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Clipper, the Caltrain nemesis (geekatsea.com)
25 points by kirillzubovsky on Sept 21, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

Clipper is a terrible service but not for the reasons outlined in this post. This post misses the point that tagging on and tagging off is a simple and relatively elegant solution to the problem posed by Caltrain charging by distance traveled.

But that's not the real problem with Clipper. The real problem with clipper is their horrible customer service. Here's my story with clipper - and I hardly think I'm alone.

I got my card about a year ago when I was going from San Jose to Redwood City once a week. On their web page I set up an 8-travel auto-pay system where I get 8 San Jose<->Redwood City tickets, and when I run out it buys a new set of 8 automatically.

This works great until one day I missed my stop and wound up in Gilroy (woops). What SHOULD have happened is that I tag off, pay full price for the ticket I actually traveled, and have the 8 ride ticket refunded. If the card 'balance' (non-ticket cash on the card) goes below $0 (or, for them, $1.25 for reasons I don't understand) then it debits my account for the remaining balance.

Instead what happened was my card went 'negative', and they shut down the card until I went to a Walgreens (?!) to pay the remainder of the balance. I was cautioned that paying online could take 1 to 2 weeks to clear the card. Where in the heck did Walgreens come in to the picture? By the way, despite having a banner outside advertising Clipper cards, my Walgreens had no idea what I was talking about. They had to call the GM to call the Clipper people to figure out what was going on.

Fast forward, and now I'm commuting between Millbrae and San Francisco via Caltrain again. I just started at this company and they pay for Caltrain, so I link my Employee benefits clipper system to my clipper card - a process they made surprisingly simple which unsurprisingly completely F'ed up everything.

All of a sudden I can no longer add funds via my regular portal and have to go through the company portal - and get this, though I bought my employee-benefit-purchased monthly pass on Sept 4th, that was too late for September. So I had to go to - you guessed it - Walgreens to buy a monthly pass with cash for the card that could no longer be used online.

I'm hoping that it will work again in October... we will see.

I think a big part of the value of Clipper to Caltrain is to increase revenues from people who forget to tag off. You're looking at this from an engineering perspective, but not from the business perspective. Breakage is a huge revenue driver for many industries(think of gift cards), and a monopoly like Caltrain is a great fit for implementing a system like this.

Yes, forgetting to tag off sucks, but a conspiracy to nickel and dime you? Really? How exactly is caltrain a monopoly? And if it is one, fares pay less than 50% of their revenue, with a large fraction coming from government grants. So it would be a government supported monopoly on those tracks, where a private service is probably not cost effective. So be glad that the government is subsidizing keeping you off the 101.

I'm not sure what you're trying to say here.

Caltrain is a monopoly because there's not another competing train running alongside it that can take you to the same place.

Caltrain is a monopoly because it's effectively impossible to obtain the permits to build additional track in California.

Key difference: the lack of a competitor doesn't make a monopoly. The inability to compete is what makes an organization a monopoly in its space.

Caltrain does not have a monopoly to get from A to B. Soon there will be a BART connection from SF to SJ. So for those traveling the full route, there will be competition via 'tracks'.

For local service there is also overlap with BART on the north end, and with VTA on the south end. So, there is competition.

Plus you could also drive. There are also shuttle services that are competing to move commuters, and not all of those are subsidized by employers.

I completely agree and curse Caltrain every time I pay $12.75 for a $4.75 ride. Thinking about it, I'd probably save money buying oneway tickets as much as I forget to "tag off".

AFAIK, companies don't get to just keep unclaimed gift cards money. They have to give it to the government.

But now that I think about it, I'm not sure how never-expiring gift cards work..

This article doesn't even touch the horrible nature of Clipper. Here is a summary of some of the worst that I have experienced:

1 - Intentionally inconvenient autoloading of a monthly pass.- They will automatically charge your CC for this but it doesn't load onto your card unless you have tagged on AND off in the specified zones. The even more annoying part is that during the beta period you could just double tag (acts like a refund) at a single station and your monthly would show up.

