Metra Says It Already Welcomes Ventra (No, Not Really)

Next stop, a far away land.
Metra says it accepts Ventra (through its rarely used debit function), but paper tickets still rule. Photo: Clint McMahon

Even though Metra never plans to accept Ventra transit cards for payment aboard its trains, the commuter railroad now claims that it has accepted Ventra all along – and thus already fulfilled a state mandate to adopt Ventra by 2015. Metra spokesperson Michael Gillis told Streetsblog that “we can already accept” Ventra cards, but only in the most obtuse possible sense: as a MasterCard debit card, presented in person to a cashier.

By that definition, Metra complied with the law and accepted Ventra even before Ventra existed, since Metra first installed credit and debit card readers in 2010. Or, by a similar token, Metra customers can already “use Ventra” for fares aboard Metra trains – by using their debit cards to withdraw cash from an ATM beforehand.

Metra still doesn’t accept credit, debit, or Ventra cards on board trains, and has no plans to. And only customers who start their Metra trip at one of its 140 staffed locations, and only when an agent is working, can buy their tickets with a bank card. Almost all of these stations are staffed for only one shift, so customers won’t be able to use bank cards after 2 PM. Over 100 Metra stations, including nearly every station in Chicago outside downtown, never have agents on duty.

Of course, what almost all of Ventra’s 1.5 million users understand to be “Ventra” refers not to the card’s optional prepaid MasterCard debit account (which most users haven’t even activated), but rather its transit fare account. The transit account is what customers reload at 2,000 Ventra vending locations, and where their pre-tax transit benefits are deposited. But even though most Ventra customers can’t use their cards at most Metra points of sale, Metra still claims that it “can already accept” Ventra.

DB conductors in Germany use this handheld device to verify contactless transit cards, and scan printed or smartphone barcodes. Photo: RFID Journal
DB conductors in Germany use handheld devices both to verify contactless transit cards, and to scan printed or smartphone barcodes. Photo: RFID Journal

This is all quite contrary to the spirit of an Illinois law, enacted in July 2011, that requires the Regional Transportation Authority to implement a regional fare payment system by January 1, 2015. The Chicago Transit Authority and Pace have shared fare cards since 2001, but in 2014 updated their system to Ventra, a universal contactless fare card, which riders use to tap their way onto both the ‘L’ and city and suburban buses.

The law also required the RTA to develop a transfer agreement among the three transit agencies, so that riders could easily switch between the ‘L,’ buses, and Metra trains without having to pay two fares. RTA spokesperson Susan Massel said that the RTA did develop a policy by the law’s deadline, which left the final decision up to CTA, Metra, and Pace. “Ultimately,” she said, “RTA staff did not recommend [to have] the RTA Board approving the policy that was passed by the Service Boards.” The net result seems to be that Metra adopted a policy of not having a transfer agreement, and the RTA’s policy will let this slide.

Metra does eventually plan to bring electronic payments on board – but not in the way you might expect. Gillis said they’re working with CTA, Pace, and Ventra operator Cubic Transportation Systems to build a smartphone app that riders can use to purchase tickets. Riders would pay with debit or credit cards, or with a Ventra card’s transit account. According to the Chicago Tribune, customers will be able to buy single ride tickets, 10-ride tickets, or monthly passes, and show conductors proof of purchase with an on-screen barcode. Metra says a similar version of the app is being used successfully in Boston. Metra said this past January that it wanted to launch the app in the fall, but now says it’s more likely to launch next year.

The app certainly will prove useful, but it will actually further differentiate Metra’s fare payment system from CTA’s and Pace’s – creating a third fare payment system, when the law sought to reduce two to one. By contrast, commuter rail systems nationwide with zoned fares, like the Bay Area’s Caltrain, Minneapolis’ Northstar, and Seattle’s Sounder, let customers “tap on” to their commuter rail trains using their (also Cubic-issued) regional contactless fare cards – just like they tap on to board other trains and buses in the region. Once on board, conductors can verify, through a tap of the card onto a handheld terminal, whether the customer has paid. A conductor could easily extract a fare from your Ventra card in the same way conductors on other systems verify that you tapped in.

Metra is already congratulating itself on its clumsy implementation of new fare payments. At its August board meeting, Metra board member Don DeGraff replied to criticism of the long-delayed new fare payment system with a quip that “It’s not who arrives first, it’s who arrives best.”

