Metrolinx’s decision to place two different kinds of Presto fare machines at Union Pearson Express stations caused so much confusion among customers that the agency received roughly 6,000 complaints in one year from riders who said they had been overcharged, the Star has learned.
The problem with the two sets of fare readers was previously known, but the number of complaints, which were received between April 2017 and March 2018, was revealed in documents obtained from provincial transit agency Metrolinx through a freedom of information request.
The volume of complaints may not capture how many people were affected by the mix-up, which has the potential to inadvertently charge a rider upwards of $25 extra on a trip.
The documents include Presto data that suggests the number of customers who were charged the wrong amount could be significantly higher than the number of people who complained. It’s possible some riders didn’t realize they had overpaid and never contacted the agency.
Although throughout 2017 and 2018 Metrolinx was deluged with hundreds of complaints per month about the problem, it took until earlier this year for the agency to implement measures it says have addressed the issue.
“The report you are reviewing is over a year old and we’ve made changes with the Presto readers to make it clearer for customers,” said Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins in an email.
“Since implementing these changes, we have seen a substantial decline in customer calls regarding device confusion.”
Aikins said that as a result of the changes, which Metrolinx made in April and May, the agency received 81 per cent fewer complaints in September 2019 compared to the high point in June 2018.
Metrolinx wouldn’t answer the Star’s questions about how many customers it believes have been charged the wrong fare since the UP Express launched four years ago, or how many refunds the agency has given riders.
The overcharging problem stemmed from Metrolinx installing two different types of Presto fare card readers at UP Express stations at Union, Bloor and Weston in 2016.
According to the documents, which consist of internal Metrolinx emails, reports and presentations about the UP Express from February to August 2018, the agency installed the GO Presto readers at UP Express stops in order to ensure GO customers’ trips on the airport train would count toward the GO loyalty program, which benefits riders by giving them discounts on fares according to how many rides they take in a month.
In early 2016, fares on the UP Express between Union, Weston and Bloor had been reduced to be roughly equivalent to the price of GO train trips between the same stations, allowing regular GO riders to take either service.
Regular GO customers using the UP Express were supposed to “tap on” using the GO Presto device when they boarded, and then “tap off” on the same type of GO Presto device when they arrived at their destination.
Riders headed to and from the airport were supposed to use UP Express Presto devices.
As long as passengers used the same type of reader at both ends of their journey, they were charged the correct amount. However, if they inadvertently used two different types in one trip, they were charged incorrectly.
An internal Metrolinx report in June 2018 explained that if a passenger tapped on a GO Presto machine at the start of their ride, but tapped off on a UP Express Presto machine at the end, the system would register that they had taken a GO trip but not tapped off.
As a result it would automatically charge the customer $25 for a trip all the way to Kitchener GO station at the end of the line. The customer would also be charged for a trip to the furthest UP Express station.
The documents show “mis-taps” were so frequent Metrolinx was forced to devote significant resources to addressing complaints about the problem and issuing refunds to travellers from Toronto and around the world.
“Providing two devices has caused confusion,” said the June report.
“Those who don’t notice or understand the difference between the (Presto machines) are tapping on the wrong device.”
The report continued: “This becomes a customer experience issue, and can consume considerable staff time on refunds … This issue is further amplified if the countries travellers have returned (to) do not accept Canadian currency, making refunds more complicated.”
The report said from April 2017 to March 2018, Metrolinx received roughly 500 complaints per month about the issue, or about 6,000 over the full year.
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The same report stated that, according to Presto data, over the first three months of 2018 Metrolinx recorded as many as 2,500 customers had “mis-tapped” for trips between Union and Bloor stations alone.
That suggests the number of mistaken charges may have been significantly higher than the number of complaints.
Riders who unknowingly tapped the wrong device wouldn’t necessarily realize the mistake until they checked their Presto accounts, or noticed their cards were running out of funds faster than expected.
In the year ending March 2018, roughly 600,000 people used Presto to ride the UP Express.
Ashleigh Higgs, a family physician who lives in Toronto’s west end, was one of thousands of riders who say they were overcharged.
She takes the UP Express from Bloor to Union Station for work once a week, and said that in late 2018 she realized her Presto card kept running out of money.
When she checked her Presto account she saw she’d been overcharged by about $80 because she’d tapped the wrong device several times.
She called the UP Express customer service line, which referred her to Metrolinx. Higgs says the agency’s representative told her complaints about mis-taps were “pretty much the only phone call we get.”
Two weeks later she got a full refund.
“The whole thing took an absurd amount of time and effort,” she said.
Higgs said if a longtime Toronto resident could be confused by the Presto problem, visitors using the airport rail link would likely have a much harder time.
Aikins said that in April 2019, Metrolinx replaced GO Presto devices at the UP Express station at Union with airport train readers, which “immediately reduced mis-taps.”
The agency also implemented on-board announcements to alert customers of the importance of tapping on the right fare reader.
In May, the agency put new “skins” on all UP Express Presto devices to “more clearly distinguish them” from GO machines at Bloor and Weston. Metrolinx also installed new signage.
“These changes have worked to reduce the calls we get regarding device confusion,” Aikins said.
She said Metrolinx didn’t make the changes sooner because replacing the readers at Union “comes with a cost” and the agency’s initial effort to change signage and the readers’ appearance “was not as successful as we hoped.”
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