No Pearl in the Oyster?

Today, Transport for London announced that they would be terminating their support contract for the Oyster fare card at the 10-year opt-out anniversary:

Transport for London to terminate £100m a year Oyster contract.

The Mayor and Transport for London (TfL) are convinced that any new contract will deliver enhanced services for less money, driving significant savings.

The Mayor is keen to improve the Oyster card to make it even more attractive for Londoners and TfL will work to make sure this happens both quickly and in a way that represents the best value.

Shashi Verma, TfL’s Director of Fares and Ticketing said: ‘Transport for London is committed to delivering value for money across all of its services.

‘As part of this we are looking at more cost effective ways to manage and develop the Oyster card system that we expect will save millions over the next few years.

‘The savings will be reinvested to deliver further improvements in London’s transport system.’

Full news release

BBC coverage

TfL took pains to emphasize that they think the Oyster card is a great thing, but that the cost of providing the service can be reduced from the £100-million annual cost to a consortium of private contractors.  Issues have already surfaced about ownership of the “Oyster” brand and other components of the system.

Meanwhile, Torontonians continue to hear about the wonders of Presto as the salvation of regional travel.  I must emphasize that I don’t object to technology per se, but in London’s case there was an overwhelming need to replace an antiquated and complex fare structure and fare collection system.  Toronto does not face the same level of complexity.

An odd thing seems to grip advocates for technologies in various guises:  all of that private sector, value for money, keep an eye on the taxpayer’s dollar stuff flies out the window the moment someone wants to sell a system.  Metrolinx and Queen’s Park seem to be big on “alternate financing”, a scheme by which we keep the cost of infrastructure off of the public books by having a private company own and operate it under a long-term service agreement. 

Will they turn the same eagle eye on Presto, or will we simply be dragged into the new system without understanding its true cost?  The last time I heard, the cost to implement just for the TTC was approaching $250-million, plus annual costs to operate the system of at least $10-million greater than the current elderly but simple token and pass scheme.

Will there be a option to get out of the Presto contract at, say, a 10-year anniversary as there is in London?  Will the contract be written to ensure that the infrastructure, the trademark and any valuable side-agreements such as the use of a fare card as an electronic wallet stay in the public realm?  Will we just give away the store like Highway 407 to the salesman with the best song-and-dance who offers a quick solution, don’t fret about the details?

13 thoughts on “No Pearl in the Oyster?

  1. Steve, $10-million more per year?

    I had not really considered the estimated annual cost to TTC of operating a fare card, compared to the current system. Aside, I wonder if the latter amount changes much with the elimination of adult tickets…

    Steve: The TTC still has to handle the same amount of cash whether people buy tickets or tokens. There will be fewer tickets to handle, but more tokens, and so that side of thing may be a wash. What’s a net new cost for Presto is the operation and maintenance of all of the new hardware and the back-end IT system to go with it. This cost can be reduced if we avoid really complex fare options, but the people marketing systems like this are selling technology as much as they are selling transit, and simplification is not high on their agenda.


  2. So what’s the problem with the current system? If somebody doesn’t mind rehashing it here, for everyone’s benefit..

    Toronto has an exceptionally simple fare system. Its $2.75 cash or a token/ticket or a pass. Its good for the whole city. So GO Transit and the other 905 agencies operate on separate fare structures.. big deal. As far as I understand, that won’t change with the Presto card, so the advantage is limited to, essentially, carrying around a balance on a single card? It would certainly be convenient but I’m not convinced that there are enough people who would benefit from this; most people are going to be doing a GO trip and then TTC, or Mississauga/Brampton/York Transit and then TTC trip, and it isn’t exactly hugely complicated to carry a pass for each.

    Unless we can see some sort of unified, pay-by-distance fare (maybe in the far far future when Metrolinx is presumably running everything), I just don’t think the benefits are worth the cost.


  3. Steve, I thought you might be interested in this. It’s a presentation about how to hack the CharlieCard. Seems they’re not to secure. I wonder if Presto would be any better.

    Steve: The linked file is a bit over 4MB and contains a lot of technical references that may baffle those outside of the IT and security industries, but the information here is widely known. As the authors say at the top of the presentation, what is shown here is illegal, but that doesn’t prevent people from doing it.

    The lack of security in various media including mag swipe and RFID cards is a huge problem because there are so many of them out there and so much invested in systems that are not secure.

    As and when Presto! gets implemented, security is not just an issue of avoiding counterfeiting fares, but of making the system’s add-on features such as being a debit card invulnerable. The same convenience features that allow you to swipe your handbag against a turnstile without digging out your pass create a host of opportunities for others to access your card.

    What is shown here makes the problem of counterfeit adult tickets look almost quaint by comparison.

