CTA to put off Ventra rollout; card maker takes some heat

After figuratively and literally calling the Ventra maker's boss on the carpet today, CTA President Forrest Claypool put off indefinitely some key transition dates for riders switching to Ventra card.

Claypool wouldn't say say how long those key transition dates would be postponed. At the very least, riders can bet that the Nov. 15 milestone will be pushed back. That means that:

  • Chicago Card and Chicago Card Plus WILL be accepted on CTA buses and trains, and on Pace buses.
  • Customers WILL be able to add value to stored value magnetic stripe cards. Though machines may be in short supply.

Claypool appeared at the City Club today and demanded more accountability from Cubic Transportation Systems, the maker of the Ventra fare system. Claypool called to the stage Richard Wunderle, Cubic Transportation Senior Vice President and General Manager of North American Operations. I'm sure he wanted to spread the heat around. And why not? Wunderle acknowledged the rollout issues and pledged improved performance.

Here are some of the service improvement areas to be addressed, according to a CTA news release:

Better phone coverage on customer service line. The CTA has directed Cubic to partner with a leading national call center company to expand capacity for peak call volume demand and to monitor calls for quality. At the CTA’s direction, Cubic already has tripled the number of operators to 300, reducing the average wait time to an average of about five minutes on Monday, Nov. 4—more than 80 percent less than one month ago. (I called the service center at 6 p.m. tonight and got to an agent immediately.)

Customers charged for multiple taps, related to delay between tap and "go" signal. Customers were reporting tapping their card and not getting an immediate “go” so they would tap again or move to a different lane to tap, which would result in being charged more than once. To address the issue, Cubic this week updated the Ventra reader software with improvements that will process transactions with 2.5 seconds or less 99 percent of the time.

In addition, readers now include a “processing” screen that lets the customer know that the transaction is processing, and a “low balance” screen that lets the customer know that their balance is under $10. Third, a small change to the CTA’s “passback” rule will allow customers to continue to have passback privileges (up to 7 rides per Ventra card) but will require a turn of the turnstile per tap to lower the chance of being charged more than once. These changes will provide customers with more information needed to make a decision whether to wait or re-tap and will significantly reduce incidents of being charged for multiple taps.

Ventra reader malfunctions. Customers have reported long lines at rail stations, primarily during rush periods and delays boarding buses. The CTA’s analysis of data shows that 5% of transactions are taking more than 2.5 seconds, the desired standard.

To address the issue, the CTA directed Cubic to make software updates to ensure 99 percent of Ventra readers process transactions in 2.5 seconds or less. By mid-November, upgrades to Ventra reader software should improve transaction/boarding times.

Also, let me say right here that I was wrong. I wrote Sunday: "Union asks CTA to delay Ventra rollout; dream on!" I guess I'm not a very good clairvoyant.

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  • Thanks for reporting about the pushed-back timeline. Two things I wonder about from the Trib article and your coverage today:

    How could Ventra say with honesty that they were caught up short by not realizing how quickly people would adopt Ventra when it has been CTA's plan for months to shove people very quickly into the new card? A pre-announced schedule that Chicago transit media warned about for months? Either CTA and Cubic weren't communicating, or Cubic wasn't paying attention.

    We all warned CTA they were going to need those Chicago Card vending machines and not to remove them so quickly, didn't we? The lack of a good backup solution here regarding refilling those old cards now that the CTA is letting people keep using them is the agency's own fault. Actually, so are all the Ventra issues. None of this would be the massive problem it has predictably turned into if CTA had planned this transition with wisdom. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize transitioning 1.5 million riders entirely from one fare system to another might take a little longer to accomplish than two months.

  • In reply to MichaelBenamiDoyle:

    Mike, I agree that Ventra should not have been caught up short. The schedule was published in August, with full details Sept. 2. I'm sure the CTA knew it before then too.

