The union representing TTC workers is warning that the Presto fare card system is still plagued by reliability issues and isn’t capable of handling the influx of users expected when the agency discontinues the Metropass program next month.
In a Dec. 4 letter sent to Premier Doug Ford, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 recounts a litany of problems with Presto devices he says have been observed by union members. He argues TTC workers rather than contractors hired by Presto should take responsibility for upkeep of the fare devices in order to improve reliability.
“Unfortunately, Presto is not ready,” reads the letter, which is signed by ATU Local 113 president Frank Grimaldi and was obtained exclusively by the Star.
“It is critical that Metrolinx, the TTC, and the Ontario government take immediate and urgent action to fix the Presto fare card system’s failures to ensure a smooth transition of Metropass users to the Presto fare card system.”
Both TTC management and Metrolinx, which oversees the Presto system, counter the union’s assertion, saying the system is prepared for the switch.
On Jan. 1, the TTC plans to end its Metropass program, which currently accounts for about 40 per cent of all trips on the system. Customers will be able to buy a monthly pass on their electronic Presto card instead, and about 200,000 customers are expected make the switch.
Quoting anonymously from statements purportedly made by some of the union’s 11,500 transit workers, the letter says that malfunctioning fare card readers can mean that between 10 and 20 per cent of fares aren’t being paid during a typical bus driver’s shift.
The union also asserts that it can take up to an hour for Presto fare readers to go live once a driver starts their vehicle, and reload machines at subway stations sometimes take customers’ money without putting any funds on their cards.
The union also says it can take hours, days, or even weeks for Presto to send someone to fix a faulty device, during which time vehicles can be taken out of service.
Presto is responsible for maintenance of most fare card devices. The main exception is fare gates at subway stations, which are owned by the TTC. However, the software that operates the gates is Presto’s responsibility.
Metrolinx contracts out the maintenance of the Presto system to private firms, including the devices’ manufacturer, a German company called Scheidt & Bachmann.
The union argues that Presto reliability would improve if TTC workers, who already operate and maintain transit vehicles, were also authorized to handle repairs to the fare card machines.
Grimaldi’s letter calls on the province to “end the privatization and contracting out” of work on the TTC.
TTC spokesperson Heather Brown said the agency has procedures in place with Metrolinx to ensure “Presto contractors are on site within a timely manner” to address any malfunctions.
“Presto carries out first and second line maintenance activities every night at all garages and streetcar houses. Card readers are repaired within 24 hours” except if the vehicle is in service or undergoing repairs, she said.
Brown said the reliability of Presto readers on buses and streetcars is above 98 per cent, and the devices take an average of only three to five minutes to go live once a bus driver starts the vehicle. She acknowledged it could take longer if Presto has performed a recent software update, but the TTC has no record of it taking up to an hour.
“We are confident that Presto is ready for the transition away from Metropasses,” Brown said.
Annalise Czerny, executive vice-president for Presto at Metrolinx, also said the agency is ready to take on former Metropass users. She noted that last month 800,000 TTC riders per day used Presto.
She acknowledged the “mixed accountabilities” that result from Presto being responsible for maintenance of fare card devices on vehicles controlled by the TTC can cause challenges, but the two agencies work together to resolve any issues.
“To be fair, it’s taken the organizations a bit of time to get those processes in place because that is part of the change,” she said.
“I think we’re getting better and better. Compared to where we were a year ago, we’re improving. We’re seeing our stats consistently getting better.”
The Presto system was intended to modernize fare payment on Toronto’s transit network but has been controversial ever since the provincial government imposed it on the TTC in 2011.
Presto devices initially experienced high failure rates, and the system’s full implementation on the TTC has repeatedly been delayed even as costs exceeded original estimates. Despite initial assurances it would save the TTC money, the agency now believes Presto will cost more per year than its outgoing system of tickets, tokens and passes.
This week the TTC announced the debit and credit payment options will be removed from the Presto fares and transfer machines on its new streetcars. It said the function, which made it easier for riders to pay their fares, was causing the machines to be unreliable.
As the Star reported in October, an internal TTC document said that Presto devices continued to perform below reliability targets and at levels “not sustainable over the long term given the impact on customers, revenue, and reputation.” The TTC has billed Metrolinx for $4.2 million in lost revenue it says it incurred as a result of faulty Presto devices over two years.
The TTC plans to stop accepting tickets and tokens in favour of Presto at the end of next year.
A spokesperson for the premier didn’t return a request for comment Thursday.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr