On the evening of Thursday, September 18, there was a presentation by Montréal’s AMT on the implementation of their Smart Card system.
See the announcement flyer for more details.
Updated: The presentations gave a lot of information about the Montréal OPUS project, and I will outline the high points here.
Joël Gauthier, President and CEO of the Agence métropolitaine de transport was the main speaker. He began by talking about the transit renaissance in Montréal. Ridership has grown consistently since 1995, and the introduction of new fare systems supports the growth and attractiveness of public transit in general. Capital programs are also underway to expand transit services including a new commuter rail line and an LRT line. System ridership in 2008 is up 8% over 2007.
The Montréal region contains 83 municipalities (plus an additional 8 within the AMT’s service territory) and 14 transit operators serving a population of 3.6 million. There are 2,550 buses, 5 commuter rail lines (52 stations) and 4 subway lines (68 stations).
An important thread in M. Gauthier’s talk was a focus on consumers. The transit system needs a good relationship with its customers through service quality and through offerings such as OPUS that simplify the travel experience. Smart Cards are part of an overall solution, not a cure-all. Indeed, the OPUS project includes the construction of twelve customer centres around the Montréal area that will provide general support for the public in addition to OPUS itself.
The old fare structure in Montréal was fragmented among the 14 separate agencies each with its own fares, media and discount structures. Riders would have to purchase single fares (tickets, tokens, passes) for each system they used, much as we see today in the GTA.
Fare rationalization was introduced in 1996, five years before the OPUS project even started, to simplify fares for riders. The metropolitan area is divided into 8 zones although most riders lie within a few of them. A pass covering multiple zones is 15-25% cheaper than the combined cost of passes in the old, local systems.
Riders within the downtown zone are split about 50-50 between single ticket and monthly pass users, while those who cross zones are split 90-10 in favour of passes because of the discount. The fares apply to all services including commuter rail.
Although revenue under the new scheme is lower, this is subsidized by funds from the provincial gas and vehicle license taxes. Note that this is an organizational and governance issue, not a technology issue. The desire to lower cross-zone fares is a noble goal, but it has a cost. Smart Cards allow for flexibility of implementation of new fare schemes and for more accurate tracking of usage on each system, but they don’t magically create new revenue. The expected savings from reduced fare fraud are seen as an offset to the system’s capital and operating costs, not as funding for fare rationalization which was already in place for a decade.
The OPUS project was designed to use a single fare card for multiple systems. This includes not just the Montréal region, but also Québec city and other parts of the province in the future. Up to four fare “products” can be loaded onto a card. A product is defined as the fare or payment scheme for one system. This could be the local tariff for one or more systems in the Montréal region, or a regional combined fare, or some other transit-related function such as parking charges.
Local transit fare structures were kept “as is” within the constraint that extremely complex ones had to be rationalised. This process uncovered some previously unknown “arrangements” where the official and unofficial practices varied.
Although OPUS is now rolling out through various user groups (employees, students, etc.), the project started in 2001. Much work went into the technology and supplier selection, and the project was complicated by the need to integrate fareboxes from a separate vendor in the Smart Card project. Joël Gauthier emphasised that transit systems need to be careful with technology integration and to take a strong roll in mediating competing vendor claims when problems arise.
By 2007, both the technology and the management practices were in place to allow the system to be installed. I suspect this lengthy gestation was in part due to the complexity of working with many separate transit agencies each of which was fearful of losing revenue and uneasy about giving up control of their fare system.
There are three formats of Smart Card.
- A regular fare card (“OPUS”) that does not have photo identification, but can optionally have this added.
- A reduced fare card that must have photo identification.
- Single use cards (“Solo”) mainly for casual system users. This card is paper based and is disposable.
The OPUS cards are contactless Smart Cards although they do contain a chip whose contacts are visible on the card. In normal use, the card needs only to be waved generally at a reader on the vehicle or in a station and an actual “tap” is not strictly necessary. Riders do not have to “tap out” from the system because there is no fare-by-distance calculation. They only need to have a fare type on their card valid for the zone they are in when they enter a vehicle or station, and still valid in the event a roving fare inspector checks the card.
For statistical trip-recording purposes, data about the cards is anonymised so that it can be digested without the ability to link specific trips and times to specific cards. Trip end points are determined analytically, likely based on the typical behaviour that trip “N” probably ends not far from where trip “N+1” begins. This won’t be 100% accurate, but likely close enough for service planning purposes. The AMT is working with universities to fine tune the algorithm for converting trip data into reliable planning data.
A major concern is with privacy because the card may be associated with a specific person. Under agreement with the Québec privacy commission, any data used for analytical purpose has user identification stripped out. Access by law enforcement agencies is permitted only by court order.
OPUS cards can be reloaded at stores, at the customer service centres, subway stations or online.
The total implementation cost was $148-million of which $98-million was for the system itself and an additional $50.5-million went to replace the antique fareboxes previously on the system. An estimated $20-million in reduced fare fraud offsets these costs, although this will depend on good enforcement.
System implementation is still in progress as the ATM works through various user groups building out to a full rollout next year. They found some issues were essential to this project:
- Riders must trust that the “virtual” fare media represented by the card will work properly, that individual fares (if that is the medium they purchase) on the card won’t be lost or inappropriately charged. Riders must understand how to buy fares and how to validate the cards in the network.
- Complexities in individual fare structures for the different operators had to be adjusted and balanced with the capabilities of the new system. Common fare practices had to be adopted across the region to minimize variation in the type of fare scheme supported by the card.
- Staff had to understand how the new system worked, and the knowledge of operating staff was critical to design and implementation.
- A regional perspective was essential to planning and design. The system had to work for everyone.
- An operator-independent authority was created to manage the system. This avoids rivalry and concerns among the various operators about the ownership of system data and the management of fare revenue.
Joël Gauthier made emphatic mention of the need for technology future-proofing. Already, systems elsewhere in the world have moved to the use of cell phones as the identifying device for payment systems, and the system-specific card such as OPUS may be obsolete in less than a decade. However, the infrastructure of station and onboard equipment will handle that coming technology change avoiding huge retrofit costs and conversion problems. This will also permit the OPUS infrastructure to interact with devices from other partners for co-marketing transit with other services.
Gauthier concluded with an emphasis on customer benefits, on building a good relationship between the transit system and its riders. He sees this as a central part of developing transit ridership at a time when economic and environmental concerns are bringing former auto commuters into transit’s marketplace.
I was very impressed with the presentation and with the Q&A that followed. No doubt the system has its teething problems, some of which were discussed, but the AMT appears to be well on its way to a successful completion of the rollout in 2009. Joël Gauthier’s enthusiasm for and knowledge of his system gave us a refreshing, entertaining and informative view of our sister-city’s transit progress.
Readers please note: The first 11 comments below were entered when this was an announcement for the session, and I have left them with this new post for continuity.