    Certainly the whole rollout could have been better planned. I put that on Ventra, though ultimately as the company paying $450 million to Cubic for Ventra, the CTA takes the blame.

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    There is no business entity known as Ventra. But I did say before that bad contract management at CTA was also to blame.

    The real story, of course, since yesterday's news accounts referred to "City Hall spokesman" is that Emanuel had enough of this, and sent Claypool out to the City Club of Chicago, in the usual ventriloquist act. Nothing on this from Brian Steele and Tammy Chase.

    However, I was also correct that this is going to be another NABI, with the first step being withholding payment, Hopefully that was early enough in the contract.

  • I've been using Ventra now for a few weeks, and my experience has been OK. The biggest issue I've noticed is that I've ridden busses a few times where the Ventra readers are not working, so the drivers are just waving people on. I hope the CTA has an estimate of these free rides & will be billing Cubic for them. Otherwise farebox revenue is going to be down.

    I do have a few thoughts though:
    1. The processing screen is a good start, but they need to add a feature that tells you your remaining balance. The current system has those features.
    2. Ventra tickets should be re-loadable and not expire. My understanding is they can only be used once within 2 hours of purchase. This is going to make it a huge inconvenience for tourists, especially after large events like Cubs games. It is going to be hard to convince them to buy a $5 card. I imagine how bad the lines are going to be.

  • In reply to joeconey:

    Joe: I read elsewhere that a coming change (maybe there now?) is for the fare box screen to show if your card balance is under $10. That's a start.

    And I agree about the tickets not be one-use. Though today they are made of higher grade paper. Probably would have to be more like the mag-stripe cards to be more rugged and stand up to more than a couple of swipes.

  • In reply to joeconey:

    The lines are going to be long, but the whole purpose was to stick it to tourists.

    Someone made a gambling analogy with regard to Ventra, and it applies to tourists. If you know about the bankcard system and not transferring, the bankcard is cheaper, but if either of the two conditions don't exist or you don't have an RFID bankcard, you are stuck payng the $3. O'Hare, of course, is an entirely different matter.

    Not much different from the "hit or miss" lottery.

  • And you thought Robert Kelly was just blowing smoke, and ineffective. Thank you atu 308 president Robert Kelly.

  • In reply to ibilldavis:

    Well Bill, at least I admit when I was wrong.

  • In reply to ibilldavis:

    I don't think Kelly scared Emanuel, but something did.

    Also, the Tammy Chase line that Kelly's remarks were to take attention off the employees in the Blue Line ghost train collision didn't last long.

  • 2.5 seconds? For crying out loud, that's an eternity when you have dozens of people trying to get through a turnstile. It should take less than a second to process a request.

    I boarded a bus today, and the reader accepted my card. However, after the person behind me tapped her card, the reader's display went from 'Tap' to nothing. Yup, the software on the reader apparently crashed. A blue background was displayed, and there appeared to be two small icons near the bottom of the screen. The next 4 people were waved through by the driver.

    I agree with Michael. There's *no* reason why they shouldn't have been prepared for the load given that they set such an aggressive date for cut-over. As with the Healthcare.gov website, it seems that these companies get bazillion dollar contracts to develop basic software, and yet don't know how to plan and execute proper performance and load testing.

  • Well, it appears Mr. Claypool just may get his choice of chocolate or banana cream pie in the face in the Daley Plaza stocks (sentence to be pronounced by the court of public opinion), but...

    I'm not buying the implication that CTA management (Claypool, Steele, others) had zero role in the bad decisions on the rollout including poorly managed communications. I want to hear more about this. If they couldn't do their job because they didn't get enough cooperation from Cubic, then say so and back it up. If 100% of it was farmed out then what are the folks on the CTA side being paid big bucks for?

    And then there's still the issue of how the contract was awarded. (And no, I'm not doing the legwork. These people are accountable to us, since by law we have no alternative choice, and I will insist the answers come from them. Thank goodness, and Kevin, that we have new media in which to issue this perfectly reasonable demand.)

