Final phase of Ventra rollout suspended, developer apologizes

November 6, 2013

Lauren Chooljian

Chicago commuters will be able to hold on to those old Chicago Cards and magnetic strip cards for a little while longer. Chicago Transit Authority officials announced the the final phase of the new Ventra system’s rollout will be suspended until a few of its problems are fixed. Chicago Cards and Chicago Card Plus were supposed to be phased out by November 15.

CTA President Forrest Claypool also said the agency won’t pay the developer, Cubic Transportation Systems, any of the $454 million, 12-year contract, until the company meets three criterion: customer service wait times must be five minutes or less, processing times for the tap-and-go function of a Ventra card must be under two and a half seconds--99 percent of the time--and all readers and vending machines must be operational 99 percent of the time.

“The bottom line is that too many of our customers are confused and frustrated and that’s our fault,” Claypool told members of the City Club at a luncheon Tuesday.

Cubic’s head of North American operations, Richard Wunderle, was on hand to answer some questions as well.

“This transition period wasn’t our shining light, and for that I want to apologize to the riders of CTA,” said Wunderle. “It wasn’t our best effort but it will get better, so I apologize for that.”

Cubic isn’t new to the public transit game: They’ve got 400 fare-collection projects in operation across the world, including systems in Sydney, London and Washington, D.C. But the Ventra system marks the first time the company’s tackled an open-fare, contactless card system; and officials say it’s the first of its kind in North America.

Wunderle said Cubic engineers are already at work on a number of fixes to get things up to speed.

One issue that’s drawn many complaints from CTA riders is being charged for multiple taps of their Ventra card at the turnstile. Officials say customers would tap their card, and after not immediately seeing a green “Go” signal, they’d tap multiple times or move to a different lane. As of Tuesday, Cubic said they added a new “processing” screen to show riders the system is working before it lets them through. Engineers will also be upgrading the Ventra software over the weekend to try and bring processing times down on card readers to two-and-a-half seconds or less. CTA officials said that’s happening 95 percent of the time--but the other 5 percent of the time, processing times varied from three to 10 seconds, sometimes more.

Claypool said the issue that’s upset him the most is the long wait times for callers trying to reach a customer service agent, calling it a “self-inflicted wound.” The CTA chief said on one day last month, the center was overwhelmed with 20,000 calls. Some customers couldn’t get through to an agent at all, while others waited, and waited - in some cases, for more than 30 minutes. Cubic has hired more customer service agents since then, and plans to expand further.

No timeline has been set for when the Ventra rollout will continue. Wunderle said he can’t really give a “best guess” how long it will take the company to address the CTA’s three benchmarks, only estimating “weeks” when pressed by a reporter.

Other interesting Ventra facts:

  • The entire Ventra contract lasts 12 years: The two years allotted for engineering the system are almost up. The next 10 years of the contract will be for the service.

  • Cubic paid $92 million up front toward the transition: installing card readers, vending machines, call center operations, etc.

  • CTA lawyers will be looking into how many fares they’ve missed because of bus drivers waving people through when there seemed to be problems with the Ventra card

  • 50 percent of CTA riders are now using Ventra cards

  • Card readers will now display a “low balance” screen that lets customers know their Ventra card balance is under $10

Lauren Chooljian is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @laurenchooljian.