.net/about/contact/customer-centers/

    Can they actually do anything about TAP cards because last time I went to them they directed me a phone to call the toll free number.  Also these locations sure are handy if you are in the San Fernando Valley or outside the **CITY of Los Angeles…NOT!

     IIRC, the full name of the agency running TAP is the Los Angeles *COUNTY* Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and no, so far neither Culver City nor Foothill Transit appear to be able to help me with TAP issues when it concerns TAP used for LA Metro fares. 

    So, yes, LA Metro *is* delusional in any confidence it may have regarding the reduction of complaints.

    The turnstiles (a separate project from TAP itself!) are not going to be really tested until testing is done at Los Angeles Union Station between 6 and 9 am for volume (with maximum two non-LEO staff present so we can count the jumpers) and at Culver City Station when the Expo Line opens and CC buses are realigned for the forced rail/bus (and inter-agency) TAP-transfer.

  • P.

    Just one note for the 2nd point you make.  There are visual displays for all of the fare machines.  The ones on the bus are very small and the contrast is not all that great so you have to really look at it. These displays will tell you whether you have a pass or are using the cash purse for each transaction.

  • P.

    My thing these days is, each TAP card has a lifespan which is only three years.   That date is not from issuance but from manufacture.   If you go pick up a new tap card at say Culver City Transit and its been sitting around for a while, you may be issued a card which has less than 2 years left of life.

    I have one of the original DC Metro SmarTrip cards which still has fare on it and still works.  It was issued to me in 1999.

  • Joe B

    What? They STILL have the confusing interface to register your card?

    Exerpt from a letter from me to Metro, date April 11:
    “May I suggest that it is not obvious that one must click on “Balance Protection” in order to register one’s card, and that perhaps a link called “Register Your Card” might be more intuitive.”

    Once again: Why should I bother complaining, if nobody is going to bother to listen?

  • B. Leischrift

    The TAP website is fantastically awful.  It is hard to imagine a less intuitive, less user-friendly website for any product or service anywhere.

  • Publictransport.about.com

    I’ve had that same problem, assuming that like other cities Metro had instituted a daily cap on the value subtracted from the card equivalent to the cost of a day pass.  Nope.  Maybe they’re trying to make more money?  The solution I’ve thought of is to have a separate TAP card only for Day Passes.

  • Johnciacci

    Actually here is the best solution, take all the fare collection away from the drivers except basic fare since Metro doesn’t have money to train them and install mini ticket vending machines and validators outside major busstops, users can purchase a day-pass or refill their tap and validate their card there and board in the middle and last door leaving the first door for one-way fares and wheelchairs only.

    The reason Metro cannot do the fare cap is because CUBIC the Southern California base fare collection company cannot get it working, they handle the fare collection for London’s metro and after decades of saying their fare cap work it doesn’t you still get charged for every tap on the oyster card there if you dont purchase a paper pass.

    I would write to Cubic and ask them A) if it’s possible and B) Write to Metro & Cubic to work out a deal.

    Cubic Corporation Headquarters
    9333 Balboa Avenue
    San Diego, CA 92123
    +1-858-277-6780

  • I never assumed that the drivers had ability to sell day passes on TAP cards from stored value. Yes it is something that Motorola systems can do but this is Cubic. I actually still buy tokens so I can purchase day passes on TAP (3 tokens plus 50 cents) and still get the tax deduction with my Commuter Check.

    The bad customer service is from Xerox/ACS, the MTA’s contractor. The call center people are not MTA employees and yelling at them does no good, although it may make you feel better. I suspect the contractor’s protocols for resolution are jerry-rigged on their own and were not subject to scrutiny from MTA. The business hours (Monday to Friday 8 am to 5 pm) are atrocious and should match the MTA’s customer service hours. 

  • Davistrain

    I’m surprised no one has chimed in from the “Free Public Transit” group, which advocates a 100% subsidy for transit, eliminating fare boxes, ticket machines, transfers, TAP cards, passengers fumbling for change while the bus sits there, etc.  Then there are old-timers like me who remember Pacific Electric cars with conductors and Ohmer registers.

  • Besides these problems TAP is not becoming the regional fare medium it was supposed to as several munis (Long Beach, Santa Monica, Torrance) spurn it. LADOT is very slow getting fareboxes on its buses. Besides the cap we were supposed to get fair fare where a TAP with a purse coming off Culver City then boarding Metro would only charge the transfer cost; instead right now it will instead deduct full fare ($1.50). The “sticker” solution for EZ pass is a sign of how far short TAP is from what was promised.

    I am also worried the staff reports have reverted to employing happy talk. It was only when the audit starkly laid out the mess the program had grown into being that management put a stop to the phony “everything is going great” claims of the TAPucrats and put Raymond in charge of fixing it. Sadly a lot remains to be fixed after far too many years and far too many millions invested in what should have been off the shelf technology. Sad.

  • Johnciacci

    Now they have all the turnstiles and they do not accept magnetic media like the SM BBB card so now Metro is stuck with this medium. How much money would it take to get the EX PASS system working on a tap card? How many more years? 

    They should push incentives also and if you load your fare on your tap card your fare would be 90c instead of 1.50, they have to completely redo the backend on the tap2go website make it more user friendly and have the fare load immediately, also they need more TVMs around town, i keep on writing to Metro for 1 year to add one or two TVMs to the LaBrea/Wilshire office. First they need to start selling day passes again on the bus, like they did with the paper passes or have something simple like this in key places http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/04/London_bus_ticket_machine.JPG/200px-London_bus_ticket_machine.JPG. 

  • Anonymous

    Another stupid and short-sighted feature of installing and locking unstaffed RFID-only reading turnstiles is the inability to follow fare collection trends like the SMS ticketing systems now being used in much of the Proof of Payment world:

    http://www.1415.dk/?page_id=115&lang=en

    Eventually cell phones will have RFID “transmitters” but for now the SMS system works on nearly all cell phones.

    P.S. Does anyone here know how much the Philadelphia to Lindenwold PATCO system pays out each year for its “Transit Ambassadors”:  http://www.ridepatco.org/travel/ambassadors.html
    as this will be at the least what will be required here.  PATCO is the only system in North America that has unstaffed turnstiled stations.

  • Jason

    Good lord.  There’s a difference between adding value to use on MTA and Culver City?  ANd how in the hell do you add value on Culver City bus?  The driver?  That seems like a LOT of delay waiting to happen.  How I miss the Octopus card of Hong Kong.  Freakin perfection in transit.

  • Blanchardmusic

    I still can’t add value to my tap card online. It says it can’t find the card number, and I’ve tried this with the free card with a week pass Metro sent me when I moved here, a card I purchased at Ralph’s supermarket, and a card I bought at a Red Line station. I thought the whole idea of carrying a tap card was so I didn’t have to carry exact change in cash every day. It’s completely useless to me.

  • MariaC

    I had the same problem trying to register my card online.  I called the 866 number and apparently since I bought my card at a vending machine (at Union Station) it is not in their database. I guess only cards purchased online are already in the system. The lady on the phone added my card number to the system, but said it will take FOUR BUSINESS DAYS for it to process and actually show up in my account. Since I was trying to register and load my card with a fare for tomorrow evening this wasn’t much help. I guess I will have to load it at the vending machine at Union Station, which I was trying to avoid in the first place.  What a stupid system!

  • mmm12

    I just purchased a TAP card from a vending machine for use next week. Next day, went online to register the card. The online app couldn’t find the card number. I called 1866TAPTOGO. The nice lady there told me that it takes 4-6 weeks for a vending-machine-purchased tap card to show up in the system for either adding balance protection or adding cash online. She was able to add balance protection over the phone but it will still take 4-6 weeks before it shows up online.

    Would this occur for a tap card purchased over the counter?

  • Anonymous

    Looks like the comments are a year old here. Well, to add to them a year later they still haven’t solved the problem of TAP cards from the vending machine taking forever to be able to be registered. I bought mine over a month ago and I get the cryptic database error. I call the TAP support number and they say, yeah, it’s a problem. Best we can do is try to expedite the validation of your card. A week later I try and still with the cryptic error. And having to navigate through the Balance Protection link is still the way to do it. Took me about 10 minutes of trying to think like a bad web designer to figure out that was the way to register a new card (assuming they’ve gotten around to validate the serial number if you’ve bought it from a machine). My God Metro, TAP and Cubic this is the freaking 21st century. Next time hire Steve Jobs (or the equivalent) to implement your system not Franz Kafka! Thanks.

  • Jake

    It is now April 2013, and there is still no solution to daily fare caps on Metro. The Tap website is still as convoluted as before, with inappropriate error messages and illogical limitations. Whoever is running this money losing operation needs to answer to the taxpayers and riders on why no improvements are being made in the systems. Why are they still drawing a salary if these things aren’t improving? And how can we trust this operation when they can’t get the basics right?

  • Joseph Glenn Hartley

    Healthcare.gov

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