Photo by Oran

Today Vancouver BC’s TransLink announced the name of its new smartcard, Compass.  Currently using magstripe tickets and passes (for bus) and proof-of-payment (SkyTrain and B-Line buses), by 2013 TransLink will transition to universal adoption of the Compass card.  TransLink has chosen Cubic/IBM to provide the smartcard technology, the same company used by many agencies worldwide, including the Bay Area’s Clipper and London’s Oyster.  (Cubic recently bought out ERG, the supplier for ORCA.)

This $170 million project will reduce fare evasion on SkyTrain and the B-Lines (which, unlike the privately-operated Canada Line, are rarely fare-checked) and provide heaps of ridership data to TransLink for use in planning service improvements and future fare policy.  TransLink will continue to use its impressive network of small retail outlets and pharmacies to provide fare products.

Relative to our experience with ORCA, TransLink has many strategic advantages that should provide them a smoother transition than we have experienced.  Without a ride-free area to overcome and with no shared bus/rail operations, faregates can be installed at all rail stations.  Further, its integrated governance structure should allow it to avoid the interagency administrative nightmare that ORCA has produced in our region.  TransLink owns the primary bus/seabus operator (Coast Mountain) and the SkyTrain operator (BC Rapid Transit Company), directly operates the West Coast Express commuter rail, and owns but contracts out operations of the Canada Line (ProTrans).  Revenue sharing issues might arise with the West Vancouver routes – independently owned and operated since 1912 – but given that routes and fares have long been integrated, any issues should be minimal.

Given intense crowding and peoples’ continued expectation for 3-door boarding, I hope that Compass readers will be installed at all doors on the 97 and 99 B-Lines.

As an unrelated postscript, while researching this post I came across a sentence that made me wince:  “TransLink’s diversified funding portfolio gives TransLink greater certainty regarding annual funding levels and enables us to plan for the long term.”   While no North American agency has had an easy few years, take this chart as food for thought.

Chart by the Author

50 Replies to “ORCA, Meet Compass”

  1. Tim. European standard is to have readers at all doors inside the bus rather than at stops. This eliminates the problem of missing a bus because you were delayed by the fare transaction. Note too that equipment at stops has much tougher maintenance issues (vandalism, weather) than on-board equipment.

    1. Right, but I would think it increases boarding times since everyone has to tap as they board. Worst case scenario in a perfect world is 99 passengers / 3 doors x 2 seconds each = 66 seconds to load the bus.

      1. Worst case scenario on Metro is 66 seconds for one person fishing cash out of his pocket and having to put a dollar bill in the farebox twice before it would take it.

        (That happened to me this morning. I don’t know if it was fully 66 seconds, but it was twice as long as the usual cash-payer.)

        The fact that Metro still has a significant amount of cash-payers and 25% of riders say they’ve never heard of ORCA makes me wonder what the ratio of occasional riders vs regular riders is. Are half the riders occasional or first-time riders?

      2. I think its much deeper than that. Seattle, culturally, is a very weird place. Sometimes I think everyone lives in a vacuum. I’ve never seen a city with such universal ignorance to what I thought were international norms. Norms such as:

        * When standing on an escalator, stay to the right.
        * When entering an elevator, greet the others inside (People here tend to look afraid down at the floor).
        * Exit out the rear bus door whenever possible (This is probably the RFA’s fault for enforcing their dumb rule).
        * At transit centres and stops with many people waiting, LINE UP instead of piling around the door and shoving your way in.
        * Don’t put your bag on the seat next to you when the bus is full, then look surprised/annoyed when someone asks you to move it.

        etc etc etc I can go onnnnnn

      3. I wouldn’t call those international norms. Standing on the right on escalators seems to be a European/East Coast thing. At least I’ve seen it fully observed in Europe and partly observed in DC. But DC has a “European” subway and architecture and visitors, so that could be part of it. Greeting people in the elevator, I’ve never heard that as a rule. Exiting by the rear door, that is common everywhere else, but you’re right that people have been told “Front Door Only” too many times for that; they think the back door is a special door to be used only sometimes. Blocking a seat with a bag, I agree with you on that. I paid the bus fare, I’m entitled to the seat.

  2. It will be interesting to see how TransLink’s marketing of Compass compares to what we’ve seen here with ORCA.

  3. You should put a pie chart up of Sound Transit’s revenue sources: almost all sales tax, and some car tab tax. Fare revenue only made up 20% of Link’s operating costs in 2010. That’s pathetic – far worse than any peer.

    1. Well yes, given that Link as a system is less than 20% built out, its cost per boarding is high and its farebox is low. That will change radically as the system expands.

