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The Green Sheet Online Edition

March 24, 2014 • Issue 14:03:02

Chicago's Ventra Card program back on track

The initial rollout of the Chicago Transit Authority's open and contactless fare payments system in late 2013 was rocky, but the CTA reported that changes it made to the program have dramatically improved its performance. The CTA said the customer service and transaction time issues that plagued the first few months of the program, and particularly the Ventra prepaid card component of the new service, were solved by upgrades and best practice implementations made by the CTA's fare payment vendor, Cubic Transportation Systems.

Responding to customer service complaints and transaction snafus on the new readers installed by Cubic on buses and in train stations, the CTA stated in November 2013 that it had ordered Cubic to partner with customer service specialist Convergys Corp. and to also upgrade the readers. "Since then, performance in every category has improved, and performance standards have continued to be met since Jan. 1, 2014," the CTA said in its March 7, 2014, evaluation of the program.

The CTA issues a weekly evaluation of Ventra, as the program is known. As of March 4, 2014, the average transaction time on buses and trains had decreased by 30 percent and 17 percent, respectively, as a result of several software upgrades made to the readers. The metrics stood at 0.77 seconds for buses and 0.49 seconds for rail, compared with the November 2013 average of 1.10 seconds and 0.59 seconds, respectively. Fare payments are initiated when transit riders tap bankcards or Ventra cards on the readers.

Additionally, usage of the Ventra Card has risen steadily over time. The March 7 evaluation said that, in the initial weeks following the launch, the percentage of "taps" on readers using the Ventra Card were in the teens and twenties. By Thanksgiving 2013, 66 percent of taps were from Ventra Cards and, by March 1, 2014, 81 percent were from the prepaid cards, representing 118.9 million Ventra taps across the system.

More good news came from the customer service department. The average number of customer service calls on the Ventra program has decreased from over 4,000 in January 2014 to currently under 3,000, according to the CTA. And call answering metrics show that, since Feb. 19, 2014, the majority of calls received at Cubic's call center are being answered without callers being put on hold, which had been the main complaint.

Wait times and reader troubles

In November 2013, media reports surfaced that said Ventra users who called for customer assistance endured long wait times; users complained of being put on hold and having to wait up to an hour to get answers to questions. The complaints focused on the new Cubic-installed fare readers that were debiting Ventra cardholders multiple times for single rides.

The CTA said Ventra users were being charged for multiple rides because the response times of the fare readers were too slow, resulting in users tapping their cards additional times on the readers or moving to other readers. In this way, users were being charged for multiple taps.

In the wake of these problems, CTA President Forrest Claypool called for the fare payment division of San Diego-based Cubic Corp. to triple its call center operators and upgrade software on the readers to speed up transaction times.

Issues resolved

CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said that Cubic made multiple software upgrades to the contactless readers on buses and at rail station turnstiles. As for the call center issues, Convergys is acting as a consultant to Cubic, which still operates the Ventra call center.

"We were having a lot of issues with customer service – long hold times, customers' questions weren't being answered," Chase said. "The system was just not working as it should."

Chase noted that the average call time is now under five minutes, which was one goal set by the CTA. "We're not taking messages and calling customers back," she said. "When you call, you only have to call once. We answer your question and then you can move on with your life. That's what customers want."

A new fare future?

In its March 10, 2014, report, the American Public Transportation Association said the number of people in the United States who currently use mass transit has not been seen since 2008, when the U.S. economy went into a severe recession and gas prices skyrocketed, causing people to forgo their cars for more affordable public transit options. The mass transit trade group said in its annual report that 10.65 billion passenger trips were taken on transit systems in 2013, surpassing the 10.59 billion in 2008.

With the Ventra Card program being the first of its kind to be rolled out in a major U.S. city, Chase recognizes that transit authorities in other big cities are keenly interested in how Ventra performs. "I'm sure there are folks watching," she said. "Our focus is really to make sure Ventra works correctly. And the system is performing now as it should." The Green Sheet, Inc.

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