Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Caltrain Clipper FAILBLOG #2

Usually I have my trusty Caltrain paper monthly pass on me. Soon though, paper passes will go the way of the dodo, and you will need to "load" your monthly pass onto your Clipper Card.

In our last installment, we looked at a poorly placed Clipper reader. The readers are there for riders to tag on and off the train, so that the system knows how far you have ridden the train, and can charge you appropriately. But how does that work if you have a monthly pass, you ask?

I will be "autoloading" my pass onto my Clipper card via my Wageworks Credit Card every month. So come the first of the month, I will have my pass ready to go. However, the pass is autoloaded into the system, but not magically transmitted to my Clipper Card. In order to get my pass onto my Clipper Card, I need to load it onto the card by tagging on and off to ensure the zones traveled match the zones purchased for the pass.

Here's where it gets dodgy. If I have a Zone 1-4 pass, does Zone 2 "match" that pass? Answer - no. This is a problem. I work near Lawrence Expressway, in Zone 4. But the Baby Bullet trains require me to get off the train in Mountain View, in Zone 3. On the first of the month, if I get on a bullet train, and tag on in Zone 1, and off in Zone 3 - that doesn't "match" my pass. I will get charged a $7.75 cash fare that I have already effectively paid by buying my monthly pass. Additionally, my pass will still not be activated.

I asked Clipper about this...

"Yes, you do need to tag off in Zone 4 or else you will be charged the Zone 1-3 cash fare.

I understand that it can be inconvenient, but since Caltrain is a zone-based system with open entry/exit, they have instituted the policy that every c...ard be charged the maximum fare (from the originating station) until the card tags off at its destination. At that time, Clipper searches for an applicable pass or ridebook. If there isn't one, than the fare is deducted from the cash balance.

- Lisa

Kind of sucks given that Caltrain's Clipper Brochure says this...

Monthly Pass: When you load a Caltrain monthly pass, you’ll receive unlimited rides within the zones specified, just like a paper Caltrain monthly pass. Monthly passes can be purchased on the 21st of each month for the coming month through the 9th day of the valid month.

Technically correct - the rub being that you have to go through the proper procedure to "load" the pass.

I told Mike Scanlon last month - "I am not a train guy", and he fed off this to say something about "this seems like common sense but...". Well, I AM a programmer guy. This should be trivial to get right. No - this IS trivial to get right. But they FAILed instead.


blobree said...

Do they offer some other way to Load your card? Like through Clipper's website? Seems like they could at least offer this as a solution...a pain to do every month, but better than paying for something you already paid for.

murphstahoe said...

The "loading" of a card has two phases.

1) Pay for the pass. I do this via Clipper's website, effectively, by setting up "autoload" from my Credit card.

2) Physically load the pass onto the card. I assume this means there is some nominal storage on the card - this is why when you tag on at the station, the reader that the conductor has in their hand will be able to tell that you tagged on. This requires you to bring the physical media (Clipper Card) to a loading station.

The algorithm is pretty rudimentary and shows complete laziness on the part of Caltrain and Clipper to figure out how their users utilize the card and how best to implement it.

When you tag on, the software only figures out how far you could possibly travel and charges you that much. Tagging off finishes a transaction.

They aren't smart enough to simply load the pass, if you have one, with one tag if said tag is inside the zone of travel. Fine. At least have the tag off algorithm be smart enough to determine that the destination zone is inside the zone of the pass, rather than exact.

ammon said...

This also affects me since I live between the San Bruno and Millbrae stations (zones 1 & 2 respectively). I get on/off from whichever station has the first train. Even though I hold a monthly (paper) zone 1-3 pass right now, about half of my trips end up being to/from Millbrae since it gets more trains.

On top of the monthly clipper pass annoyance, there is no provision for 8-rides with zone upgrades. I suspect that when we are forced to use clipper I'll rely on the corporate shuttle more and just use clipper on a cash basis for far fewer caltrain rides.

Now if clipper added some smarts it could even offer an alternative more equitable zone system to what caltrain's paper system imposes where X number of stations equals a zone. The existing zone system encourages long distance commuting and not short trips since it costs the same amount to travel 2.5 miles from San Bruno to Millbrae as it does to go from SF to Redwood City.

Jason said...

Agreed. This is a total epic fail on the part of Clipper / CalTrain. Luckily for me, CalTrain isn't convenient for me, so I don't use it enough to justify a pass (just use cash to deal with CalTrain / BART, fast pass for MUNI).

Sigh, so much potential... but transit agencies in the Bay Area always manage to f**k something up.

djconnel said...

With Clipper, there should be no reason for zones at all except as they apply to a monthly pass or to 8-rides. Just charge per unit distance traveled.

But even 8-rides get silly. Just program in a volume discount for each month. For example, first 8 trips each month get charged one fare, remaining trips get charged a discounted fare, such that after 16 trips in a month you pay the present 8-ride rate, while after 24 trips (1-way) in a month you pay the monthly pass amount. Max 2 charges per 4 hours.

Any high school junior should be able to solve that one.

For example, for a typical 3-zone ride:

trips 1-8: $6.00
trips 8+: $4.18
typical monthly: $115 (=24 trips)

So then how to handle monthlies? Monthlies could be purchased for specific zones, then you can charge for the "8+" price for additional miles outside the specified zones.

There's still the silly "program the monthly problem", however.