      Regarding Sound Transit overall, keep in mind that ST runs a large network of long-distance express busses that are far more expensive to run than urban busses by their nature; AFAICT TransLink does not. The cost per boarding on those busses is actually higher than Link.

      1. TransLink still runs lots of express buses, but there are some key differences. There are few peak-only buses, most of them run all day with extensions during peak hours. Few expresses enter downtown, as most of them end at terminal or near-terminal rail stations (Bridgeport, Surrey Central etc…). There are also lots of express buses to ferry terminals. And don’t forget that TransLink charges up to $5.

      2. Interesting, their longest bus route is about Seattle-Everett then. Many of them seem to be expresses to South Surrey. They clearly don’t run as many long-haul expresses as ST does though. Many of the busses on that light a night busses or actually trains with frequent stops. It’s the infrequency of boarding that makes ST Express busses so exprensive under the current price structure.

      3. @Bruce:

        “That will change radically as the system expands.”

        What do you base that claim on? The hope that “build it and they will come”? The several dozen stations in the works are not close enough to where NEARLY enough people both live AND work.

        “Regarding Sound Transit overall, keep in mind that ST runs a large network of long-distance express busses that are far more expensive to run than urban busses by their nature”

        Those ST buses burn far less fuel per hour than, say, METRO’s fleet. Also they are newer, so the per-unit maintenance costs are lower. Do you just make this stuff up?

  4. Interesting about this statement

    “This $170 million project will reduce fare evasion on SkyTrain and the B-Lines (which, unlike the privately-operated Canada Line, are rarely fare-checked) and provide heaps of ridership data to TransLink for use in planning service improvements and future fare policy.”

    Fare evasion is identified as a factor, whereas Metro is not as concerned it appears.

    Although seeing that Translink looks at farebox revenue around 40% vs. 26%, I can see why. Is there anything on how the fares compare?

    1. In Metro Vancouver, enforcement of fare compliance is conducted by the Transit Police, a full fledged police force with the same status as Provincial Police officers and fully empowered to enforce the Criminal Code on the Skytrain network. Many of the officers are former RCMP or local police officers and they answer to the Solicitor General, although they work with Translink and Translink has control over their deployment. As a result they are the only agency that can enforce fares. The Canada Line attendants who do fare check (this is also occasionally done by SkyTrain attendants) cannot actually issue a fine or even stop you from boarding a transit vehicle. Its still highly effective when done properly, as most people will not disregard the attendants. But for their own safety, they don’t do anymore than politely direct a fare evader to the ticket machines.

      However, because the Transit Police are a provincial entity, all fines are returned to the provincial government and not remitted to Translink. Hence, Translink rarely deploys the Transit Police specifically on fare check duties (which is why the Expo and Millennium Lines so rarely have any kind of fare checking) and rather tend to deploy them to potential trouble spots to keep the peace. As a result, fare evasion is somewhat higher on those two lines because there’s so little enforcement. As well, any enforcement doesn’t actually financially benefit Translink and diverts resources away from maintaining the safety of the system.

      And since this situation has publicly embarrassed both the current government and Translink, they are now investing in this fare gate program so that they can say they are doing something. I honestly don’t expect this to program to prevent enough fare evasion to compensate for the expense of installing the gates, especially compared to what effective spot checking might actually catch.

  5. More reason why our transit dependency shouldn’t be funded by an extremely volatile sales tax and should be far more diverse. It also helps when they follow the nearly-everyone-else-but-us model of having one big regional transit agency. Anyone have an idea of the savings Metro might see if they contracted out maintenance and operations?

    On a side note, when buses get kicked out of the Transit Tunnel, ST could easily install fair gates!

    1. Well, you sort of have it backwards. ST only operates one (very small) service, Tacoma Link. Everything else is contracted out to Metro, PT and CT.

      Fare gates are a very long way in Link’s future. They cost a lot to install and maintain, and obviously don’t work on at-grade stations unless you wall the station off. This can be done, but it’s a multi-million-dollar retrofit for each station. Until you get about 100k+ daily boardings you’re better off paying rent-a-cops $10/hr to check the trains and platforms.

      1. Bruce: Have you even ridden link? Most stations only have one or two access points, which make it easy to install faregates at. The biggest problem would be the DSTT since you’d have to evict the buses at that point. I suppose you could run across the street and onto the platform, but some well placed rope fencing along with the automobile traffic should help prevent that.

      2. For surface stations: Platform edge gates effectively stop people from walking down the tracks to bypass the fare gates. The gates will only open when a train is at the platform.

    2. Where would you put fare gates in the tunnel? At the top of the stairs/escalators to the platform? There are a lot of them, and they’re wide. Don’t forget the elevators, which would need separate gates.

