Some facts on the WMATA SmarTrip imbroglio

WMATA is running out of SmarTrip cards; everybody panic! (Or not.) After first being raised in the WMATA Board meeting last Friday, September 16, WTOP ran a story about problems with SmarTrip, including the risk that we might run out of SmarTrip cards in the next two years. Boing Boing picked up the story, turned it into a parable about the evils of proprietary systems (Are there any FLOSS-based AFC systems? I think not.), and joined in on the WMATA-bashing. Now, I’m not saying there’s never any merit to bashing WMATA, but in this case I think it’s premature and inappropriate.

First, some definitions. The SmarTrip card is based on a smart card known as the GO CARD, a proprietary product of Cubic Transportation Systems, a major vendor of automatic fare collection systems. Transport for London‘s Oyster, by comparison, was based on the MIFARE Classic (more on that later). Both systems use equipment manufactured by Cubic. What has happened here, as far as I can tell, is that Cubic has announced that it (or eAccess, its new smart card-making subsidiary) will no longer supply the GO CARD.  This is not the end of the world.

There is nothing stopping WMATA from issuing new SmarTrip cards which are in fact MIFARE DESFire cards inside, and, two or three years from now, starting a program to get the remaining GO CARDs out of circulation. Doing this would probably require some additional programming work; the necessary hardware is already installed in the faregates and TVMs or will be in the near future. The following comes from the open payment RFP: “There is a project underway wherein all rail devices will use the Cubic Tri-Reader 2 (TR2A) Card Interface Device (CID or “Target”) and the Cubic Nextfare suite of software. The TR2 will be able to read and write to 3 different types of CSCs: Type A, Type B, and Go Card.” That RFP was issued in June 2009, and I do not know what progress has been made since then. Even if the hardware isn’t there yet, the reported two-year stock of GO CARD-based SmarTrip cards should be more than enough to carry us through until all of the new hardware can be installed. Moreover, from Board documents I have seen recently (and the fact that there is now an online interface for SmarTrip cards), I’m fairly certain WMATA is now running a recent version of Nextfare. That provides strong evidence that the hardware upgrades have been done as well, meaning that the TVMs and faregates now have Tri-Readers installed which are capable of communicating with MIFARE DESFire cards (among others, but the DESFire or the newer MIFARE Plus seem like a logical choice moving forward).

Finally, there is good precedent for migrating a transit smart card from one platform to another; Transport for London is doing it right now. The MIFARE Classic card on which the original Oyster card was based has certain known security flaws, so Transport for London is migrating Oyster to the MIFARE DESFire card. What this means is that new Oyster cards will be DESFire cards, and any time someone replaces their Oyster card they’ll get one of the new DESFire-based cards. All of this is being done transparently, without any impact on the riding public, and WMATA could easily do the same.

In short, there is not, and never was, a crisis. This is an issue which was (from what I can tell) blown out of proportion by the Board (which is a political body, not a technical one) without knowing all of the facts, and then it got picked up by Boing Boing, and then all of the usual WMATA-bashing got rather badly amplified. WMATA’s been taking a lot of fire from the riding public lately, and it would really be wise to save the vitriol for cases in which it is really worth it; this is not one. This is a problem which can be dealt with in a straightforward manner with some foresight on WMATA’s part, and if done right, the riding public will never know the technical details.