Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Letter to Caltrain

Here is a letter I sent to Caltrain. I am asking (perhaps it is not clear) for Caltrain to eliminate the painful process of purchasing 8 ride tickets by giving the equivalent discount to all Clipper users. You get the same 15% discount whether you ride 8 times, or just once. And you never have to worry about expiring 8 ride tickets. If you agree, let them know.

If you agree - let them know, use this handy email link to send a message to Caltrain customer service, copying the Caltrain board and staff at the same time.

UPDATE: - Response from Caltrain

John – your letter to the Caltrain Board of Directors and Citizens Advisory Committee was referred to me for response. (Please note that Astrid Lindell is no longer with the agency.)

Your suggestion is very timely because I have been working with staff from our Finance and Rail departments to discuss the impacts of possibly eliminating the 8-ride Ticket. We are still evaluating the positives and negatives and hope to have a recommendation in the coming months. However, if we proceed with recommending its elimination, we would seek customer and community input before holding a public hearing.

Thank you for continuing to want to improve Caltrain.



Here is the original letter
Dear Caltrain Board, Staff, Citizen's Advisory Committee, MTC Board Member Wiener -

I am writing to implore you to revisit your fare structure which is currently failing both your ridership and your organization. When Caltrain adopted the Clipper Card, Caltrain decided to go through the process of keeping the "8 ride ticket" portion of their fare structure. The 8 ride ticket has been a good method of rewarding riders who are frequent riders but not riding enough to justify monthly passes. The form of the ticket was a function of Caltrain's paper ticketing system. With an electronic fare system, the 8 ride ticket made far less sense, yet Caltrain has tried - and failed - to put a square peg into a round hole.

My opinion, and that of much of your very informed ridership is that the 8 ride ticket should be eliminated, and replaced with a 15 percent discount applied to all riders who pay for single rides with their Clipper Card. The 15 percent discount is the same discount current given to riders who buy 8 ride tickets. This strategy is the same as that implemented by Golden Gate Transit, which also had paper fare books but chose to eliminate that when they went to Clipper, offering a discount to all riders paying with Clipper. As a rider of Golden Gate Transit I can attest that their transition has been far smoother than Caltrain's.

While on its face, this sounds like a proposal for a fare decrease in a time of fare increases, this is a short sighted viewpoint. The troubles caused by the electronic 8 ride tickets have cost Caltrain money and tarnished the agency's reputation. I fully believe the savings to be had by those infrequent riders who manage to get a Clipper Card will be overwhelmed by increased ridership from infrequent riders who now have access to a discounted fare, and amongst your more loyal riders.

I offer the following anecdote. In August, I took a vacation and chose not to purchase a monthly pass. Instead I bought multiple different 8 ride tickets to cover the different types of trip I might take in a typical month. At the end of the month, I intended to purchase a September pass, but was left with several assorted rides left on my Clipper Card - rides which would expire in 30 days time, and could only be transferred by giving my Clipper Card which included my BART High Value ticket to someone else, also requiring me to get a new Clipper Card. So I decided to stick with 8 ride tickets. Like many other riders who use 8 ride tickets, I am discincented to ride the train - each time I ride the train I have to pay, unlike when I have a monthly pass. Caltrain loses money.

The final insult came when I decided to attend the Caltrain JPB meeting last month to address this issue in Public Comment. I arrived at the train station in San Francisco, and "tagged on" my Clipper Card and boarded the train. Arriving in San Carlos, I realized that if I "tagged off" in San Carlos, I would be taking a ride for which I had no 8 ride ticket. I would be charged cash, which would deplete my cash balance. Without a cash balance on my card, I would not be able to use any of the pre-paid rides on my Clipper Card, meaning I would be forced to pay cash for a full fare ticket from the machine instead of using the discounted ride I already paid for. In disgust, I stayed on the train but made my complaints heard to all who would listen on the train.

There are many operational incentives for switching to a single ride only with Clipper Discount. There are many more anecdotal incidents like my own, all of which result in calls to Clipper Customer Service which is a cash drain on the MTC. There are currently "Add-Value" Clipper Machines at MUNI, GGT, and BART stations. Caltrain does not have them - as a computer programmer I would wager a large sum of money that this is because someone is being paid a lot of money to produce special machines for Caltrain that sell 8 ride tickets. Without 8 rides, Caltrain could simply use the same stock machines as BART does - with a reasonable requirement that Monthly passholders purchase passes online or at Walgreens. And the single ride discount would incent those now buying paper tickets to adopt Clipper, which is a goal of the MTC. This might get those customers to ride more - replacing the revenue lost by giving them a discount. And with more riders using Clipper, fare enforcement would be greatly simplified for your conductors.

I urge you to adopt this strategy. Should the change produce a drop in revenue in practice, the answer is simple. Increase the fare for single rides, while leaving the Monthly Pass at the same price. This would convert a lot of riders who "do the math" to using Monthly Passes instead of 8 rides - and once they have a pass they become even more loyal to your service.

Thank You

John Murphy

San Francisco



kchu said...

This is a good idea. I also use 8-ride tickets but run into problems.

My company offers pre-tax money to buy commuter tickets, but I can only get cash or monthly passes. Actually, I can buy ONE 8-ride ticket per month, but they rest I end up buying with regular post-tax money. Your proposed system would let me buy all my rides with pre-tax money and let me take the occasional trip to a different zone with the same pre-tax money.

Jeremy Meigs said...

How bout we fix monthlies so that when you have money auto-deducted from your account to Clipper it auto-loads the pass each month. It's hard to remember to tag on and then off only 1 day a month. Tagging on is easier because the conductors remind you, but after an hour ride... well.

My issue isn't with Caltrain, it's just that Clipper is a pile, their service has issues with transfering money and loading passed and their customer service is terrible.

murphstahoe said...

I have been in a lot of debates regarding how to fix monthlies and the primary conclusion is this - of all the schemes they could have come up with, the current is pretty much the worst.

The card will not have the "knowledge" that you bought the pass online, but it would seem to be "simple" programming not to require a tag off to load a pass.

Anonymous said...

I do agree that the 8-ride is more trouble than it's worth. You didn't mention the usual problem case - someone buys an 8-ride at Walgreens and also loads the minimum $5 cash value... They forget to tag off the first time they use it, so Clipper charges the maximum fare. But there isn't enough cash on the card, so it's blocked and the customer can't use the remaining seven rides without dealing with nightmarish Clipper support.

And maybe someone bought the 8-ride and a monthly for the week after - the monthly ticket is blocked, too. Even though the customer paid in full and never had any intent of cheating Caltrain or Clipper, they might be out $200 or more.

djconnel said...

Great letter. I love the conundrum of not being able to get off in San Carlos w/o disabling your Clipper Card -- only "solution" was to ride to zone 3 (I think... or is would you need to go to zone 4?) then get a paper ticket back north to San Carlos. Unlike the "forget to tag off" problem, this isn't user error and there's no way to avoid it without having anticipated it based on knowledge of Clipper "lowest fare" logic.

Unfortunately the "response" failed to indicate that any of your points were understood or even read. I fear the "solution" will be to simply eliminate 8-rides and keep one-way rides at the present fare.