Monday, February 14, 2011

Clipper on Caltrain - stupid, swindling, or both?

Update from the comments via Dan Connelly which is pure gold - I'd love to see someone give this comment at one of the Caltrain forums.


A nontrivial revenue loss from canceling the Gilroy train, as is presently planned in Caltrain's "lay a turd" schedule proposal, is the "swindle" will essentially be over: they'll have only 4 zones with which to play.



From the comments, berk says...


Being charged a ride from SF to Gilroy, by default, is stupid and reeks of poor systems design, swindling, or perhaps both.


A recurring theme on board the trains these days - that Clipper was put in place because Caltrain is trying to "rip off" their customers. A rider on the train the other day had tapped his card twice in San Mateo on the way South, thus tagging on and then annulling his tag on. He wasn't checked on the way South, and "tagged off" at Lawrence - actually tagging on at Lawrence and eventually paying cash for a ride to San Francisco. This put his cash balance below zero, and despite six eight rides on his card, he was unable to board Northbound that evening. The conspiracy theorists came out - Caltrain is doing this because they are greedy! The system was designed as it was because they sat in a room and figured out how best to screw the riders!

I made what I thought was a pretty clear case that Caltrain isn't greedy - it's not like they are Bank of America, enriching themselves and their shareholders at the customers expense by nickel and diming them. And that I really think the people at Caltrain are decent folk, and wouldn't try to rip us off. Of course, the rebuttal to this was the story about Mike Scanlon's salary.

Fun fact - BART charges you $5.20 when you enter the BART system. If you don't "tag off" when you leave, you will be zinged for that fare. The fare inside San Francisco is $1.75 - if you forget to tag off, sorry pal. Of course, this isn't as onerous as charging you the $10.90 fare from Pittsburg to SFO, but it's true nonetheless. People just don't notice it because you nobody "forgets" to tag off of BART - if you skip the fare gates, it's pretty much intentional fare evasion (and you don't have to have $5.20 on your card to enter the system).

People forget to tag off from Caltrain for several reasons. Obviously, the system is not enclosed. We haven't been "trained" to tag off - I've gotten a lot better over time, that's for sure. But Caltrain has not really done its part. There are not enough tag readers at the station, and they aren't exactly in the best locations - as this photo shows...

This is what @caltrain thinks of their @bayareaclipper users ... on Twitpic

More readers, at established places on the platform where the train doors would generally open, near transfer points or exits, would greatly help. Instead Caltrain has just deferred and called it "user error", rather than proactively trying to assist their customers. Signage in the train urging people to tag off is useful, but pretty lame in the whole scheme of things - it certainly hasn't done the trick.

The problem is user error. That's what we expect out of Redmond, not Cupertino.

The upshot is that Caltrain has produced a PR debacle at the exact moment where they are also asking their ridership to help them campaign for new taxes to support the train.

Stupid and reeking of poor system design, swindling, or both?


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11 comments:

Paul said...

It's indeed poor system design. The Toronto-area Presto Card lets you set a default trip, eliminating the need to swipe off most of the time.

Gene Leybzon said...

It is worse than poor design - it's deceptive in nature ripping off countless riders...
Just called customer service to request a refund and now I have to wait 3 weeks for money back because it should be "approved by Caltrain".

John C. Baker said...

The charging the full fare "to make sure people aren't buying tickets with fewer zones than they are traveling" (as I once heard) is dumb. If that's what Caltrain is worried about, why not also make people with paper tickets pay full fare, they stick ticket in the TVM for a refund when they get off? (I hope I didn't give them any ideas.) There's no reason you can't select as many zones as you need to go on the Clipper card reader (as I think used to be the case with Translink's pilot program) and rely on random conductor sweeps to ensure compliance.

In fact, with Clipper, the whole zone scheme is stupid. Why not charge by milage between tag on/off or number of stops? Someone going Millbrae to Redwood City is going much farther than someone going Palo Alto to Redwood City, but paying less.

murphstahoe said...

John, I'm going to write up a manifesto - "How I would have implemented this thing" - trying to account for whatever limitations it appears are actually laid upon the system by CUBIC, and dump it on the desks of the board at the March JPB meeting.

I'll publish it online beforehand for review - god forbid Caltrain would ever leverage their 40,000 riders, many of whom are paid very large amounts of money to solve similar but much more difficult problems, BEFORE putting out junk.

djconnel said...

A nontrivial revenue loss from canceling the Gilroy train, as is presently planned in Caltrain's "lay a turd" schedule proposal, is the "swindle" will essentially be over: they'll have only 4 zones with which to play.

martin said...

I brought an 8 ride clipper for $30+ used it once and ended up with $9.50 owing on the card and it not working - all because I didn't clip out at the end of the journey. I spent 25mins on the phone, then another $3.81 on the card - and the card is still locked! Maybe it's worth updating the clipper web site to say customers need to clip out, or just fixing the software to debit the stored rides correctly!!!

Why would anyone expect to have to clip out of the train - you'd expect to be charged for a return journey.

Next time I'll drive!

Jake Blues said...

Got to work this AM and realized I'd forgotten to tag-off. Made the trek back to the station, tagged the card and got the following message on the display:
"Runtime Error 6D at 417A:32CF: Incompetent User."

Jake Swearingen said...

Forgot, once again, to tag off with my 8-ride ticket. I would LOVE to see Clipper data on how many people are doing this. Does it just show up as a massive surge in people taking the train all the way to the end of the line? Losing 7-8 bucks everytime I get absentminded is really getting old.

chriskfuller said...

What's really galling is the way it's setup for monthly pass holders: how often are you gonna' remember to tag off just ONE DAY out of the month? If you don't tag off your balance goes negative, and you're screwed.

They hired the JV engineering team for this one. Either I have a valid monthly pass on the card or I don't. Period. Having to tag is totally, completely stupid...

ericg said...

Count me in as another one of Caltrain's 8-ride ticket chumps. I actually did attempt to tag off but I guess I was too quick (due to the folks queued up behind me) and ended up with a dead card the next day. According to Clipper's CS, the whole max billing/tag off scheme came from Caltrain, so I would put it more in the swindle than stupid category. One simple solution to the mess is to give riders a choice by restoring the paper ticket.

If they do ever get a tax on the ballot I will vote against it, this service does not deserve any additional public funding.

ericg said...

Count me in as another one of Caltrain's 8-ride ticket chumps. I actually did attempt to tag off but I guess I was too quick (due to the folks queued up behind me) and ended up with a dead card the next day. According to Clipper's CS, the whole max billing/tag off scheme came from Caltrain, so I would put it more in the swindle than stupid category. One simple solution to the mess is to give riders a choice by restoring the paper ticket.

If they do ever get a tax on the ballot I will vote against it, this service does not deserve any additional public funding.