Fail! CTA Ventra customer service can't even deliver a call-back

Despite tripling the number of telephone customer service reps, Ventra-maker Cubic and the CTA are failing on a basic promise – to call back riders as promised.

I know this from personal experience. I was promised a call-back three times over three days starting last Tuesday.

Ventra Helpful is HereToday is Sunday and I still haven’t gotten a call back by Cubic-hired service personnel. UPDATE: I finally got a call-back Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. That's four days after the original call-back was promised.  I was in bed. I will call Cubic service again Monday.

(Cubic Transportation Systems is being paid $454 million to administer the Ventra card system for the CTA.)

That is totally unacceptable. I mean really Cubic and CTA?

When was the last time you called a service rep and were told you would get a call-back – and didn’t? If the CTA didn’t have a monopoly on Chicago rapid transit, you probably would consider moving your business to a competitor. Too bad that's not an option.

Last Tuesday at about 7 p.m., I called the Ventra customer service number – 877.669.8368 – and was immediately connected to a service rep. Good first step. But after consulting with her supervisor, she said she couldn’t help me and promised a “super-service rep” would call back within 24 hours.

I didn’t get a call-back Wednesday. So I tried again that night at about 7:30 p.m. Again, I was told someone would call me back in 24 hours.

I didn’t get a call-back Thursday. So I tried again that night at about 8 p.m. This time I was told service reps were so far behind that it would be 48 hours before I got a call-back.

Well, now it has been about 70 hours – actually almost 120 hours since first being promised a call-back in 24 hours.

I was considering going to the Ventra walk-in service center at 165 N. Jefferson St. in Chicago. But its hours are from 8 a.m. till 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Too bad that’s when I and many other people have to be at their jobs.

Banks have better hours than that. And most other businesses have better customer service than that.


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  • fb_avatar

    Good observation - even the fact that we have to wait for call backs is a cheap workaround. The initial rep should have the ability to resolve routine issues called in.

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    That's the problem with the walk in. You have to take time off or sacrifice your lunch hour to go Jefferson street. And you can't call there with a question. They're not set up for that.
    CTA should at least suspend the various deadlines until they are sure everyone has received and is using their ventra cards. Those deadlines were totally unrealistic.

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    I think others have already mentioned this previously. Contact via website is never reciprocated. And MSP was a big mess on the first Monday, when people also had to take time out from work. But this information, even that we should attend such an event was obscure and of little interest here except from another commenter who thankfully informed me.
    Anyway, I am still confused about one thing. Why was CC and CCP not sufficient to replace mag cards?

  • In reply to Jschizz:

    Why? Because the CC and CCP were based on 15 year old proprietary software - not the new, contactless card software that the Ventra is based on.

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    In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    Because of software? I don't understand. Software can be modified, updated, to work with new standards, hardware and procedures based on how we see fit, no? So I am still confused. There must be a reason that makes sense.

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    The problem wasn't the software being proprietary, the problem was the hardware (the old Transit Cards and Chicago Cards) being proprietary and allegedly obsolescent.

    The Ventra software is extremely proprietary. There is no other transit fare system in the world that is comparable to Ventra at this time. Somehow, they got the CTA to sign on for cutting-edge technology and be their guinea pig.

    Ventra is an off-shoot of the Oyster system that Cubic did for Transit for London (TfL). The Oyster card readers, like Ventra, use the cellular data (3G) network to communicate with the central data base. But unlike Ventra, Oyster cards have the account balance stored on the card itself, like Transit Cards and Chicago Cards (but not Chicago Card Plus cards) did. Ventra took this to the next step, there is no information stored on a Ventra Card except the serial number and expiration date. When you tap your Ventra Card (or personal credit card or cell phone) against a reader, the reader does not know whether you have a sufficient balance or a pass, it must transmit each and every tap to the central data base and wait for a stop/go response from the central data base server. This is what takes so damn long: having to query a remote server over the internet each and every time someone taps a card. The old system could just read the magnetic stripe or chip from your fare card and know whether or not to let you on without help. The Ventra readers are just dumb remote terminals for a centralized system.

    As anyone who has used a smart phone knows, sometimes you enter poor reception areas or sometimes you have to wait for data to come back after you press "enter." The Ventra card reader has the same problem and has a bottleneck at the central server.

    Ventra is a very elegant, sophisticated and completely novel idea. But apparently, the implementation is not robust enough to deal with real world problems like overloads and lost transmission. Why they thought they should trial this on the second largest transit system in the country is beyond comprehension. They had too much confidence in their cutting edge, untried technology.

