Muni’s TransLink Readers to Get an Important Firmware Upgrade

3525253287_20c540fa36.jpgThe MTA says most TransLink reader issues are power-related, unlike whatever is causing the above cryptic message. Flickr photo: Brian_Brooks

Last December, Muni invited riders to begin using TransLink universal fare cards on its trains and buses as part of a soft-launch trial period. By August, there were 6,775 average weekday TransLink boardings, making up 1.04 percent of Muni rides. The MTA hopes that by next year, the daily average will be 120,000, once TransLink-only fare gates are in place at its underground Muni Metro stations.

A discussion over at Muni Diaries revealed that a lot of TransLink users are still encountering hiccups, however, with offline readers being one of the biggest problems. Said the commenter Tenderblog:

It’s really unfortunate how many of the readers are offline on the buses and I’m wondering if it’s the drivers not being told how and why they need to turn it on or legitimate problems. I’m absolutely ecstatic at [not] having to always carry a wad of ones with me when I go out.

We contacted MTA spokesperson Judson True to find out why so many card readers still seem to be offline. Is there simply an epidemic of faulty readers, or is something else afoot?

"We estimate that about 95 percent of the card readers are working at any given time," explained True. "The main issue that we’re seeing is a power issue. If the voltage on a vehicle drops below a certain point, the card reader will power down. Then it’s supposed to pick back up, and it’s not always doing that." Readers in genuine need of repair are far less common.

True said the MTA is working with Cubic, the region-wide TransLink contractor, and Booz Allen Hamilton, Muni’s TransLink technical advisor, to address the issue. Cubic is also working on a fare box rehabilitation project for the MTA, said True, and "when they start going in and doing that beginning October 4, they’re going to update the firmware and add memory on the card readers."

"We anticipate that that’s going that to help address the issue," said True, because "the firmware is essentially software on the device that tells it went to power back up." With updated firmware, the readers should start back up more reliably.

Perhaps if the firmware upgrade goes well, Muni can finally drop the "trial" designation from the program. TransLink users will be relieved to no longer have to count on benevolent Muni drivers waving them through when the readers are down. For now, riders can expect to encounter faulty TransLink machines about once in every 20 trips, with the most common issue being a blank screen. Let us know if your TransLink experience matches that figure in the comments section below.

  • I tried out my Translink card for the first time last weekend. On Muni. It worked.

  • Yup, 1 in 15/20 seems about right to me, though maybe a bit high. I’d say more like 1/10 or 1/12. The last bus I took had a non-functioning Translink reader.

  • jwb

    When the TransLink reader isn’t working, are you supposed to pay cash? I usually just shrug and carry on, since in general I don’t actually have any cash.

  • Power related? Interesting.

    I live near a Muni bus terminal (diesel bus line) and the Translink readers are always on, even when the engine is shut-off; that basically means that Translink has backup batteries or uses the battery from the vehicle.

  • Lyle Jantzi III

    I ride the bus twice a day, every day since March and use translink. I’d say Evan is right: it’s more like 1/10. The driver always waves me through, though I’m getting nervous about toll inspectors. There’s no real way to prove you swiped unless you swipe the card again and it says 0 for the toll cost. I’m betting the inspectors won’t know that, though.

  • RachaelL

    Is everyone reporting their outages? In late July/August when I first started using Translink more regularly (usually four buses a day), I started sending outages to custserv@translink.org per the Translink web page (with bus number, bus route, time of day, direction). Outages on the buses I ride were pretty numerous in early August (1/4 buses!) and I had had *no* feedback from my emails (not even automated responses). So I contacted SFMTA through their online form for general transit issues. (The last straw was when I had paid via Translink on one bus, then when I got on my transfer bus to get the rest of the way to work, the driver insisted I pay .. so I had a $4 oneway fare. Ouch).

    I got a callback from an MTA employee a few days later and she was quite good and also suggested I CC my outage reports to translinkfeedback@sfmta.com which I’ve been doing as well. I went on vacation for a few weeks and when I came back (beginning of September), I’ve only had one outage! So they cleaned up my routes anyway. 🙂

  • I’d say 1/20 is about right for me.

    If you have a monthly pass loaded on your Translink card, that’s still valid even if you can’t swipe the card because the Translink reader is down, right?

    Has anyone had this experience? What do the fare inspectors say?

  • Jeremy

    I wonder if failure rates are higher on some lines than others? I ride the 21 and 22 daily, have probably scanned my card 60-70 times by now and never had a problem.

    Am I the only one getting lucky?