    Updated August 10, 10:20 am: The presentation at DEFCON linked here has been blocked by a court order in the USA under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As I write this, the presentation is still online at MIT’s website.

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation will appeal the court order as a First Amendment violation.

    The fundamental issue is that the technology used by many transit systems today is not secure. Proposals to enlarge the scope of this technology beyond simply collecting fares should trigger a debate about the abuse of the technology including fraud, invasion of privacy and other issues. In the name of “making transit more convenient”, we must beware of the larger context in which this technology operates and the security problems it presents.


  4. Matthew Kemp said, “how about making fares flat at just $2 for anywhere in the GTAH”.

    Nice idea, but why not go all the way and make all transit in the GTAH (heck, the whole province) totally taxpayer funded with no fares?

    Seriously, I don’t have a problem with a zone fare system, with current zone boundaries (i.e.: I’m not advocating making the current TTC zone multiple zones as it once was). What I have advocated before is that travelling between multiple zones should be made more economical and equitable (something that should be more of Metrolinx’s mandate) by implementing the following:

    1) A single fare price for travel within any one zone, with your fare essentially being a 2-hour transit pass

    2) A zone supplement for travel between adjacent zones; such a supplement would NOT be a second fare (as it is now), but something like $1 extra

    3) “Wide” zone boundaries (approximately 2-4 km) instead of a single point; travel from either zone into the boundary area would not incur the zone supplement

    Naturally, there would also be daily, weekly, and monthly passes that are for a single zone, or double zone passes with the zones identified.

    Steve: I’ve been talking about this sort of arrangement for some time, and am always amused to watch Presto! advocates trying to justify a far more complex arrangement.


  5. I hope that GO transit is included in this unified fare card structure. As an example a transit consumer could then take Hamilton’s future LRT to a GO station in Hamilton, get on a GO train to Union Station, get off GO and get on a TTC subway at Union Station to get to where this person has to go all on one fare card. I hope this type of system is implemented because I am almost certain that it will greatly increase transit usage all over the GTAH


  6. On the topic of TTC fares I was wondering whether the TTC is still studying the possibility of moving to timed transfers. (That is, you can travel anywhere on the network for x minutes – possibly with only one subway trip.)

    I know this is possible now on the St Clair streeetcar but on the weekend I saw some very perplexed tourists who tried to get on a 504 steeetcar at Church Street using an apparently valid transfer – they had started to walk from the King subway toward the Distillery but when a streetcar arrived …. The driver finally allowed them to board but a timed transfer system would surely avoid LOTS of these kinds of conflicts and would make life easier for drivers too.

    Steve: The 512 setup is an experiment valid only on St. Clair, but I know there are some in the TTC who hope this can set the stage for a more general implementation.

    Once we go to all-door loading on the new streetcars, the idea of having someone eyeball a transfer when you board becomes meaningless. A time-limited transfer is much easier for a roving fare inspector to check — either it’s still valid or it is not. One important point here is that it must still be valid when your fare is checked, not just when you board the vehicle.

    Also, just a clarification about wording: The term “timed transfer” is normally used to refer to guaranteed connections between routes that are scheduled to meet each other.


  7. Either way you look at it, fare cards may be a factor of convience, but the ridership gains, will not pay for this system. On top of that the $2 fare, I take it back. If you want people out of their cars and into transit, make it free, fast and something you can count on. The pricetag will be insane, but it will be worth every penny!


  8. From the Metronauts conference held last year at MaRS i remember Adam Giambrone’s staff was quite intent on fare zones, almost to the point of being insulting to those of us who live within the megacity but outside the traditional boundaries of old Toronto.

    I’m sure the Transit agencies will desperately try to hold on to their turf, while certain politicians will try to increase cost recovery, and Metrolinx seems to want to take over. Between these competing interests it’s hard to be optimistic regarding any new fare technology and fare structure.

    I would guess that a fare by distance mode would be ideal (living in Northwest Scarborough, i should be able to pop up to Unionville/Markham for the same cost as going down to Kennedy Station), but this is hard to implement for many reasons (political, technological, etc). Calvin’s proposal would be the next best option.

    I guess my point is that we cannot punish people based on where they live like the current system of hard fare boundaries does. Unfortunately the things i have read/heard point to things moving in the opposite direction.


  9. Steve wrote, “[I] am always amused to watch Presto! advocates trying to justify a far more complex arrangement.”

    Not only that, but a fare card should hide complexities from the user, even if that means that the programming behind it is more complex.

    For example, using my “basic fare is a 2-hour pass” suggestion, the user simply touches the card near the sensor when boarding transit. My “zone supplement” would suggest that touching on exit would also be necessary, but this makes it too complicated for the majority of users who never cross a boundary. So, if you take one bus into another zone, it is a “freebie” (that covers J’s concern). If you then board a new bus within the 2-hour limit since your original touch, it charges you just the zone supplement.