2- Effectively bricking their own card and making $250 worth of mistaken charges.- This is by far the worst I have ever heard about in terms of Clipper fail. I had a two-zone monthly pass autoload setup. I changed it two a one-zone. The next period they charged me for BOTH passes. I asked them for a refund and apparently this PERMANENTLY blocks your card from ever obtaining the pass type that you were refunded for. I discovered this when I changed the autoload back to a two-zone monthly.... and they CHARGED my credit card the $126 but never gave me the pass. Clipper insisted that they never charged me and wanted me to "prove it." It took me somewhere around 5 hours of phone time to get refunds and I still had to buy a brand new clipper card. The mistakes were 100% clipper's fault and it permanently broke my card. I am still waiting for that refund... should have just had my credit card block the charges!

Having used Clipper a few times, I think an easy way to make it less annoying is to just have more card readers. All the stations I've seen have so few you have to scan the entire platform to look for one.

Completely agree. Bad design to place card readers in non-obvious places. You should be basically unable to leave the station without running into one.

Or card readers next to the train doors. People usually spend a few minutes next to the doors before exiting -- there's no reason why they couldn't tag off then. The train would be smart enough to round up this tag location to the next stop.

Overall, this is such a non-problem compared to things most people in SF have to deal with (i.e. street sweeping/parking)

If you can remember to scan when you get on (which doesn't fit the "normal" behavior of a paper ticket either) then you can remember to scan when you get off. It's no different than BART, the main difference is BART funnels you through an exit. If you have a round trip commute, then you are going to enter and exit at nearly the same points.

I think you mean "cars in a city" instead of "street sweeping/parking"

Once the density of people per square mile is over a certain point, the usage of cars contributes to a tragedy of the commons, inconveniencing many of the residents in the city for the benefit of few. New York has been one of the more aggressive cities in removing parking and closing down roads to car traffic and it has greatly improved the quality of life there for residents.

London's Canary Wharf district is able to support 100,000 jobs with only 3,000 parking spots. San Francisco's problem is that it hasn't yet made the city sufficiently convenient for humans on foot and bicyclists at the cost of inconvenience to drivers.

The smiling, fedora-wearing bloke in Boston MBTA marketing materials is named Charlie; the system's CharlieCard is named after him. The reference is to a 1949 song in which a man named Charlie is forever trapped on the subway because he has no money to pay the exit fare which was then in place (and was phased out in no small part due to this song).

Bottom line: this sort of thing has long been known to be a pain in the ass and it snagged me once: JR and other Japanese railways require you to ticket in and ticket out. This is probably because tickets to different destinations have different fares, and so the police can harangue you if you use a 140-yen ticket to take a 400-yen ride. My first train ride in Japan I lost my ticket and thought nothing of it, until I saw the machine wouldn't let me through.

Japanese gate agents (and almost every station has one) are usually very cool about it though: they'll ask where you came from and how much you paid, and most of the time will just trust you and charge you the difference or at worst just the price of the ticket. I've lost tons of tickets and have never been charged anything near the maximum price.

[Looking like a foreigner is also probably a benefit in this situation, as they'll assume you don't know the system well, and additionally don't want the hassle of arguing with you.]

That's one of my (many) reservations about POP ticketing (which is the darling of many transit advocates): there's a non-trivial chance of losing a ticket, and ending up paying very, very, dearly for a common honest mistake (typical POP fines for being caught without a ticket tend to be hundreds of dollars)...

I heard that's a big problem with first-time tourists to Japan. A lot of people lose tickets (or at least misplace them in their bags), which leads to lengthy fumbling with personal belongings and inevitable purchase of a full ticket for the second time.

I feel like it would be better to propose a solution than to just complain.

That would be nice, wouldn't it? (meta)

They charge zone to zone. In order to know what to charge you they have to know your end point. How do you propose they figure this out without you telling them?

