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.
Caltrain is a monopoly because there's not another competing train running alongside it that can take you to the same place.
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.
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.
But now that I think about it, I'm not sure how never-expiring gift cards work..
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!
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.
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.
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.
[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)...
> 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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
* 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.
...and then some people will stay on the train, necessitating conductors to check passengers repeatedly.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Building the walls and gates at every station would cost a lot of money, and would require a significant increase in fares.