A Presto glitch that led to a Toronto boy being stranded at a GO bus station in Aurora last fall ultimately deactivated the transit-payment cards of more than 29,000 customers and sidelined TTC officials, newly released documents reveal.
Metrolinx had previously told the Star an employee accidentally blocked thousands of cards last November. The agency has now specified the cards “were briefly deactivated by an employee who was putting together a training module and cancelled the cards.”
While Metrolinx, the provincial agency that owns and operates Presto, says it reacted quickly to the problem, it was more than a week before it could get all of the accounts that had been accidentally blocked back online.
Emails obtained by the Star through a freedom of information request show the TTC was concerned about impacts to its customers and lost fare revenue during the Presto outage, but had no ability to fix the Metrolinx-operated system.
The incident underscores the limited control the TTC has over the fare-card program that will become its primary source of revenue collection after next year, when older forms of payment such as tickets and tokens will be phased out.
The TTC has already billed Metrolinx for $4.2 million in lost revenue it says was caused by Presto malfunctions over a period of two years. Metrolinx has not paid the invoices, and the agency’s CEO has said the TTC hasn’t provided “substantiation” for the “alleged free rides.”
The emails show that shortly after midnight on Nov. 17, 2017, Allan Foster, the TTC’s director of project management, wrote to his colleagues to alert them that Metrolinx had advised that “a very large number” of Presto cards had been “inadvertently blocked.”
According to Foster, Metrolinx initially feared as many as 500,000 cards might have been affected, but the number known to be deactivated at the time was approximately 12,000.
The problem only hit Presto card readers on GO Transit and transit agencies in the 905 area. As a result of the glitch, the devices blocked cards when customers tapped them to pay their fare. Once the cards were blocked, they wouldn’t be accepted by any Presto readers, including those on the TTC.
By later in the morning of November 17, Metrolinx had started applying a software update that automatically unblocked the deactivated cards the next time they were tapped on a reader that had the new software installed. But it took time for all the affected readers to receive the upgrade, and for all affected customers to tap their cards on an updated device.
By Monday, November 20, the number of affected cards had grown to about 28,000, but 11,000 had been unblocked by the software fix. Four days later, one week after the problem began, roughly 29,000 cards had been deactivated, but 24,000 had been unblocked.
No one at the TTC had the ability to unblock the cards, and the agency’s front-line staff were told to tell customers whose cards were deactivated to call the Presto customer service number. TTC staff were also instructed to offer affected customers a free ride.
Foster wrote that “where possible” the TTC should take “an estimate or count of the number of customers who are allowed to ride for free” to determine “revenue loss related to this incident.”
“I’d like to get a letter to (Metrolinx) setting out our claim for lost revenue. We will need to make assumptions,” wrote TTC chief customer officer Kirsten Watson.
TTC spokesperson Stuart Green told the Star the agency has not yet billed Metrolinx for lost revenue related to the incident, but it is still reviewing the data and intends to sent the provincial agency an invoice “for any lost revenue we can identify.”
The amount of lost revenue for the TTC is likely to be relatively small, because the problem originated with devices on GO Transit and 905 transit agencies. Only passengers who switched from those services to the TTC would have been unable to pay their fares.
“The bottom line is the Presto system is owned and operated by Metrolinx and we rely on them to provide a reliable system,” said Green, when asked if the TTC was concerned about not being able to directly address problems with its fare system.
“We will, however, continue to work with Metrolinx to identify and correct any systemic issues we identify.”
Metrolinx spokesperson Matt Llewellyn declined to elaborate on how an employee working on a training program could inadvertently block thousands of cards on the Presto system, which Metrolinx has spent $1 billion implementing since 2002.
Be he noted the outage affected less than one per cent of Presto’s more than 3 million registered card users, and the system “no longer allows deactivations of multiple cards at the same time” without a “strict approval process.”
The mother of the 13-year-old boy who was kicked off the GO bus last fall said she was “disconcerted” that a single employee could cause a problem affecting so many transit riders.
“That shows how poorly that system is,” Tonya Richardson said.
“It’s a system that does not work and continues to get people stranded.”