  6. Since Translink is using the “same” company that made ORCA, will people be able to use ORCA and Compass interchangeably? MTA Marlyand and WMATA did that with their CharmCard and SmarTrip systems repsectively.

    1. I’ve heard there’s a provision in the ORCA contract that requires interoperation capability if ERG gets to do smart card systems for other cities in the NW region. I don’t know if that’s still the case with ERG swallowed by Cubic. It’d be awesome if I could use my ORCA in Van BC or Portland and maybe for Cascades. The key is using the same technology and agreements between the agencies.

      1. No point in using ORCA on Cascades. You’d wipe out your e-purse in one trip.

        I would love to see TriMet go to an E-purse style of thing like ORCA though. Call it the Rose Card.

      2. Think of it as an e-ticket not an e-purse. You buy it online or from a ticket machine and it’s linked to/loaded on your card. No need to print a ticket.

      3. This is a great idea, but I’m sure it’s harder to create cross-operability when Canada has its own currency that fluctuates against the US dollar…

    2. Great point, and one where I find myself increasingly frustrated by not being able to use one card for all transit agencies, and get the discount I should be getting.

      Case in point: I have to buy a monthly pass from WSF tonight. I save thirty bucks a month vs. my ORCA card. Why the heck can’t all these screwy agencies coordinate better?! My ORCA card should do all this, and a hell of a lot more. Maybe it would be best to just cut off all the funding, well okay not really. But this is ridiculous with all these different passes competing, talk about inefficient…

      1. WSF’s relation to ORCA is very weird. Why can’t you use e-purse to pay car boarding fees?

      1. Contactless credit card is neat, but it would never serve the population like a transit pass can. Students/children? Low-income riders? People who simply don’t want credit cards?

    3. Vix-ERG still claims Seattle as a property on their website, although they no longer claim the Clipper card. Cubic claims the bay area, however they did sell a lot of more regular fare collection and ticketing equipment to BART in years past.

      1. CUBIC bought ERG’s US and Canadian Holdings. But ORCA seems to have stayed out of this transaction and thus has thankfully not been assimilated into the CUBIC Borg.

  7. Zach –

    Could you please cite the data sources for your pie charts? You don’t say whether these charts represent projected or historic funding levels, or what the time period for the data is.


  8. During the Monorail days, I remember reading that SkyTrain broke even on operations. Is that still true?

    1. Possibly? Lack of operators was and is the major savings with SkyTrain. Proprietary technology was and is the major cost of SkyTrain.

    2. When they had the several-month strike, the buses didn’t run at all but the SkyTrain ran for free because the fare collectors were on strike but not the operators. TransLink said it didn’t lose any money with the free trains because the idle buses made up for it.

  9. What is it about compass and boarder towns? Can I use my San Diego Compass Card in Vancouver?

  10. Quite sad, really.

    We’re investing over $10 billion in highway projects, and calling rail expensive, while Translink has more ridership, greater fare-box recovery (even though it has a rail system – proving Norman wrong) a new, easier to understand smart card, and much better transit service in general.

    When are we going to catch up?

    1. Also about the same time the public trusts the power of democracy again. I think the general public trusts the government about as much as they trust a drunk surgen.

  11. Its really interesting for me to read some of the comments here that are so, well, complimentary and admiring of Translink. One our side of the border, a lot of people consider Translink a colossal, undemocratic, out-of-touch and inefficient monster, that many would be happily rid of. The entire South of Fraser region (Delta, Surrey, White Rock and Langley) feels like it is completely ripped off and not getting nearly enough transit service or priority for rapid transit. The North Shore feels neglected and desperately wants its third Seabus. The Tri-cities, Port Coquitlam, Coquitlam and Port Moody (seriously, I’m originally from Alberta and I still look at that series of names and wonder what the founders were thinking) think Translink is incompetent because it can’t dig up $400 million to actually complete funding for the Evergreen Line(also known as the Nevergreen Line). And the central areas think Translink siphons off too much of their property taxes for projects out in sprawly suburbs. Did I forget anything in the grievance list? Oh yeah, the provincial government has made Translink (its own creation, which could disband or re-organize it) into its whipping boy blaming it for every hold up on anything in the Lower Mainland.

    Translink is classic Canadian politics in a microcosm, region against region and everybody having some sort of grievance against the central authority or agency. And don’t even get me started on the Federal election. And yet somehow, we keep going.

    Its nice to actually read this sort of stuff and get a different view on Translink and its issues. Translink does definitely do some things quite well, and despite its very real problems, this sort of commentary really does put it all in perspective.

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