    C'mon, all you highly paid CTA managers. French silk...coconut cream...lemon...real dairy Reddi-wip on top...mmmmm....take my deal while you can. Or it's the rotten vegetables instead.

  • In reply to CCWriter:

    Until you have the votes to convince Emanuel to do something, you aren't going to get your wish.

    In that you don't seem to have read what I posted yesterday, I assume you are being facetious with regard to your pie demand. Can't let Claypool's suit get messed up.

  • In reply to jack:

    Of course I am being pie-in-the-face-tious. I don't think I have the power to actually try and convict them, but I am trying to make a point colorfully, using an image that I have found gratifying in the past. That may go a lot farther than the one vote I personally have.

    I certainly don't think we should minimize the role of the Tattler in bringing the fiasco to public awareness. Emanuel and Claypool have apparently "done something" already; now we need to make it clear that they need to do a whole lot more before we're satisfied. Their outrage against anyone but themselves on our behalf is just a part of the dance.

  • In reply to CCWriter:

    Firing the lot of them would be a start.

  • Another real failure with Ventra is on the unmanned gate-style turnstiles. If you tap in with Ventra, they say GO and then you can go through. Well it's possible to go through with 2 clicks/turns or 3. But the Ventra reader doesn't reset until after 3 clicks/turns. If someone goes through with two clicks, it still says Go. The next rider taps their card but it's not read and it still says Go. They Go and get a face full of metal bars when it stops after one more turn. Then they have to back out, rescan their card, hope it says Go, and then go. It's a total mess.

  • Getting back to a point I believe Chris raised, the Tribune says that lawyers are looking into going after Cubic for uncollected fares.

  • This happened to me. You know what happens when you retap when the reader says "Go" but the turnstile won't budge because it hasn't clicked three times? You get double charged. I sent an email to Ventra customer service a week ago with no response.

  • In reply to MichaelBenamiDoyle:

    You guys are making me happy I rarely ride the trains anymore.

  • There is actually a turnstile that has been stuck on processing for days at Washington/Dearborn downtown. It's the only instance where I've seen the system entirely crash.

  • It seems like the Ventra readers that we swipe against on the bus are less sensitive -- at least in comparison to the older Chicago Plus system. With the earlier system, all I had to do was swipe my wallet containing my Chicago Plus card against the reader and Presto, it worked! Now I have to take the card out of my wallet and then attempt to swipe the thing.

    Why should this matter? Because the whole process of taking the card out requires more time (in addition to being less convenient) and with one person, after the other after the other, having to do the same, this slows getting on the bus immensely.

    You'd think that moving from one system to the next would mark improvements to the convenience and efficiency of the process. Instead what we have with Ventra appears to be a major step backward.

    Word to the wise: we didn't need a card that linked us to some payday loan broker; we needed something that worked -- surprise, surprise -- like a transit card. This is no transit card.

  • In reply to leoklein:

    That's funny, but I've yet to have a problem with the Ventra card in my wallet. The one time it didn't read wasn't due to the card being in the wallet, because it wouldn't read when I took it out, either.

    I have the card located in my wallet in the "money" section, which is closest to the outside of the wallet. As such, there is only 1 layer of leather between the card and the reader.

  • Seriously! My card rejected today in spite of substantial balance! 2nd request status on the transfer my Chicago Plus Balance with no acknowledgment from Ventra. Add that to my squashed expectations of a a cultural change to customer focused service from the CTA in general. It's time for Forrest Claypool to resign!

  • In reply to Gunga Dean:

    I've decided that I need to carry 2 cards. Ventra, and then one of the CTA old swipe cards. Unbelievable

  • In reply to Gunga Dean:

    But it's nobody's fault! It's just sort of a natural occurrence, like the weather or bad luck. CTA is just as upset as you are! But it'll be fixed. Just give them lots more money to pay for it and forget anything ever went wrong, OK?

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