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TransLink’s Compass Card fare system to expand testing this summer

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson passes through Compass Card fare gates that are still in the testing phase in Richmond, B.C., in February.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Only a fifth of TransLink's nearly one million riders will be using a smart card to pay for their transit by this fall, two years after the first test of the card was launched.

The glacially slow rollout of the Compass Card will expand the service over the summer from 85,000 current users to another 130,000 university students, but there is no fixed date for the card to be available systemwide, TransLink acknowledges on its website. But experts who have watched similar cards get introduced elsewhere say the delay isn't a bad thing.

The $194-million card system has become one of many sore points in the current transit plebiscite, where Lower Mainland residents are being asked if they're willing to pay a new 0.5-per-cent sales tax to fund transit improvements.

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"Although we were hoping to be in full swing by this time, we've learned from cities around the world," TransLink's website says.

Paul Gooderham, an Ontario-based transit specialist who has worked on automated fare systems in major U.S. and Canadian cities, said cities such as Vancouver are asking for many more features than the early one-zone, one-transit-mode, one-payment-type systems had.

These new-wave cities are asking contractors to develop cards that work on rail, buses, ferries and more, while also trying to build in a fare system based on distance, and a payment system that can some day accept bank or credit cards. TransLink is too.

Time is needed to make sure the new systems are capable of doing everything the agencies want them to do.

"What [Vancouver is] asking for is a state-of-the-art transit payment system, which is pushing the envelope in a very calculated way," said Mr. Gooderham.

TransLink started beta testing its Compass Card in September, 2013, with 10,000 selected customers. It has since expanded the test to 85,000 people.

The card requires riders to tap their card on a reader when they go through a fare gate or get on a bus and then tap out again, so the system can charge the right fare.

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TransLink's interim CEO, Doug Allen, says he'd rather have a longer test time than to try out a glitchy system on hundreds of thousands of users, as some other cities have done.

"We don't really want to experiment with the customers. The systems with a high degree of success, they don't do that," said Mr. Allen, who said the contractor for the Compass Card, Cubic Transportation Systems, sent people up from San Diego to talk to him last month about the system. (Cubic has also hired a lobbyist in B.C.)

Mr. Allen said, at this point, he has no plans to shift course away from Cubic or the Compass Card. Smart cards are too important to successful transit.

"It's a very big and important project. It's a transformation in the way we do business."

Most transit agencies say they tend to go slow, said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the New Jersey-based Smart Card Alliance.

"They are more on the side of caution than speed because they don't want to be criticized for rushing," said Mr. Vanderhoof.

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Even then, there can be trouble.

Chicago's Ventra smart-card system generated a tidal wave of consumer complaints after it was launched in 2013 because of all the glitches in the new "open-card system" – meaning any bank or credit card could be used.

Calgary was promised a smart-card structure for its light-rail system in 2012. It is still not functional after Calgary Transit cancelled the contract with its provider, Telvent, and then hired it back again after realizing all other options were more expensive.

Last fall, TransLink officials said they were thinking of temporarily abandoning plans for a tap-out on buses, as customers got used to the system.

But Mr. Allen said that's not part of the plan right now.

Mr. Gooderham said Vancouver's delays could be a sign that the agency is doing everything right to make sure the contractor does everything needed and that it is prepared for future technology developments.

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