  • Alex

    Ouch. Am I the only one that saw Booz Allen Hamilton and thought “oh hey, the people that caused the meltdown in 2000 are back sucking money from MUNI”?

    As for non-functioning readers, I’ve never had a driver refuse to let me board (or force me to pay cash) because of one. In fact, I’ve been on a train with non-functioning readers where the pop cops wanted my proof of payment. She saw the onboard readers were down, tagged my card on her reader, and said that I’d be good to go. Same thing at BART (entry reader worked, exit reader didn’t, station agent checked my card and waved me through).

    I’ve been reporting TL problems with twitter (to @sf311) with varying degrees of success. Some of the agents properly file the complaints away, some refuse to deal with them.

    Now that I’ve had a monthly pass on my TL card, I haven’t even seen a pop cop (only time I tag the card now is if there’s a station agent underground).

  • Yusef

    Usually my card does fine, but once on the 45 outbound a couple of weeks ago, the readers were down, and the driver would not let anyone with a card board unless they paid the cash fare. The driver and one rider got confrontational and the latter did not even board the bus. I’m just glad I had backup cash, but what a hassle… I wonder if she would do that to someone who had a Fast Pass on the card.

  • Jame

    I have been using Translink on Muni for a few months. I ride the 10 most frequently and there is one particular bus that never seems to have it working; the driver always waves me on. But on the whole it has been pretty decent. I have used it on BART, AC Transit and Muni.

  • Mike

    Yusef, on the 8th I tried to board a 45 going to Caltrain and the reader had a blank screen. I have a monthly pass on my Translink card now. The driver refused to let me ride unless I paid $2. I refused to pay and waited for a 30 which was two stops back from this 45.

    I barely ride enough to make a pass worthwhile; I am certainly NOT going to pay an extra $2 because the equipment is not working properly. I do not know what I will do if this happens and the next bus is 15 or 20 minutes away, however.

    I have only had one outright failure in about 10 rides. I have also had one fare inspection issue where the inspector’s reader said “No” when he read my card, but he swiped in on the turnstile as I exited and it was OK so he let me go. I also had a fare inspection failure on Caltrain one night, but the conductor decided it was his reader as other cards were not working either.

  • Translink’s “autoload” feature has trouble playing with credit cards, a fault that “blocks” its users from using Transit without notification. Three times now I’ve gone to board a bus or train and I was denied entry. Several Yelp reviewers seem to have had similar experiences:
    http://www.yelp.com/biz/translink-corporation-berkeley

    What’s frustrating is that Translink does not e-mail you when it blocks your card. I use the card infrequently and in all three cases, the block was placed several weeks prior to discovering that there was a problem.

    If Translink informed me of the block when it happened, I could have resolved the problem online instead of delaying my travel – as it did Tuesday when I was forced to ask a station agent to diagnose my card and then buy a regular BART pass. By the time I did all of that, I got to the platform just as the the doors were closing on the last SFO train before a “police action” delayed the entire system. I arrived, with baggage, ten minutes prior to the flight’s departure (a gracious agent asked me to run to the gate while he hand carried my checked bag through TSA and to the tarmac).

    Each of the three times I have had this problem, I called Translink customer service. They said there was a problem with the credit card I linked to the account. So once I’ve figured out how to get home, I’ve gone to their website and simply re-entered the exact same credit card information and successfully ran the transaction. There’s no problem with my card. But there is a problem with Autoload: each time, I’ve hopped for my card to be automatically load $20 onto my card, I’ve discovered that I’m once again blocked.

    The credit card thing needs to be ironed out. I’ve never had my card deny transactions. But more important, I can’t believe that Translink isn’t set up to auto-generate an e-mail when it blocks your card. I can tell from Yelp that I’m not the first to ask for it. So what’s the deal?

  • RachaelL

    Andy- I’m pretty sure it *is* setup to email when there’s a problem. At least a friend of mine certainly got an email when the card he associated with his Translink wasn’t working. Perhaps a problem with your email address specifically? Or some kind of bad spam blocking?

  • Ann

    My card has stopped working on muni budded ever since I have started using it on Bart also. It must have something to do with the 25cent discount it gives you for Bart to muni rides which I do roundtrip every day. The card always works on Bart but only one in twenty on the bus. I now got another card just for the muni bus and it worked today on a bus which never works for me. I get off at embarcadero. Take the 2 outbound. But when I go home I have the choice if the 2,3, or4. I usually get on the 3 since it comes first. So now I use my bus only card but don’t get the discount.

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