The idea behind the law was to create a universal fare card, and a universal transfer policy, so that customers can take transit trips that span multiple agencies without worrying about numerous fare payment details, or without double-paying for a single trip. After the law’s passage, governor Pat Quinn assured voters that “a universal fare card would ensure fast and easy access to all forms of public transportation in the region, by allowing seamless transfers between transit systems.” Metra, on the other hand, seems to think that “fast and easy access” involves standing in line to talk to ticket agents, setting up and funding duplicate Ventra accounts, frantically typing credit card numbers into a phone app, and not honoring transfers. Metra didn’t arrive first, nor will it arrive best.

  • duppie

    Steven, I am not sure if your description of fare payment systems in the Netherlands is correct. Last time I was there, about a year ago, you checked in, by touching your card to a reader, when you walk onto the platform at the beginning of your trip. At the end of your trip you checked out while you exit the platform. Software calculated the distance you traveled and deduct the required monies from your account.
    The conductor is more like a check to confirm that you have checked in.

    Also, paper tickets appear to have been phased out in the last few months

  • Melissa

    So excited for worrying about getting kicked off the train if my phone runs out of battery.

    In Sweden you can use your phone to pay for fares, but it’s one option out of several, including a card.

  • It’s kind of like Amtrak, except not. If you HAVE a smartphone, you can show a barcode on-screen to the conductor. You can also buy a ticket from a kiosk in the station if you don’t, or you want the paper ticket. But that works for a rail system that runs a few trains per day (most along a few corridors). It isn’t optimal for a system with tens of thousands of riders per day.

    It complicates everything that was already complicated about buying tickets on Metra.

  • Kevin M

    The privileged ilk sitting on the Metra board need a wake up call–or maybe just a ride on the system they are charged with overseeing. There are a lot of Metra passengers who cannot afford smartphones and don’t have the time to stand in lines at ticket counters or even have a Ventra card with the bank account accessory.

    Paying for public transit, like riding a bicycle, should be easy enough for people of all ages, intelligence, and income brackets to navigate.

    To quote the great Woody Guthrie, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.”

  • FG

    Honestly, for the bulk of Metra’s passengers, who ride daily, a paper monthly ticket is the easiest option and the quickest for conductors to check (all they have to do is a quick glance)- having to scan a ventra card for each passenger, or even a large percentage of them, would take longer with all the multiple swipes required and dead zones for mobile signals.

    Even when MED had fare control every ticket was checked due to turnstile jumping/faulty turnstiles.

    There was supposed to be a Ventra machine in one of the entrances of my station but I haven’t noticed it lately, since when it was installed I hadn’t switched yet. I’ll have to check… Ideally, there should be vending machines which can take vulture cards to purchase tickets, along with credit cards as well as cash, at all (or most, some stations may have nowhere to put one if they don’t have a shelter or other structure where a machine could be located) stations as well as at the staffed ticket agents. Doing a tap on/off system with a ticket check would be nearly impossible (and easily circumvented), particularly with crush loaded on/off at the downtown terminals.

  • what_eva

    Technically, one could also use the debit card of a Ventra card to buy a ticket at a kiosk (ie, you don’t *have* to see an agent), Metra has a whopping 2 of those in Ogilvie, probably a couple in Union as well.

  • Anne A

    Just when we thought Metra couldn’t get any more lame….

  • I was there earlier this year and this is what I recall but I’m looking into it further.

  • duppie

    Maybe they expanded the options since I was there last. I know they were about to run a trial to pay with your phone, but have no details.

  • James

    Metra always accepts cash, which is the only payment option that the entire population has

    If anything, the payment system used by the system that is most handicapped by the physical limitations of accepting it (see: Metra), should be the one used by all 3 transit agencies. It is virtually impossible to have the gates/barriers/etc in the suburban metra stations that the cta has

  • Gates wouldn’t be necessary to use a transit card. There are no gates in Seattle, Minneapolis, and Caltrain. Even tap points wouldn’t be necessary as the conductor’s handheld device could simultaneously extract fare value from riders’ Ventra cards and read barcodes.

  • Roland Solinski

    There’s a third machine in Ogilvie in the north concourse. These machines are common on Metra Electric.

  • Alex_H

    The CTA does not have any suburban Metra stations.

  • duppie

    The tap on/tap off system works a lot better than you think. The poles allow for mass entrance/exit. They barely slow you down.
    As far as circumvention goes? What prevents a traveler from boarding without a ticket today? Nothing, except the “fear” of getting caught by the conductor. That still remains. Even in the Netherlands, where there is one unified transitcard for all public transit, conductors do random checks on trains and if you have no ticket, they charge the fee.