    Any touching of the card in the original zone within the 2-hour period doesn’t cost you anything, as it is effectively considered a “transfer”. The moment you touch it after the 2-hours, you pay another fare. POP parts of the system (future TC lines, VIVA, etc) would have fare inspectors with a hand-held unit that tells them if a charge is in effect.

    If your day involves a lot of travel, it SHOULD NOT keep charging you a fare every two hours. Instead, it should max out at the cost of a day pass, then any touching until the next “day” (probably 5 am the next day) would not incur any more charges. The same goes for the week and the month – if you travel enough to have paid for a weekly or monthly pass, no more charges incur for that period.

    Alas, the Presto advocates will probably opt for a card that simply is a replacement for purchasing existing tickets on existing systems, with no per day, week, or month maximum. All that cost and technology with no substantial benefit to the transit user.

    Steve: Yes, what you propose is close to what I am thinking of. It is essential that there be no requirement to “tap out” as this vastly complicates the system and associated infrastructure. The planning types love it because in theory they get a vast amount of data about where people travel, but you need a lot of infrastructure and back-end storage to support this. I won’t even mention the privacy concerns.

    Technology vendors love fare-by-distance because it vastly increases the amount of equipment and the complexity of the supporting infrastructure. Superficially, this arrangement seems to be “fair”, but in practice it penalizes the long-distance rider who is precisely the type of person we are trying to lure onto transit from their car. There’s a reason Toronto got rid of zone fares — they’re a pain to administer and they discourage suburbanites from using the system.


  10. George S wrote, “I hope that GO transit is included in this unified fare card structure.”

    I hope so as well, and that fares are better aligned. I arrived in Oslo Norway today and had to purchase a weekly pass for the commuter rail system as the hotel I’m staying at relative to where our customer site is requires me to take a train a couple of stops, then take the bus. I thought I would have to get a separate pass for the bus/tram/metro system, but to my surprise, my commuter rail pass covers all that!

    Not to get too far off topic, but since I had the time today, I opted to take the local commuter train from the airport instead of Flytoget (the airport express train). It took a little longer (about 50%) as it made a few more stops, but cost half the price. We really have to look at multiple modes to and from the airport!

    George S also wrote, “As an example a transit consumer could then take Hamilton’s future LRT to a GO station in Hamilton, get on a GO train to Union Station, get off GO and get on a TTC subway at Union Station to get to where this person has to go all on one fare card.”

    I like to cite Dallas/Fort Worth as an example of doing something like this. Each has its own transit system (DART and The-T), with their own fare, but it is possible to purchase a 2-zone fare that does not cost the sum of both fares. To top it off, Trinity Rail Express (their GO-like system that actually uses some former GO coaches and locomotives) can be transferred to or from either system, provided you have paid the fare for the zone it is operating in. The Hamilton-Toronto example might add some zone issues (with Burlington, Oakville, and Mississauga in between), but even at $3 for three zone supplements, this would be far more economical to the commuter than what we have now.


  11. While we are on the topic of fare reform, one item that needs to be seriously considered is the decoupling of parking from GO fares. Let’s consider the possibility of charging for parking at GO stations, and use the proceeds to reduce GO fares all around. If you already ride local transit to to GO station, you get a bonus for freeing up a parking space for someone else. If you park at a station, you pay the same or maybe a little more, but maybe you are more likely to get a spot.

    Of course there are plenty of different ways you could adjust the fares further… make travel within 416 equivalent to a TTC fare, for example… but this is something that could be implemented easily with minimal other changes… just reduce fares by $2 each way, for example ($4 per day), and charge $5 or $6 per day for parking.


  12. Brent wants to reform GO fares so that parking is a separate fee.

    Not only do I agree, I’d go a step further and develop the parking lots found at Toronto GO stations, and put the money into accessibility improvements. Long Branch station, for example, is right next to a loop that handles 2 TTC bus routes, a 24-hour streetcar, and two Mississauga Transit routes. It’s also within walking distance of a considerable neighbourhood, both south and north of the tracks. A condo/retail development is much better use of the land than the existing parking lot.

    Maybe if GO wasn’t factoring parking into its fare scheme, intra-416 travel might not be as expensive and inflexible as it currently is.

    (For example, if I pay $3.65 to travel from Union to Long Branch, why not let me break my journey in Mimico for a beer at the Blue Goose? The TTC doesn’t allow this, of course, but the TTC charges one low flat fare no matter how far you’re going. Since GO is pseudo-fare-by-distance, I should be paying for the distance, and stopovers shouldn’t matter [I use exactly the same number of seat-kms one way or the other].)


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