    If you read press releases from Cubic, you will find them bragging about Ventra being the first :"account-based" transit fare collection system. "Account-based" is their codeword for "fare cards contain no data, every transaction must be approved by a remote server where the account information is stored."

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    In reply to MasterFile:

    But CCP wasn't stored value, was it? Forgive my ignorance, but if the CCP worked the same way ventra does, using NFC to recognize an account and then contact a server, appearances say it is no different than oyster or ventra. And both CCP and Ventra are Cubic. Was it the NFC technology that became costly?

  • In reply to Jschizz:

    When you tapped your CCP, the farebox compared your CCP serial number to its internal hotlist of invalid cards and then simply recorded the serial number of the card (plus time and date) inside the farebox's memory. It did not contact a server. When the bus came in for service at the end of the shift and the farebox was emptied, a data cable was attached to the farebox and the transaction data was uploaded to the server which then applied the transactions to your account. Also a new :"hot list" was downloaded to the farebox.

    If your CCP was canceled or your credit card became invalid, your CCP would get added to the hotlist. Since the hotlist was updated once a day, that does mean that a thief could probably get away with using a stolen CCP for a day or two after you reported it lost. The CTA would eat that.

    That is very different from Ventra. CCP transactions were batched and applied at the end of the day. Ventra is trying to do these transactions in real time for all fare media, not just the 17% of users who formerly used CCP. (Plus CCP required you to either have a 30-day pass or a $10 buffer in your account.) Bus fareboxes were not radio-connected, train turnstiles did have hardwire connections to a server to upload/download data.

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    In reply to MasterFile:

    Wow, thank you for the info.

  • In reply to MasterFile:

    The definition of a proprietary system is that only it could only be used by the maker of the software. So that would mean you couldn't use other non-Cubic cards such as my Chase Bank Visa debit card. So it is not proprietary in that sense.

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    In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    I'm not an authority on proprietary vs non proprietary, but proprietary software to my understanding means the software is liscensed, maintained and supported by the company that produces it. If you are saying Ventra software isn't proprietary, doesn't that mean CTA can do whatever they want woth it, regardless Cubic support or direction? Why does it matter what payment or input a system accepts? As long as Cubic is in control, isn't it still classified as proprietary?

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    In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    Oh! It isn't the software being proprietary that was the problem, obviously, because it is still proprietary, no? So it was proprietary hardware in the form of the card's NFC chip is what you are saying, and the fact it isn't compatible with a chase card etc. hm

  • In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    The old system accepted dollar bills (in bus fareboxes and Transit Card vending machines). Dollar bills were not manufactured by Cubic, so that means that the old system was not proprietary either.

    I think you are confusing hardware and software. Ventra Cards and Chase credit cards are hardware. They are manufactured in conformance with a non-proprietary open standard. The software that Cubic supplies to process credit card transactions is proprietary. If you get a copy of the Ventra software and install it on your own bus system without Cubic's permission, expect to be spending a lot of time in court facing Cubic's lawyers.

  • In reply to MasterFile:

    OK, I think we're getting stuck on semantics.

    My key point here is that this is an open fare system. That is, a rider can use any contactless card to pay for his/her fare. you don't have to buy the CTA's fare card to pay. You can use the card (contactless debit card) that's already in your pocket.

    I do get your point about Cubic software processing the card transactions.

    My point is that riders have more choices for payment with this system.

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    In reply to Kevin O’Neil:

    So that is the reason we switched to Ventra, you say. More payment options. Gosh, it just seems the benefit / cost analysis here is a little wonky. Oyster cards = refundable deposits, no open fare payment. Everyone else I've asked say it's probably political. After this discussion, I'm still stuck at hm.

  • Typo alert: 3rd paragraph 'beignpaid.'

    So they've moved beyond telling people they couldn't help them and then hanging up on people. Maybe this is progress.

  • In reply to Cheryl:

    Thanks for the typo alert Cheryl. If only the Ventra reps were so helpful.

  • Tomorrow will be day 4 without a call back from Ventra for me. When Ventra was being announced I was one of the people that was sure it would work and would be very beneficial. I even quieted the naysayers telling them to get over being resistant to advancement in technology. Boy was I wrong! Ventra is a mess and is riddled with errors and problems. I'm going to be pissed as hell next time I get a "Go" and the turnstile won't unlock, because now I know a second tap will mean a double charge without a doubt!

  • So what went wrong, Kevin.

    I've been following your exploits and everything was going so well that I was certain you must be the luckiest man in Chicago! You got your Ventra card, it activated without problem, your benefits transferred over, it worked the first time you used it. What finally went wrong that forced you to call Ventra customer service? Would you mind sharing?

