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British Columbia Compass to be operational at TransLink stations by Friday

A Compass fare gate that is still in the testing phase is seen at Richmond-Brighouse Canada Line Station in Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday February 25, 2015.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Five years, two months and 26 days after TransLink signed a contract for smart-card technology, the new fare system, called Compass, will finally be fully operational by the end of this week.

The Lower Mainland transportation agency activated the fare gates at 10 of 50 stations on Monday, requiring users to tap their cards to enter, and promised that all stations would be accessible only by smart card this Friday.

For 30 years, Vancouver's rapid transit system has been open access, operating largely on the honour system.

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The launch allows Vancouver, the country's third-largest city, to join the small club with smart-card systems, even as other municipalities in Canada struggle to make the complicated technology function and at least one, Calgary, has given up.

For most riders, Monday's launch was painless, after the long wait and the almost $200-million paid to San Diego, Calif.-based Cubic Transportation Systems.

Card readers squealed steadily at the Lougheed Town Centre Station in Coquitlam, B.C., as people poured off the nearby buses in waves and tapped their cards to get access to the Millennium Line station.

Arnold and Sheila Lapitan, loaded with suitcases for Arnold's flight to Manila to attend his daughter's graduation, said they had bought their Compass cards months ago.

"It's so easy – no hassle," said Sheila, who works downtown as a caregiver.

A few people complained on Twitter or in phone calls to media outlets that people who pay cash to ride the bus won't be able to use their paper transfers to board the SkyTrain or the Canada Line.

TransLink has been urging everyone to buy a Compass card and use it for the bus too, which will eliminate the problem. But that hasn't pacified critics.

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"I was just in San Francisco and they have a gate where people with bus transfers can go through," said Jack Keating, a retired journalist.

Newton resident Dolores Willbourn said it would be inconvenient for her husband, who only takes transit on rare occasions, and out-of-town visitors.

"This messes it up for casual users and tourists."

But TransLink officials said it would have cost about $25-million to outfit all of the region's 2,000 buses with a Compass-card issuing system. As well, they said, only about 1 per cent of rides are now paid for with cash.

There had been concerns that people with disabilities might find it difficult or impossible to perform the physical task of tapping in. TransLink spokeswoman Jennifer Morland said the agency will either have a staff person on hand to help out or will continue to leave one gate open for them. Riders can also phone ahead to ensure a staff person is on hand.

As well, users are routinely expressing concerns about being overcharged for rides.

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About 750,000 people have acquired cards so far and the agency is seeing about 1.3 million tap-ins a day. Riders who load money onto their cards pay less than if they buy just one ticket at a time, saving 65 cents on a $2.75 fare.

Transit systems around the world have been moving to smart cards in the past decade as a way to eliminate cash and to track how riders are using the system, which helps with planning. But many cities have seen huge delays in their implementation, as contractors have wrestled with systems that serve hundreds of thousands of people moving around on multiple types of transport.

Toronto signed a contract to develop its Presto card in 2006, which was rolled out on suburban trains relatively easily. However, it is still phasing in use of the card at 43 city stations.

Calgary Transit cancelled its contract last year with Schneider Electric after numerous delays and paying $5-million. The agency has said it will sue to recover costs.

In Winnipeg, the Presto card there is three years behind schedule and not due to be rolled out until this summer, to the frustration of both local riders and city councillors.

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