And remember that a solution that requires building big BART-like stations to prevent you from just walking away without going through a gate would be a terrible solution to a nearly non-problem.

Getting off the BART is terrible when it's crowded. Especially at stations with only 1 exit and not very many tills (16th and Mission)

It's even more annoying when you buy an 8-ride pass, but forget to scan off on one of the rides -- your 8-ride pass becomes invalid requiring you to call their customer support line to have it fixed. I've ridden trains from all over the world, yet the caltrain is the first train that requires me to call a customer support line to fix a ticketing problem.

I am not a CalTrain engineer and I have plenty of problems to work on which will make my users happier. But, I suggest that CalTrain engineers spend some time working on an obvious problem that so many users are having. Just because it's easier for them to require tap-off, doesn't mean it the only solution. Pissed off users means tap-off has to be not the correct solution.

It does puzzle me that they also require monthly pass user to tag off. I paid for a 1-3 pass, you shouldn't need me to tag at all!

It's even worse than that - if you tag off at the wrong station, your monthly pass gets locked in at that other station. You can't change it. I had a friend who traveled TO work on a shorter route than when he traveled back FROM work - so on the 1st of every month he had to drive to a farther station from his house to ride the train in, lest his card lock him in to a shorter route than he needed.

Monthly passes are also zone-based, so on the off chance that you are making a cash-based trip outside of those zones, you still need to tag in and out for that trip. It's been a while, but I seem to remember, if you have a monthly, you only need to tag in and out on the first trip of the month to activate it (no refunds after that).

If they don't, other people won't bother because they'll see all the regular travelers ignoring the tagging machines.

You outlined the problem:

> The system expects me to remember to tap, because they (the engineers) needed a way to check where and when I get off the train. That’s fantastic, but this step doesn’t fit in my normal behavior, it doesn’t fit in my historical or expected train usage patterns. It baffles me as to why I should be tagging off; there is no logic to it, and from the user point of view, there is no need.

What is the solution? You cannot have barriers so that you tap in and out of stations, since lots of people buy tickets on the train. (I always wrongfully assumed that the clipper card worked like so: you tap in at the boarding station, and then hopefully you remember to tap out at the arrival station: if you forget you are charged a full fare unless you tap in again for your potential return journey, in which case it is simple business logic to connect dots.)

You've labelled this "an engineering problem" but you appear to have forgotten that engineers have constraints.

Take a look at a fantastic metro system, the Hong Kong MTR - doesn't matter if you're paying by disposable ticket (ie, cash) or octopus card (ie, tap-to-pay - system existed more than a decade ago)... you need to check in, then check out (turnstyle).

Because you can't leave the system without going through a checkpoint, there is no need to check tickets while in the train - THAT part sounds pretty inefficient to me.

This is why I still buy the paper tickets -- it's less of a risk than dealing with forgetting to scan when I get off. If I'm only going 2 zones, I'd get charged $5, but if I forget to scan off, I would get charged $12. If I pay by paper, I don't have to worry about the possible rogue charge since I'd already paid.

I know, right. I come from Mountain View, which makes my ticket about 6+ bucks, but if I forget to "tag off", I end up with the 12 dollar charge. One day I was in a rush so ended up paying double, twice. That really pissed me off.

At the very least, if I took a train from Mountain View to SF, I should pay the one-way price, not the price of a full San Jose <> San Fran ticket.

You cannot buy tickets on the train, that's another issue with Caltrain. See that hourly train coming? Don't even think about catching it if you don't already have a ticket. You'll have missed it by the time you get your ticket.

There's not many worse things day to day than to run up to the Caltrain as its approaching only to see someone fumbling with the ticket machine, knowing you're about to lose a whole hour sitting there.

They likely don't allow buying tickets on the train because otherwise people could ride for free if nobody checks.

Having a Clipper card in the situation you described is great since you can scan your card quickly and at least make the train. (You still might get screwed over if you forget to scan out, but assuming your time has a decent monetary value, it is a risk worth taking.) Personally, this is the only situation in which I use Clipper for CalTrain. If I used CalTrain all of the time, I'd get the Clipper monthly pass. For one-offs where I have to wait awhile anyway, I'll stand in line at the ticket machine.)

Clipper customer service has a problem out of the gate since they're just an intermediary--you're buying passes from CalTrain or Muni or one of the other participating agencies.

But still, Clipper could easily improve their part of the system:

* Put readers in train car vestibules so riders can tag on/off on the train. * Add more functionality to the readers so you can check current balance and see if the card is already in a tagged on state

Business issues:

* Find more retailers to handle their payments. Even better, install the add value machines at more stations--right now the only one I know if is at the 4th and King station, though I've heard they're also at Palo Alto and San Jose.

* Don't require monthly passes to tag on at all--no matter whatthe money is already paid and I doubt you can get a refund without, say, a doctor's note or similar.

Put readers in train car vestibules so riders can tag on/off on the train.

...and then some people will stay on the train, necessitating conductors to check passengers repeatedly.

I feel like I'm missing something. Caltrain charges different depending on where you get off or get on right? How would it know what to charge unless you tagged on/off at the particular stations?

If Caltrain has monthly passes for unlimited rides (I have no idea if they do or not), I agree swiping should not be necessary- especially since I think Muni's monthly pass allows you to just get on/off a train without swiping on the train itself (if the station doesn't have a turnstile).

When you buy a monthly pass, they ask you which zones you plan to travel in. You'll pay more for a monthly pass if you travel further. So the information is already in your pass if you bought a monthly ride ticket; when you scan before boarding, the end station should already be implied.

He thinks they should build a system that is more convenient for him, feasibility and cost, never mind those.

This is a problem in London as well - most Tube stations have barriers but some of them don't and most DLR stations are barrier-less - so forgetting to tap costs you extra the next time round (ie for PAYG - passes are penalty-free).

A possible solution might be to have tap-in/out points within the train itself near the doors (possibly even small vending machines) - that avoids the insanity of rushing to tap-in / buy your ticket and getting charged extra if you forget to tap out - if you are at the door of a train and you can see a big, bold notice commanding you to tap out - it's hard to ignore that (you could, of course!).

EDIT: A counter-argument might be that it would create a blocking crowd near the "tap-point" when many people want to alight at a major station. Well, this can be avoided by having (a) a tap-point at all doors and in locations within the carriage and (b) accounting for tap-ins/outs correctly by determining your Clipper/Oyster state and the position of the train (ie if you tap-out in between stations, it means you'll alight at the next one).

That's kind of what they do for buses in Singapore.

What an absurd argument. You have to tag off when you leave a station because there is not a single flat far for the Caltrain service - same as on BART. The only difference is taht Caltrain stations are open and don't funnel you through time-wasting gates as you enter and exit. You may or may not interact with a conductor during your journey; the probability of meeting one (which involves almost zero effort from you) is proportional to the probability that people will abuse the voluntary fare payment system, and is much cheaper than installing the aforementioned gates at every Caltrain station.

If it's so easy to do better, I suspect an alternative (that works for people without smart phones) would have been mentioned in the post.

As it stands, it's just a matter of riders developing the tap-out habit.

Transit systems elsewhere have used this system. If you'd never become used to the old more casual system, you'd just always know to both tap-in, and remember to tap-out, or you'll be overcharged. If you'd been more used to, say, BART than CalTrain you'd also be better primed for the Clipper system: it works like the BART turnstiles, only without the clear physical barrier/reminder.

Here's a possible solution -- since they still have the paper ticket mechanism, we should only have clipper handle the bulk purchases (8-ride or monthly pass). Currently, when you buy one of these bulk-ride tickets, you have to specify the zones that you'll be traveling in. Then users would only need to tag once when boarding the train.

The main benefit of Clipper, though, is one stored-value card that works throughout the region: BART (commuter rail, peninsula and east bay), CalTrain (commuter rail, peninsuala/south-bay), MUNI (SF buses and rail), AC Transit (east bay buses), SamTrans (peninsula buses), GGTransit (north bay buses/ferries), etc.