    I agree that monthly pass holders will initially see little benefit from Ventra integration.

  • Steven, not sure I understand the “third fare payment system” that the Metra app will provide. CTA and Pace have stated all along that Ventra will be compatible with apps.

    My understanding of the tap on/off method was that it works great on the smaller systems like Caltrain and Northstar and Sounder that have only one line but there was serious concern on how it would work scaled up on a larger system like Metra’s that run 700 trains per weekday over 11 lines. Not to mention cost of outfitting 1000 cars. And enforcement could be an issue but that’s what the Metra Police department could be used for.

    Now this isn’t to say this shouldn’t be done. I’m a big believer that the tap on/off method provides a wealth of planning data (trip length, origin-destination, average fares, etc.).

  • FG

    Since fare evasion was common with faregates, do you honestly think its going to be harder with only a tap card? Whenever I’ve used ventra it usually requires two taps or more and with metra’s narrow, single exit points, that would be a problem (unless at Union/et al they had them at the platform entrance) at the terminals.

    It’s rare that passengers get away without paying, most conductors are like vultures sniffing out scofflaws.

  • lindsaybanks

    Oslo uses the honor system on their trams.

  • lindsaybanks

    It could be like DC’s Metro system. You tap in/out at the station, not on the car. So you would have to retrofit every station, but not every car. And they charge for trip length.

  • FG

    As I pointed out below, that adds a massive amount of time to the current system of simply glancing at a ticket or punching one. Adding the “on train purchase” surcharge reduced the time they take actually selling tickets onboard. Having to use a handheld device will be slower. As an additional option it would work as long as it was a small percentage of riders who used ventra. In the past, fare evasion with a huge problem on MED **with** turnstiles hence requiring ALL tickets be checked, so, if you have to do a check, you may as well use the conductor for it all. I also wonder what will happen if people lie to them about where they got on or are getting off (just too many permutations and scenarios of this to describe, depending on how it was implemented).

  • FG

    That would require, literally, billions, since most of Metra’s stations are at grade and can be walked up to from several directions – they would have to be rebuilt with one or two entry points and fare controls. It used to be done on MED and was removed because it was a maintenance nightmare (and that line is the only line with high level platforms, making it a bit easier to do controlled access at stairs) and a disaster for South Shore passengers who also needed to board – you had to call on a dedicated phone in the unmanned stations and they would attempt to unlock the turnstile which didn’t always work so you sometimes had to jump them.

  • Lindsay, I actually think it would be better to outfit the vestibules in the cars themselves. The problem with outfitting the station depots is that most of Metra’s stations are so open, and many have depots on only one side of the track making crossings potentially dangerous in a rush. Additionally, many depots are closed after shift, as Steven noted. Now that is a policy issue and operating practice that could be changed, but…

    Now, I could see outfitting the downtown stations with card readers on the platforms, for example, or possibly even gating the terminals if you retrofit them for the crowds. But at most other stations, unless Metra closed off the system and had a gates like DC Metro I don’t know how it would work.

  • FG

    As well as the t-bane and buses. Problem is Norwegians are generally honest, while Chicagoans, not so much. Plus they’ll hound you if you don’t pay blatantly – peer pressure is pretty strong in Scandinavia. Of course, it’s hard to compare a city which is bigger than the entire nation of Norway to it’s capital city.

  • Kevin M

    Cash payment can’t come from pre-tax transit benefit funds.

  • Also, if I remember correctly, in Oslo they have incredibly steep penalty fares, something like around $1000 US equivalent. And they have a more robust enforcement. In fact, I had been on a tram with uniformed enforcement randomly checking tickets.

  • Fbfree

    Factual correction:
    The 55th-56th-57th St. station on the ME has an agent from 5:05 am to 12:45 pm weekdays.

  • There are now over 1.5 million Ventra accounts. That’s a pretty widespread fare medium competing with cash that’s ready to go and pay for Metra rides.

  • Which is why the only way proof of payment type systems (or honor systems, which is essentially what tap on/off without a fare gate is) work is if you have robust enforcement. Metra, fortunately, already has the statutory authority and manpower to do this by utilizing it’s own Police department as well as those of the UP and BNSF. Now the devil inside me says, how much does this cost? A lot, likely, which is why Metra still has fare collection methods from the 1800s.

