The Presto system continues to experience unacceptably high failure rates, can’t perform some transactions that it’s supposed to, and its fare card readers actually became less reliable this summer, according to an internal TTC briefing note.
The Oct. 15 document, which has not been made public but which was obtained by the Star, was prepared for the TTC board by the agency’s chief customer officer Kirsten Watson and raises significant concerns with what it describes as the fare card system’s “continued performance below targets.”
It asserts that “sporadic outages are all too frequent” and Presto machines are performing at levels that are “not sustainable over the long term given the impact on customers, revenue, and reputation.”
There are several types of Presto machines deployed throughout Toronto’s transit network. Under the terms of the agreement between the TTC and Metrolinx, the provincial agency is to ensure the devices have reliability rates of 99.9 per cent.
According to the briefing note, the reliability of 5,000 fare card readers, which are installed on TTC buses and streetcars and allow customers to pay their fare with a tap of a Presto card, had been improving earlier this year. But between June and August it declined, and over the past five months 2 to 3 per cent of readers have typically not been in service.
The reliability of other types of machines is far worse. Of the 180 Presto fare vending devices installed at subway station entrances, 10 per cent have not been fully functional at any given time, meaning some customers were unable to complete transactions such as purchasing a new card or loading funds.
The approximately 215 fares and transfer machines deployed on the TTC’s new streetcars and at some streetcar stops had average reliability rates of just 80 per cent in August. Metrolinx has enlisted a second supplier after the original devices, made by a German company called Scheidt & Bachmann, “performed very poorly,” according to the briefing note.
The availability of 200 self-serve reload machines, which allow customers to put money on their cards, has averaged about 95 per cent, which the report called “concerning” and “not sustainable over the long term.”
The report says that Metrolinx believes it can fix three quarters of the Presto defects by mid-2019, but solutions for the remaining problems are “under assessment.”
Presto was designed to enable complex fare transactions, but the briefing note says the system has proved unable to support the payment of the double fares the TTC charges for express downtown buses and bus trips that cross the city border into Mississauga and York Region.
The method Metrolinx devised to charge double fares had a “significant error rate” of about 8 per cent. Presto payments for downtown express buses and cross border trips was supposed to be enabled by this month, but have now been put off indefinitely.
The document asserts the TTC “is experiencing a significant amount of lost revenue as a result of the Presto reliability issues.”
As an example, it cites a “significant streetcar outage” that occurred between Sept. 26 and 28 and cost the transit agency an estimated $8,900 in lost fares.
“While the amount in isolation is small, we are alarmed by the root cause,” the report states, ascribing the problem to “an inadvertent and unauthorized software upload” that “is solely the responsibility of Metrolinx and its equipment and software provider.”
“Regardless, it is the TTC customer that is impacted as the customer is unable to pay and the TTC is impacted with respect to lost revenue and overall reputation on our ability to collect fares.”
Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of transit advocacy group TTCriders, said the briefing note is evidence the TTC needs to delay phasing out older forms of payment until it’s certain the problems are resolved.
“I think it confirms what transit riders already know, that Presto is highly unreliable. And I think until it’s working and it’s reliable we have to keep tokens and the Metropass in play,” Pizey-Allen said.
She said until Presto is working properly, passengers are at risk for being hit with “really expensive fines” for fare evasion at no fault of their own.
The TTC plans to discontinue Metropasses in January, and to stop accepting older fare options such as tokens and tickets at the end of 2019.
Presto is owned by Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for transportation planning in the GTA. It has cost the province $1 billion so far to implement the system on 11 transit agencies across Ontario, with $200 million in additional spending expected over the next three years. Of the money spent so far, $478 million went to installing Presto on the TTC.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Conservative Transportation Minister John Yakabuski blamed the problems on the previous Liberal government, which she said “mismanaged the Presto file and Metrolinx.”
“They threw money at problems and expected the people of Ontario to pay for their mistakes. We are cleaning up their mess. We are working with the Metrolinx senior leadership team on a path forward — to maintain and improve the Presto system, and to ensure that it achieves the best value for customers,” wrote Justine Lewkowicz.
The TTC has billed Metrolinx for $4.2 million in lost revenue for a two-year period ending in December 2017, but the provincial organization has disputed the TTC’s claims. According to the briefing note, the two sides have agreed to take the disagreement to a mediator for resolution.
TTC spokesperson Brad Ross said the agency doesn’t yet have an updated estimate for lost revenue in 2018.
Despite the strong language in the document, Ross downplayed the agency’s concerns about Presto, saying Metrolinx is “is working hard to address them.”
“It is important to note that while the TTC is flagging issues for its board here, the Presto system, overall, works flawlessly for the vast majority of its users,” he said.
In a written statement, Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster didn’t dispute the content of the note, but maintained that Presto customers “are getting excellent service and we are always improving. The continuous improvement is evident.”
Verster said the most recent figures, which weren’t captured in the briefing note, put the reliability of fare card readers at 98.8 per cent.
Aside from addressing problems with Presto, the briefing also reveals the TTC is planning to distribute 500,000 free Presto cards to students, Metropass Discount Plan and VIP members, and recipients of the low-income Fair Pass discount.
The agency is buying the cards from Metrolinx at a reduced rate for a total cost of roughly $2 million, and plans to start distributing them by the end of this year.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr