Monday, 30 June 2008

Brisbane's Touch and Go Card

If you make a mistake in using the ticketing system in Brisbane's public transport, you are penalised. Isn't it time we were given the right to charge the system a penalty when the system screws up?

Here's an example to illustrate the point.

Public transport in and around Brisbane is on a single ticketing system (with the exception of the airport train, which operates to its own rules). Recently a smart card system called Go Card was introduced, with different pricing rules. Although the price per zone is the same, the Go Card has more generous transfer rules, making it possible to do a reasonable long trip with stops of up to an hour as a single trip, as long as you don't do more than three transfers.

The Go Card is cumbersome in operation. You have to touch a reader both whenever you enter and exit any vehicle except a train; with trains you have to touch the reader as you enter or exit a station. At no point is there any mechanism to force you to touch the reader, like a gate that is opened by touching the reader. So it's easy to forget, especially if you are in a hurry. If you do forget, a penalty is charged in excess of the likely maximum fare for the trip you were on. So, for example, if you are taking a trip that should cost $2.70, you may be charged $3.

The Go Card has had a bad press because it relies on a GPS system to tell where you are and if the GPS system has lost coverage, it fails to record your attempt at touching the reader. The effect is as if you forgot to touch the reader, and you are penalised. You can reverse the penalty by a cumbersome process of complaining by phone, and reversal of the penalty takes several days.

Considering all this, although I bought a Go Card, I did not use it much. I did however try it out in one mode, where the generous transfer policy made it cost effective. I had a trip that included:

  1. a train to the city centre
  2. a City Cat ferry
    a bit of shopping
  3. a City Cat back to the city centre
  4. a train back home

These four individual trips combine as a single trip because only three transfers are involved, provided there's a gap of at most an hour (and the last trip starts within three hours of starting out).

So let's see what happened the second time I tried this. Spot the difference? How did this happen? On the way out of the City Cat, I missed the reader. Why? Because I had to run to make the train connection. The concept that different modes of transport should have synchronized timetables has apparently not reached Brisbane.

The effect of this was that despite the fact that every trip up to the one where I missed the reader registered as a continuation of the initial trip, the whole transaction was split. I was charged $2.70 for the inititial train trip, and $3 for the City Cat trip, a penalty of 30c over the $2.70 it would have cost me to do two zones on the ferry. The total penalty though was actually $3.00 But that's not all. I still had to get home from the city. I now had to buy another ticket costing $2.70 (not reflected on the Go Card because it was now below the minimum balance permitted for buying another ticket). So the whole trip cost me $8.40. This contrasts with $4.10, which I would have paid without a Go Card, had I bought an off-peak daily.

So for one mistake, I ended up paying more than double the price I would have paid for a paper ticket, or $5.70 more than the trip should have cost on the Go Card.

How should the system actually work? The necessity to "touch on" and "touch off" every time introduces redundancy, a concept widely used in systems design to correct for errors. In the case of my trip, for example, the missing touch does not create the possibility that I had cheated. The City Cat only does zones 1 and 2, and I had up to that point only travelled in zones 1 and 2. A smart system would have picked up the fact that although something was missing, I was still on a continuous sequence of trips. My exit from the Cat could only have been in zone 1 or zone 2; the worst case for the rules for transfers would have been had I jumped off the cat immediately after my card was read, and somehow found my way back to the city centre. The gap in the record is less than the allowed transfer time.

But isn't this a whinge? Shouldn't I expect to be penalised if I make a mistake? It would be fair if I could penalise the system when it made a mistake. I would settle for $5 every time a train didn't show up when it should, or a bus, train or ferry was more than 5 minutes late. This is less than I was penalised for this mistake.

Fair's fair. How about it, Queensland Transport? You penalise us for mistakes. We should be able to penalise you for mistakes.

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