Technical glitches aren’t the only issue plaguing OC Transpo’s Presto card system.
With so many changes and new procedures resulting from bugs in the system, operators are having trouble keeping up.
An overhaul of the drivers’ Presto display screens is set to hit buses at the beginning of January – only a couple of weeks before 10,000 more people are set to get Presto cards – meaning OC Transpo is getting ready to train all of its operators how to use Presto all over again.
The cost of the retraining hasn’t been finalized, city spokeswoman Jocelyne Turner wrote in an email, but the tab will be picked up by Metrolinx, the provincially funded agency in charge of Presto.
At a driver’s average hourly wage, sending all the operators back for an hour and a half of training costs about $65,000 said Craig Watson, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279.
“We’re allowing them to go outside our contract and make a special concession to get all the operators in and retrained on Presto because there have been so many issues that have developed,” Watson said. “So yeah, there (are) some problems, but we’re going to move them out in a really fast process. All of the drivers are going to be brought in for training. Everybody needs it.”
It’s not that the drivers didn’t get training the first time, Watson said. It’s that the system has changed so many times that the original training barely applies. When the Presto system more or less stopped working in the summer and the drivers didn’t use that knowledge, they lost it, Watson said.
“The technology hasn’t worked,” he said. “When the drivers were trained, you’ve got to remember, they were trained a long time ago (in the spring). If the technology had worked right away, they would have been using it all the time. But when you don’t have it work for six months, you don’t remember how.”
Not to mention, there was at least one error in the training program and it wasn’t discovered until almost all drivers had been trained, Watson said.
The issue came to a head for Capital Coun. David Chernushenko after he received error messages for the fifth day in a row while trying to board the bus.
“It’s infuriating,” Chernushenko said.
“It’s not living up to the advertising,” he said. “I am not feeling good that it’s just a matter of a couple more tweaks.”
The councillor was ready to give up on Presto entirely and advise OC Transpo to do the same, but he credits the transit agency for tracking down the issue and fixing it before he threw in the towel.
Finding and fixing these sorts of problems is the reason an extended testing phase is a good thing, said transit commission chairwoman Diane Deans.
The problem? A driver hit the wrong button to approve the balance on Chernushenko’s card the first time he used it, rendering his card always in the red. OC Transpo thought Chernushenko owed it money for the one “grace period” trip regular riders will be allowed, in case they forget to top up their card. The grace trip is deducted after the rider adds more money to their card.
But Chernushenko never added money because he has a monthly pass, not a cash balance, so the Presto machine kept asking him for money.
“In this case, it’s an ongoing training issue with our operators,” said OC Transpo’s manager of business and operational services, David Pepper, hinting at the complexity of keeping a workforce of 1,600 drivers up to speed with the ever-changing system.
Just like it’s taking a while for drivers to learn how the new system works, it’s going to take some time for riders to adjust. Presto will mark a sea-change in how we pay to ride the bus. For one thing, the passes are transferable, meaning you and a spouse, roommate or anyone for that matter, could share a card – as long as you don’t ride at the same time. The cards can be topped up online or at a service centre.
Pepper explains the massive effort involved in explaining the nuances of the new card to a lineup of people at transit stations when they are handed out in small batches – never mind the 200,000-card dump the city initially planned to do on June 10 for a Canada Day launch of the Presto system.
Now, the full rollout has been tentatively delayed until May or June. Transit commissioners will decide in April whether the fixes and testing are enough to give them confidence to forge ahead with the smart cards.
Despite the complications, to his knowledge, Pepper says no one has turned in their Presto card.
Still, OC Transpo has no way of tracking how many people are actively using their cards. There are currently 2,000 cards in the hands of people like city councillors, OC Transpo staff and their families, but the transit agency can only monitor the number of taps – not how many cards those taps are coming from, Pepper said.
With the planned release of an additional 10,000 cards in mid-January, Pepper says OC Transpo is hoping at least 50 per cent of them use the cards regularly.
That lowball number is enough to give OC Transpo the kind of critical mass it needs to put the system to the test. And now that the Toronto Transit Commission has signed on to implement Presto in that city by 2016, all eyes will be watching Ottawa to see how it fares.