Software updates have largely resolved the glitches that have marred the rollout of the new Ventra contactless fare system on Chicago's famed "L" trains, and the process of applying the same updates throughout the city's bus fleet will be completed this week, Chicago Transit Authority officials said.
As problems mounted, CTA officials said they would issue weekly progress reports about Ventra and keep the agencys old fare system in place. The CTA has not indicated when it might pull the old equipment. However, turnstile delays that denied entry or resulted in a double charge "have largely vanished" from the rail system after vendor Cubic Transportation Systems installed the software upgrades, the agency says in its Dec. 4 report.
"The latest reports from the CTA show we have made tremendous progress in the last weeks and are exceeding nearly all of the performance benchmarks," says Matt Cole, executive vice president and deputy for strategy, business development and diversification for Cubic. "Technical problems always arise in starting up a new fare payment system, but in the case of Ventra, they have been short-lived and generally affected only a small percentage of riders."
Ventra replaces a 20-year-old fare system and was developed by Cubic, MasterCard and processor First Data. Prior to its pilot launch on Chicago's elevated trains, subway and buses in August, John Satterfield, Cubics vice president and regional director for Chicago, told PaymentsSource the project was a large undertaking and the company was working through "some nuances" during testing.
Those nuances apparently turned into something much more severe, as Ventra has been plagued with problems since its systemwide launch in September, with issues ranging from riders getting charged double fares at tap-and-go turnstiles, slow service at the systems call center, delays in mailing fare cards to consumers and issues activating new accounts, according to local media reports.
And if that wasn't enough, the Ventra website was reportedly allowing customers to see other commuters information from their online accounts.
The contactless Ventra Card stores two accounts, a closed-loop transit payment account, and an optional prepaid debit account for other purchases. Fares can be loaded onto the Ventra Card, or riders can tap other bank-issued, contactless credit and debit cards at turnstiles to pay fares.
Recently, Chicago television newscasts lamented the fact that commuters were tapping their physical wallets against the Ventra Card readers at the stations, believing the reader would accept only the Ventra Card inside their wallets. Turns out, the readers were pulling payments from the account of any contactless card in the wallet that was closer to the reader than the Ventra Card.
While those types of incidents can partly be considered user error, a few weeks ago, Ventra turnstiles stopped working during rush hour, which resulted in the CTA allowing about 15,000 riders through at no charge.
Since the agency last month set the speed requirement of 2.5 seconds or fewer per tap and began publishing its weekly reports, improvement has been seen in "nearly every performance area," the CTA says.
With the Ventra software now processing 99.8% of more than 5 million transactions in a week in fewer than 2.5 seconds, and at an average speed of 0.6 seconds, the CTA says it has begun rolling out the upgrades to its bus fleet. Limited data from the first 1.6 million transactions on the bus fleet was "encouraging," the CTA says, with nearly 100% of the transactions taking place in fewer than 2.5 seconds.
Ventra processes the transactions of more than 66% of CTA rides, as more than 1 million Chicago commuters now use the system, the CTA reports.
From the start, Cubic planned on having the Ventra project kinks worked out and the system completed by the end of the year and the company is on track to do that, Cole says, adding that the report allowed Cubic officials to feel good about things moving forward.
"The rapid take up of Ventra, at 50 million taps and 65% of all riders so far, and the fact that many customers had questions early on, especially about PIN codes and activation, temporarily overwhelmed customer service," Cole says.
Those problems have been corrected and the latest CTA report shows customer service call wait times averaged about a minute below the target in the second half of November, Cole adds.
A spokesperson for the CTA did not respond to further inquiries.
Cubic officials had earlier stated on Chicago TV newscasts that it would not accept payment on the system until it was working properly. Neither the CTA nor Cubic confirmed if that payment embargo was still in place.
Officials for the citys Metra train system are moving forward with plans to incorporate Ventra for mobile ticketing for its riders next year, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Cubic also provides the technology for San Francisco-area transit operators to manage the Clipper fare card system.