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Frequently Asked Questions

about Melbourne's Public Transport Ticketing System


THE TROUBLE WITH METCARD

Just what is right and wrong about the current system?

The great advantage of Melbourne's fare system is that it's multimodal: you can transfer from a tram to a train and then to a bus without having to pay an extra fare. This is as it should be because most people can't get from A to B using just the one mode of transport. We've had this fare system since 1982 and it's been one of the most successful public transport initiatives ever introduced. If we were to scrap multimodal fares, patronage on public transport would halve overnight.

The problems with the system have to do with how people are made to buy tickets. The current Metcard system seems to have been deliberately designed to make it hard to buy a ticket and easy to travel without one.

  • Ticket machines are prone to breaking down (though they've recently improved).
  • The machines are inflexible in what they accept as payment. Despite the popular Zone 1 Daily ticket costing over $5, the machines in trams only accept coins. Machines at stations accept notes but don't give more than $10 in change. To buy four tickets from a machine, you must carry out four separate transactions, and have appropriate change for each one.
  • The cardboard tickets are not designed for long-term use, and it is relatively common for monthly tickets not to survive a month's worth of duty in validating machines.
  • The system is meant to encourage people to buy tickets in advance from retail outlets, but the outlets aren't conveniently located and often don't sell the full range of tickets (nor are they required to). People are being penalised because it's not in their local newsagent's interest to stock the ticket they need.
  • The requirement to continually revalidate an already valid ticket is an added inconvenience to the passenger and does not provide reliable feedback on ticket use, therefore serves no useful purpose.
  • Most importantly, automatic ticketing has gone hand in hand with the de-staffing of the public transport system. The removal of tram conductors and full-time station staff has led directly to rampant fare evasion and to concerns about personal safety. This is doubly counterproductive: it deprives the system of revenue and turns passengers away.

But hang on: surely in this day and age having a fully staffed system is a relative luxury? Wouldn't the money spent on staff be better spent on more frequent services instead?

On balance, it's probably true that more passengers are attracted to a frequent unstaffed service than to an infrequent but fully staffed service. However, a sustainable public transport system has to generate enough revenue to cover a reasonable fraction of its costs. If there is no routine staff presence then, human nature being what it is, people will find opportunities to avoid paying fares. For this reason alone, removing staff to cut costs is a false economy: most of the cost savings disappear as revenue loss due to fare evasion.

Removing staff is a false economy also because of the effect on patronage. Even a scrupulously honest public will turn away from public transport if they feel unsafe using it. A routine staff presence is important in helping people feel safe. This is how the Toronto Transit Commission justifies retaining a fully staffed system to this day. As Juri Pill of the Commission explains: "We considered automated ticketing, but decided we'd still have to staff all our stations if customers were to feel safe. If the staff have to be there for safety, they might as well sell tickets too."

I'm sick of standing in bus queues waiting for people to buy tickets off the driver. Surely encouraging people to prepurchase is a good idea?

The problem with on-the-spot ticket purchase is peculiar to buses; on trains and trams, passengers are always better off being able to buy a ticket at the start of their journey. This turn-up-and-go convenience is important in making public transport an attractive alternative to driving, especially during that crucial stage when people try out the system prior to becoming frequent users. If this convenience is undermined by making people go elsewhere to buy their tickets, people with the choice will take the car instead.

The way to solve the bus queue problem is to encourage the use of periodical tickets for frequent users, through the use of attractive discounts and other incentives such as salary sacrifice. Widespread use of periodical tickets has other advantages too: by reducing the marginal cost of an extra trip to zero, it encourages the use of public transport for a wider range of trips. A person may buy a monthly ticket to use for the trip to work, then realise that they can visit their friends on weekends for no extra cost. This is an advantage not possessed by 'bulk' tickets such as the 10 x 2 hour, which keep the marginal cost of extra trips high and so are of less benefit to regular travellers.

On the busiest bus routes the use of bus conductors is warranted, not just to sell tickets but also to assist infrequent users with directions, and provide the many other services that only a conductor can provide. Use of conductors on busy routes will also speed up boarding by allowing people to board by any door, and provide a more 'tram-like' experience on the whole.

Isn't it just stubbornness that keeps people from revalidating? Wouldn't people be more inclined to revalidate if they understood they were providing useful information on patronage to the operator?

The operators themselves don't believe this any more, which is why for the last few years they've employed people with clipboards to survey passenger numbers manually.

When a passenger validates a ticket for the first time, they have paid their fare for their journey. Failure to revalidate when changing vehicles does not deprive the system of revenue - it is simply a bean-counting exercise. The fewer people participate the more pointless it is, and the more likely it is that even fewer will participate. The only way to get reliable figures from an honesty exercise like this is to ensure that those not revalidating have a high likelihood of being caught. At present the likelihood of being caught is essentially nil, and is likely to remain so without a consistent staff presence. But if staff are present, there's no need for revalidation to tell the operator how many people are on the vehicle!

Even if people were 100 per cent scrupulous and revalidated whenever they're supposed to, the information collected would still not be terribly useful. In the evening peak for example, hundreds of thousands of people validate into city stations and later exit the system at the many stations without barriers. How does the system know which trains any of these people used?

There are very few public transport systems anywhere in the world that require passengers to revalidate an already valid ticket, other than to pass through a physical barrier such as at a railway station. The revalidation rule in Melbourne is unenforceable and might as well be scrapped.

OK, so Metcard wasn't such a great idea. But wasn't it at least worth trying once?

The transport bureaucracy had already tried it once, back in 1990 with 'MetTicket'. The result was a public outcry and the sacking of a Transport Minister. In their two most essential features MetTicket and Metcard were identical:

  • Replacement of staff with machines dispensing tickets, which must then be validated by the ticket holder. Consequent reliance on user honesty and hide-and-seek patrols rather than regular staff presence to combat fare evasion.
  • Incentives or penalties to encourage purchase of tickets off the system. (MetTicket added a surcharge to tickets purchased on vehicles; Metcard introduced discounts on prepurchased tickets and then raised fares across the board, which amounts to the same thing.)

The bureaucrats really should have learned their lesson from the MetTicket debacle, and accepted the recommendations of the 1991 Met Ticketing Task Force for:

  • the retention of tram conductors and station staff; and
  • the introduction of automatic ticket machines as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the role of staff.
The bureaucracy instead took the view that if the travelling public were so recalcitrant as to not like MetTicket, it was because it didn't have enough hi-tech electronic gadgetry. The system we eventually got differed from MetTicket in just two respects:
  • scratch tickets were replaced with magnetic stripe tickets, with the attendant paraphernalia of validating machines and continual revalidation; and
  • the entire ticketing operations were handed over to a private operator, Onelink, with a 10-year contract under which no substantial changes could be made to the system.
To make these two changes ultimately cost $400 million, rather a lot to pay for an experiment.

It appears the bureaucracy is about to spend another $400 million to make the same mistake all over again, but this is a new topic.

SMARTCARDS

What's a Smartcard?

A Smartcard is a piece of plastic with an embedded silicon chip that tracks where the card is going from use to use. A cash value can be stored on the card and an appropriate sum deducted whenever a purchase is made.

The government says it's going to introduce Smartcards and that will fix the problems with Metcard. Doesn't this mean they're doing something right at last?

All we are likely to get from Smartcards is another change of technology, like the one from MetTicket to Metcard, that doesn't address the basic flaw with this kind of system. Simply replacing a magnetic stripe with a silicon chip will not make it any easier to buy a ticket or any harder to fare-evade.

Smartcards could actually make fare evasion harder and more costly to detect, because the ticket expiry date is no longer printed on the card but is merely stored in the chip. Ticket inspectors would all have to carry Smartcard readers, which are prone to the usual problems of breakdown and batteries needing replacement.

Smartcards are also not an appropriate solution for infrequent users and visitors to Melbourne, as they involve a significant upfront cost. An alternative would have to be put in place for these users, adding to the complexity of the system.

But surely Smartcards will make it more convenient to pay a fare, and so reduce fare evasion?

Smartcards are hyped for their 'contactless' operation, which is thought to mean that all you need to do is wave your wallet in the general direction of a validating machine and the card will register. In practice, the card can stay inside the wallet but still needs to be brought within about 5 centimetres of the sensor, so the added convenience is real but not especially dramatic.

The existing Metcard system was actually designed from the start to include contactless validation (the so-called 'Metcard Xpress' system). Contactless Metcards have actually been on issue to public transport staff for some time, but are not available to passengers due to the high cost of the ticket media. If this cost issue were to be resolved, we could have the advantages of contactless validation now without spending $400 million on an entirely new system.

It also seems likely that the new Smartcards will be introduced in a way that requires passengers to validate both when getting on and when getting off a vehicle (see below), which is likely to annul the added convenience in the eyes of passengers.

Nonetheless, our Smartcards will be funky and groovy and modern and hi-tech, won't they?

Yes, but that doesn't mean it'll be any harder to avoid using one. And it doesn't even mean people will be falling over each other to use them. Almost every other funky, groovy Smartcard system introduced anywhere in the world, for any purpose, in the last ten years has been a miserable flop. (Remember 'Visa Cash'?)

In the end, most public transport systems that have introduced Smartcards must eventually resort to imposing financial penalties on people who don't use them (including infrequent users for whom Smartcards are inappropriate). For example, London Transport has recently raised all its non-Smartcard fares to punish its passengers for their lack of enthusiasm about Smartcards.

What about the Octopus card in Hong Kong? Given how popular that is, can't we expect public transport Smartcards to succeed elsewhere?

There's always an exception that proves the rule, and in the case of public transport Smartcards it's the Hong Kong Octopus, already being touted by the Bracks Government as the model for Melbourne.

What's never explained is the difference between the Hong Kong system and our own. Keep in mind that Hong Kong is such a crowded city that people are virtually forced to use public transport, so very few have the option of opting out of the system and driving a car instead. In Hong Kong, the alternative to the Octopus card is an inconvenient system of single-trip tickets, with separate tickets required to transfer between modes, and no periodical tickets available. The Octopus card is popular simply because it avoids the user having to queue up and buy one or more tickets for every single journey, due to the absence of periodical tickets.

Our fare system is already vastly superior to Hong Kong's, and one of the dangers of the Smartcard proposal is that we may lose the convenience of multimodal fares and periodical tickets.

Will a Smartcard give me directions to my destination?

No, it's just a piece of plastic.

Will a Smartcard help me lift a pram onto the tram?

No, it's just a piece of plastic.

If someone gets on my tram and doesn't buy a ticket, will my Smartcard kick them off the tram?

No, it takes a real person to do that.

So what does a Smartcard do?

Smartcards do make certain things easier. In particular, they make it easier to introduce a 'tag-on tag-off' type of system (often called TOTO). This means that passengers must revalidate not only every time they get on a vehicle, but also every time they get off a vehicle. The idea is that Smartcards will be so convenient to use that people won't mind revalidating twice as often as they do now.

A TOTO system could have severe consequences for a passenger if for some reason a validating machine fails to operate. If a passenger is not detected leaving a vehicle, they may get charged as if they had travelled to the end of the route, doubling or even tripling the fare. The boffins selling the technology would like us to think that this scenario will never occur, but no automated system is that reliable. It's not hard to draw parallels with the technical glitches that occur daily on Citylink.

The other thing Smartcards make easier is arbitrary tinkering with fare structures. Once TOTO is introduced, the system will know the exact times, vehicles and distances over which a passenger has travelled. It then becomes easy in principle to have the system calculate the passenger's fare according to a complex formula that takes all this information into account.

