And the winner is…MIFARE Plus!

Last week, WMATA released a request for proposals which revealed publicly that the next-generation SmarTrip card will be based on the MIFARE Plus chip. This is a not entirely unexpected decision, and one that makes good technical sense. There really aren’t many choices here; MIFARE chips are among the most widely deployed (with billions in circulation). The MIFARE Classic, though, has security problems, and the MIFARE DESFire, long the smartcard of choice for high-security applications, is somewhat expensive for public transport applications, and certain versions have recently succumbed to security problems of their own. That leaves the MIFARE Plus, an inexpensive chip with AES encryption on-board which is just right for this application.

It’s important to point out that this procurement has very little to do with the ongoing procurement process for the New Electronic Payments Program, WMATA’s open payment initiative. The purpose of this procurement is instead to sustain WMATA’s current fare collection system, which will have to continue in operation, in some capacity, for several more years, until the NEPP has been advanced to the point that the legacy system can be decommissioned.

These cards will be outwardly identical to the SmarTrip and CharmCard cards in circulation today. They will, however, have one substantial advantage over their predecessors: as ISO 14443-compliant cards, they’ll be able to be read with commodity hardware, instead of requiring the Cubic-proprietary Tri-Reader. This will make migrating away from WMATA’s existing fare collection system easier; as long as the future system can read the serial number off of an ISO 14443 card (which is a basic requirement of the procurement), it’ll be able to interoperate with these cards.

There’s a chance we’ll see something new, too: the RFP indicates that WMATA is “open to proposals to provide fare media in forms other than the standard ISO card shape, such as mini cards, fobs, or stickers”. Personally, I like my ISO 7810-size card just fine (and eagerly await the day these new SmarTrip cards hit the streets), but I get that fobs and such are popular with some consumers.

There’s another twist in the RFP; WMATA is also seeking proposals for the operation of a retail distribution network to offer “additional options for card sales, such as pre-loaded individual cards with radio frequency shield packaging, and additional purchase options for customers, such as retail displays and un-manned vending machines”. As WMATA admits in the RFP, the current SmarTrip retail network leaves something to be desired. From anecdotal reports, the CVS and Giant Food locations which sell SmarTrip cards are not always reliable. That said, in the future we may see an expanded SmarTrip sales network, possibly including unmanned locations “available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week”.

I certainly hope that the release of this RFP will bring a close to the “running out of SmarTrip cards” panic which started last summer. I still, from time to time, get hits on this site from search queries like “smartrip out of business”. The SmarTrip card is not going away, period. It’s going to be around for many years to come, regardless of what happens with the NEPP procurement.

No, you can’t demagnetize a SmarTrip card…

Sometimes, a SmarTrip card will fail—either it consistently won’t work when tapped on a Metrorail faregate or Metrobus farebox, or perhaps it needs to be tapped a few times before it works. Of course, it’s frustrating when it happens—but, contrary to popular opinion, it’s not because the card is ‘demagnetized’.

SmarTrip is a contactless smart card, not a magnetic-strip card like the conventional Metrorail farecard. When we say that a magnetic-strip card (like a Metrorail farecard, or a MetroCard in New York) has been demagnetized, that actually means something—that the magnetic strip has somehow lost its encoding.

Continue reading No, you can’t demagnetize a SmarTrip card…

WMATA’s fare policy problems are deeper than just the lack of passes

Michael Perkins of Greater Greater Washington recently announced a proposal for unlimited passes for the Metrorail system which is derived from the PugetPass system used on the ORCA card. Under this proposal, riders can purchase a pass for a set monthly fare which entitles them to an unlimited number of trips under a certain dollar value. For trips which cost more than that, the excess is automatically debited from the cash balance on a rider’s card. To buy a pass, riders first determine how much their average trip costs, then buy the pass product closest in value.

I can’t take issue with the substance of the Smart Passes proposal, since as Mr. Perkins readily admits, the same concept has already been put into practice as the region-wide PugetPass for the ORCA card. However, the mere fact that the Smart Pass concept works in the Puget Sound region doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right choice for Metrorail. The complexity of Smart Passes comes from the fact that they are an attempt to fit monthly passes into a system in which trips are priced by dollar value. For the PugetPass, this is the case because there’s no integrated fare structure across the seven transit agencies which accept the ORCA card. However, passes for Metrorail are a much simpler case—WMATA’s the only agency involved. Yet the same problem remains: when trips are priced by dollar value, it’s hard to provide an unlimited pass.

What’s the alternative? The alternative is to price trips by zone, using a zonal fare structure. Zonal fare structures are used by many commuter rail agencies in the US, on rail services in London, and in other cities around the world. They result in a simplified fare structure which is easier for both regular commuters and infreqent users to understand, and which enables the development of new fare products.
Continue reading WMATA’s fare policy problems are deeper than just the lack of passes

WMATA: Don’t blame riders for AFC failures

Over at Unsuck DC Metro, there’s a post on riders being cited by the Metro Transit Police Department for failing to pay their fare. The short version of the story is that many riders who have been hassled over fare payment or even cited claim to have had no intent to commit fare evasion, and are treated in a harsh and heavy-handed manner. While it’s possible that some of these individuals really did mean to avoid paying their fare, I can certainly see situations in which an innocent person could be cited for fare evasion under circumstances that simply aren’t their fault. At the same time, some aspects of the design of the Metrorail system (including emergency exit gates with no alarms, even at isolated entrances) encourage willful fare evasion, which in many cases goes unreported, and, worse, uncontrolled.
Continue reading WMATA: Don’t blame riders for AFC failures

Autoload for SmarTrip, return to ATO, and more

Yesterday I attended a blogger roundtable with WMATA’s new General Manager and CEO, Richard Sarles, as well as the monthly Riders’ Advisory Council meeting. The predominant topic at the blogger roundtable was the Metro Transit Police Department’s bag search program, which continues despite objections from riders and civil liberties groups. Sarles’ chief argument in favor of the bag searches is that they are claimed by counterterrorism experts to provide a deterrent effect, by disrupting predictable routines which terrorists may have incorporated into their plans. Sarles also cited the successful programs conducted by the PAPD on the PATH rail system and by the NYPD on the New York City subway. Mr. Sarles also took questions from RAC members at that evening’s meeting; one important question was posed by RAC member Chris Schmitt on the issue of returning to automatic train operation (which was suspended immediately following the 2009 Red Line crash). As Unsuck DC Metro reports, Sarles’ answer is (in short) that WMATA must first complete its program of track circuit replacement, as well as have an outside safety and risk analysis performed before automatic operation will return. The risk analysis is expected to be done by early 2012 at the latest, and while track circuit replacement is continuing on the Red Line, that work has yet to be started on the rest of the rail system.

The RAC meeting also featured a presentation from WMATA’s CFO, Carol Dillon-Kissal, on WMATA’s budget for FY2012. One piece of information that came from that presentation, though not directly related to the budget, is that autoload and online reload for SmarTrip cards is now envisioned to be available in June. I don’t consider that to be a firm committment or formal announcement, but it is still an encouraging sign, particularly given that it’s functionality that many riders have been eagerly awaiting for some time now.