  • In reply to Olaf1:

    Good question Olaf. I was saving that for a separate post. Let's just say it has to do with a lost card.

  • Same story here. Basic customer service is not much to ask for and sometimes the bigger companies get the less important customer service gets. You have agencies out their like that offer customer service solutions which can answer basic account questions yet I think many of these companies are fine with customers spending hours on hold and calling back over and over. As for me, I would always go and do business with the firm offering better customer service even it cost a tad more. If it's a staffing issue, hire more people (or outsource). It most cases I think these businesses focus so much on profits that it is better for them (economically) to put us through a nightmare experience than to give up a few dollars to better serve us.

  • In reply to mikeMAP:

    But then that gets back to cc's (I believe) question, who are you going to give this business to, when CTA has an apparent monopoly with regard to urban mass transportation (and Pace signed onto this mess). I suppose Divvy Bike, but it is going to snow this afternoon.

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    I've not received a call back. I've been hassling the Ventra facebook group and eventually got an e-mail.

    They told me I never updated my address and that my card had shipped. This is false. I confirmed my address on September 5th. It was accurate.

    I was told in the e-mail I have to purchase a replacement card for $5 because I already have a 30 day pass associated with the original card number. I asked if I am able to transfer this pass to a card purchased from a kiosk, so I get that $5 back, but they did not respond. A replacement ordered on the website does not reimburse the $5 fee.

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    In reply to Hemmerly:

    Update: Finally a 'solution' to my problem. The Ventra facebook account told me to go to CTA headquarters to pick up a new card. They assured me they'll transfer the 30 day pass. Not sure why they didn't tell me this from day one.

    Inconvenient for me but at this point I'll just suck it up.

  • Well that explains why the bus readers get slow, freeze, or just plain go blank. Ventra is phoning home with every fare collected or not the case may be. Gussied up cell phones bolted to CTA bus hand rails. Only a room full of MBA packing mouth breathers could come up with that delusion, I mean solution.

  • In reply to Petrd1:

    By calling them MBA packing mouth breathers, you're giving them far too much credit.
    So, whose cell network is Ventra operating on?
    Didn't those idiots realize that there are still locations in Chicago that have no or poor cell service due to surrounding buildings that block the signals?
    Didn't those idiots realize that there are often events in the city where the cell networks are maxed out because of the huge crowds? The Blackhawks celebration last Spring was one of those.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    And now you know why they want to upgrade the cell service in the tunnels!

  • In reply to chris:

    That makes no sense as no fares are collected in the tunnels & all the rail stations are hardwired to the servers.
    CTA ended Pay On Train a couple of decades ago.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    The whole Bus Tracker system relies on a cell phone link. So, if reception were bad, that would have shown up on Bus Tracker about 3 years ago.

    The issue might be that piling Ventra onto the same cell phone infrastructure might have overloaded it, but I'll bet that the real problem is in the computer. After all, a terminal in a grocery store has a "Processing..." message, but Ventra figured that one out only about a week ago.

  • In reply to jack:

    So, is that the reason I constantly get "No Data Available" on my phone & see the same at the shelters with arrival screens?

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    Might be, but I haven't seen missing buses on Bus Tracker to the extent they at least were on Pace's antiquated system, until they upgraded to the state radio system. So I question the "constantly" characterization.

    Absolutely no data available, as opposed to a couple of buses missing, would be a server error.

  • In reply to jack:

    I get "No data available' at least once a day, sometimes more often.
    I was waiting for a bus at Lunt & Clark, looked at the shelter display, it showed 5 minutes to the next bus & then a few seconds later, the "No data available" screen came up & it stayed that way until the bus came.

  • I've had a mixed bag of success. My CCP balance transferred with no problem, but I'm not sure if it was acting as a monthly pass at the beginning. My first time using the card resulted in a double-scan. From that point on, I noticed my card was a pay-per-use. I logged two on-line support incidents, which have never been acknowledged. It took a few tries to get someone on the phone...and they took my number for a call-back. The call-back happened when I was out and I wasn't able to get through again. I went in-person to the Ventra offices on Jefferson over lunch one day. I waited 30 minutes and probably had another 30 more before I was even close to the front of the line. This was the day before my commuter benefits were to load and a monthly pass showed in the queue. I decided to gamble and see what happened the next day. The monthly pass loaded and I haven't had problems since.

    The advice I received when in line at the Ventra office was come early in the day. The people at the front of the line had been there over an hour.

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