A tap-in card that's locked to certain prepurchased trips wouldn't be Clipper and might not be of much interest to either commuters or CalTrain operators. A ticket-book works fine for that predictable travel.

Sigh, I have a monthly pass, I tag once per month, then I don't worry any more.

One could go to turnstiles like bart where you have to 'ticket in' and 'ticket out', it will probably come to that.

One solution would be to have RFID readers scan for your card coming off the train but that opens up other issues.

If you are a gadget person, having an app on your phone which geo-fenced your ticket usage would be another option. Harder to do the verify on the train step if its too easily forged/spoofed.

Aren't those turnstiles exactly the solution? In London I used an Oyster card and it worked exactly that way. Scan it once to get in and scan it once to get back out. Works brilliantly.

"Aren't those turnstiles exactly the solution?"

Yes and no, CalTrain has really open stations, unlike something that was designed to be a commuter rail they are a hold over from the time when it was a traditional passenger railroad (with stations, tickets purchased on board, etc). So in order to achieve this you'd need a lot of work at all the stations and that is money that CalTrain doesn't have.

They are getting funds to 'upgrade' as part of the high speed rail project (same right of way) and that may allow them to do something more organized.

Oyster works in 99% of these scenarios. We use it in London for:

Buses - Single Tap / Single Fare Tube, Light Rail, Tram, High Speed Rail - Tap in and Out

This is either PAYG with fare calculated by zones traveled in or travel cards per zone. Personally I have a zone 2-3 travel card and PAYG credit which gets used when I travel into other zones at a discount.

User education is key as same as Caltrain some stations no not have ticket gates but usually swipe points by entrances.

Its all down to educating users.

User education is NOT the key. As a user I just want a train to get me from A to B, without a hassle.

User education only works in complex systems, think nuclear power plant; that's because without education you could potentially blow up the whole planet.

Now, when it comes to trains, there has to be 0 education. Things need to function intuitively, even to someone who's never been aboard a train.

I live at a station without automated barriers. If I don't tap in or tap out I get charged the maximum fare automatically. This is a good enough reason to tap correctly.

Oyster has the same problems as Caltrain, they just ignore it by making buses "single tap", and not bothering with pro rata charges.

Caltrain has made the business decision to model fares like those of the London tube system, but without the access control to automatically enforce the zones.

Aren't those turnstiles exactly the solution?

Building the walls and gates at every station would cost a lot of money, and would require a significant increase in fares.

I've used Caltrain+clipper quite a lot, the real issues is that there are no gates (no one forcing you to tag out), and not enough readers on busy stations. This is really an investment issue, and with Caltrain not having reliable funding from year to year, we should be glad you can even use clipper on it, because the old paper ticketing system sucked, and I've missed a lot of trains because of it.

While the tag-off system does suck, putting turnstiles at every station is probably not cost-effective. They only last so-long, are exposed to weather and abuse. Depending on the layout of each station, you could even need multiple sets of turnstiles for a single station. Turnstiles for the LA Metro cost $46 million for 387 turnstiles.

I don't understand why this is so complicated. Why is there a controller on the train checking tickets? In Tokyo and NYC, you just go through a turnstile after swiping your card. You swipe your card again when exiting at your destination station. I never thought it was that complicated.

You would have to build those turnstiles at each station and staff each station. There is probably a break even point for a certain volume of trains where building out and staffing the stations is cheaper, but I double they have hit that

Then it seems to me that the first step would be to encourage more people to ride so that having turnstiles becomes financially viable.

Caltrain doesn't have turnstiles, it's walk on, walk off. It's similar to Amtrak. You buy your ticket ahead of time (or pay on Clipper) and show it to a conductor on the train.

I do find it a little amusing that he thinks that the engineers had any real say in the working of a system like this.

I more just wish these systems gave some sort of discount for taking the same path at the same time nearly every day.

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