I know about those mobile phone plans that nobody understands. Could Smartcards bring the same confusion to public transport fares?

They could, and for much the same reasons. Phone companies rely on confusing plans to keep your business, to make it as hard as possible to compare their total cost with the competition. In the brave new world of privatised public transport, operators could have similar incentives to prevent you making easy fare comparisons with competitors, and will construct Byzantine fare structures to assist them in this task.

With the aid of Smartcards, public transport could even evolve into something like the so-called free market that exists for electricity. The electricity to your home is supplied by company A (the distributor), but the bill is actually sent by company B (the retailer). There are dozens of retailers that compete with one another for the privilege of calculating your electricity bill, and the idea is that you as a rational utility-maximising consumer select the retailer that calculates your bill in the manner that suits you best. Meanwhile the actual electricity keeps being supplied by company A. (We're not making this up. Someone probably got a PhD in Economics for this.)

Eventually an entirely new bill-management industry springs up to flog their services to large consumers, while small consumers just pay the bill and harbour the vague suspicion they're being taken advantage of.

Given the situation with something as mundane as electricity, it's not at all far-fetched to imagine a system where public transport services are supplied by one group of operators (say Connex and Yarra Trams) while the fares are calculated by separate 'public transport retailers' that compete for Smartcard-bearing customers. Each retailer will offer their own 'fare plan' based on some complicated formula involving distance, mode, time of day, frequency of travel and so on. Most people who travel on public transport won't have any idea how much they pay for a trip until they get their itemised bill at the end of the month. Now and again a validator will fail and there will be a spurious extra charge that must be contested.

And even in this brave new world it will be possible to get on a tram without validating one's Smartcard, and chances are no-one will notice.

THE REAL SOLUTION

So Metcard's no good and Smartcard's no good. What do we do instead?

We don't have to reinvent the wheel, nor do we have to fork out more good money after bad to change the technology. Regardless of the technology used, a ticketing system that works is one that makes it as easy as possible to buy a ticket, and as difficult as possible to travel without one. It is not too late to revisit the findings of the Met Ticketing Task Force, which are still as relevant today as they were ten years ago.

The single most important part of any solution is the restoration of staff to the system. Hide-and-seek patrols alone will not make a serious dent in the high rate of opportunistic fare evasion. The inspectors used in these patrols would be more constructively retrained as, or replaced with, tram conductors and station staff, with a brief to assist passengers and assure safety as well as to sell and check tickets. These new staff could be deployed alongside the existing Metcard system, and tram conductors equipped with miniaturised versions of the control boxes now used by bus drivers.

The existing Metcard system also has contactless card functionality built into it, as mentioned above. 'Metcard Xpress' cards should be made available to holders of periodical tickets. There is a cost issue to be resolved with these cards, but the cost of resolving this issue should be a good deal less than that for an entirely new Smartcard system.

If Metcard tickets are eventually replaced it must be with a cost-effective alternative that coexists with staff and is easy for both regular and casual passengers to use. The specific medium could be paper, magnetic stripe or silicon chip - it doesn't really matter as long as it's reliable, easy to buy and to police, and not too costly to implement.

Wouldn't scrapping Metcard mean we lose our multimodal fares?

No. As explained above, multimodal fares go back more then 20 years, to the days of paper tickets and tram conductors. Promoters of automatic ticketing would like us to think that multimodal fares are a feature peculiar to Melbourne's Metcard system, but this is misleading. Toronto has had the same multimodal fare system since the 1920s, and they still use paper tickets and have staff on every station!


© 2010 Public Transport Users Association Inc. (PTUA), Victoria, Australia. ABN 83 801 487 611.
General copying and distribution on a non-commercial basis is permitted subject to proper acknowlegement.
Authorised by Tony Morton, 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, for the PTUA

Last Modified: 10 October 2003