    But until FRA rules are overturned and you can eliminate some of the conductors or Metra gets a giant infusion of cash for just fare collection purposes, Metra is not likely to pursue this type of fare payment. The start up costs are just too high.

  • With the smartphone app Metra conductors will be using handheld devices to verify that the onscreen barcode represents a valid ticket (valid in the sense that it wasn’t forged and that it wasn’t previously used).

    The same device can extract fare from Ventra cards.

  • Metra’s app won’t be the same as existing apps that can pay for Ventra currently, like Google Wallet and presumably ApplePay.

  • I kept digging. NS will require all passengers to tap in/out come November. There is a kind of contactless card currently, for monthly users, that doesn’t require tapping in/out.

  • Thanks, I updated the text.

  • I know. My understanding was that Cubic was building an app that could be interchangeable with the service boards in the future. Perhaps not?

  • hello

    Proof of payment system with stiff fines!

    LA Metro used this for many years, and I believe I remember some study being cited that the amount of fares collected with a proof of payment system rivaled other systems when other costs were considered (labor, etc.)

    Proof of payment meaning: show your ticket randomly to an enforcement officer (not on every train) or face a fine of $100 for first offence. I believe many european train systems maybe run with a similar system (i.e. stamping the ticket in the station – automated).

  • duppie

    That wouldn’t cost billions. Turnstiles are not needed. Put tap-poles on the main entry exit point, and make it the customer’s responsibility to tap in/out. In a busy station like Ogilvie, 8-10 of these poles should be able to handle rush hour traffic on one platform. One at each stairway, and maybe 4 on the southend of each platform. That would mean 64 to 80 poles total.

    Enforcement would be done by the existing conductor. These are union jobs, so they are not going away anytime soon.

  • duppie

    Before the Netherlands went to an RFID card, they had similar tickets. You purchased a 10 ride and stamped it before you boarded the train.
    Oh man, the times I had to pay a (small) fee, because I had forgotten to stamp my ticket…

  • david vartanoff

    Given the tax benefit/monthly pass link, ticket inspection beyond random POP sweeps is already obsolete. As Steven has pointed out, the tap on/off validators on Caltrain are on platforms essentially identical to the majority of METRA–no barriers to entry. METRA needs to enter the current century. Refusing to use the same system as CTA is a middle finger to the taxpayer riders who deservebetter.

  • Eric S

    I believe GO Transit in Toronto uses a tap on/tap off method. They operate a system similar to Metra. At Toronto Union Station there are additional readers placed throughout the station, not just on or near the platforms.

  • FG

    To make Metra’s stations like the DC Metro’s would take billions, i.e. controlled entry to platforms.

  • FG

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here.

  • Brad Kort

    Metra keeps telling the public how they’ve reformed after the scandals. But this doesn’t pass the sniff test. Why should the public trust them with more funds if they can’t be honest?

  • I’ve used the smartphone based fare system on the Boston commuter rail. While I do think the convenience of using a unified fare card is great, the app actually worked very well. I was able to buy tickets and use the train with no problem, although it obviously wouldn’t work for someone without (or with the wrong) smartphone. I think its a great option to have, but not a full story on fare payment.

  • Neil Clingerman

    TO Metra: You know guys its not that hard to implement on your system, check out San Francisco’s bizzaro metra known as Caltrain with its bizzaro Ventra card known as Clipper which is also Cubic’s technology.

  • fractalsphere

    I have a Ventra card and refuse to use the debit card option. There’s no reason it’s set up the way it is (as separate and non-transferable between the fare portion and the debit portion) and so I will not use it as a debit card. Metra not accepting ventra is fine by me.

  • Duhh

    I am sorry but it does not seem that hard. Outfit the conductors with a card reader. They can take tickets like normal. Otherwise do a self tap system design the RFID to be read from a distance. So the room can be scanned for discrepancies by the conductor.

  • That requires them to (a) buy lots of card readers and (b) make it possible for the readers to ‘call home’ from a moving train. Considering they can’t even figure out how to offer wifi, not promising.

  • Gauri Verma

    I was reading your post and no doubt it was really
    informative..I got here what i was looking for..Thanks for sharing..!! recording app

  • jojo

    Girl do you know what you are talking about?

  • TwiggyB

    The ‘MasterCard” option was discovered to have a backdoor to hackers and thieves. A woman discovered this when she activated hers and found money missing from her bank account. So I’ll never activate that part ever!!!!