TransLink planning $216-million upgrade of Compass and fare gate system

Apr 21 2022, 12:29 am

TransLink first announced last month it will provide the Compass fare collection system with an upgrade, but the scope of the planned improvement project was not made evident until today.

The public transit authority is planning to spend $216.3 million later this decade on a substantial overhaul of the Compass system, as part of its 10-year expansion priorities strategy currently under public consultation.

According to TransLink, the Compass system is “near capacity and needs upgrades to be able to introduce new fare products and other features.”

The estimated high cost of the project suggests both a major technology programming overhaul, and the installation of new expansion and replacement physical equipment.

TransLink states the upgrade will enable new fare product options and features to improve passenger convenience.

As well, it will “support the introduction of more equitable fare structures.” This appears to be a reference for TransLink’s much-developed plans to replace the three-zone fare system with distance-traveled fares on SkyTrain and SeaBus, made possible by fare gates. The transition to distance-traveled fares was originally scheduled in 2020, but TransLink later determined that a major technology upgrade would be required to gain the capability.

“There is not enough space in the card to manage a much more complicated fare table,” said former TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond in 2019. “To be able to manage a much more complicated fare table, we need to get to something called account-based processing, and that will take longer to happen.”

After determining a Compass system upgrade is necessary, TransLink had plans to finalize the project’s business case in 2020, but this process was delayed as a result of the pandemic.

translink compass bus reader

Compass Card bus reader on a TransLink bus. (Shutterstock)

Under a distance-traveled structure, the adult pre-paid monthly passes as we know it will also end, and be replaced with a new pre-paid pass based on kilometres. Passengers with the new pre-paid monthly pass will have unlimited SkyTrain and SeaBus trips based on the distance purchased. If there is a trip that exceeds the distance covered by the pass, passengers would pay the difference for that trip using Stored Value from the Compass Card, similar to the current system.

The programming update is also expected to allow TransLink to introduce targeted lower fares during off-peak periods to reduce overcrowding during the busier peak periods. Fares on buses will retain the flat rate structure, unchanged.

The existing three zone-based fare system has not been changed since 1984.

Moreover, the technology that Compass uses can be considered outdated, given that it was created in the 2000s. Much has changed in processing and security technology, and advancements have been made with fare collection processing.

TransLink also specifically notes the forthcoming Compass overhaul includes a “fare gate expansion program,” most likely at stations in need of more circulation capacity.

As well, many fare gates, particularly at high-traffic stations, are also starting to visibly show their age from heavy use.

compass card fare gate skytrain translink

Compass Card reader on SkyTrain fare gate. (Shutterstock)

The use of smart card-controlled fare gates on public transit rail systems is a staple feature of major networks in Asia, Europe, and increasingly in North America. They have been particularly common in Asia for decades.

On other public transit networks, their smart card and fare gate systems have generally been replaced or significantly updated every 10 to 20 years.

The Compass and fare gate system was first installed a decade ago by San Diego-based Cubic Transportation.

TransLink began testing the Compass system in 2013, but due to technical issues resulting in delays, it was only widely launched beginning in November 2015, and all fare gates closed in July 2016. The system’s initial installation cost was $195 million, with most of it going towards fare gate infrastructure, which necessitated physical modifications to a number of small stations. An earlier plan to require bus passengers to “tap out” when they exit the vehicle was scrapped due to technological difficulties, and instead TransLink introduced the flat rate fee for buses.

In the subsequent years following the full rollout of Compass, TransLink reported a decrease in fare evasion, and a corresponding increase in fare revenue.

Prior to the pandemic, transit fares were TransLink’s largest source of revenue, accounting for up to 44% of total operating revenues — covering a substantial portion of the annual costs of operating and maintaining the public transit system. Without fares, significant ongoing taxpayer-funded operating subsidies would be required, likely at the expense of creating new and improved public transit services.

TransLink also previously noted that the anonymous rider data from Compass provides it with a more accurate picture of ridership and travel patterns, allowing it to better deploy and schedule service to meet real demand.

TransLink Compass Card

TransLink Compass Card. (Shutterstock)

Cubic is also the smart card and fare gate supplier of many major public transit systems, including London (Oyster), Chicago (Ventra), San Francisco BART (EZ), and Sydney (Opal).

In 2021, Cubic completed the full rollout of its OMNY smart card system on the entire MTA public transit system in New York City, replacing the Metro Card.

Earlier in 2022, Cubic reached an agreement with New York City’s PATH public transit network to replace its smart card system. The new smart card system will be ready by 2024, replacing the legacy PATH smart card system installed by Cubic in 2007.

Also earlier this year, BC Transit announced it had selected Cubic to provide a new digital fare payment system using smart cards and a smartphone app. Umo, the name of BC Transit’s system, will be rolled out to over 1,000 buses serving 130 communities across the province, starting with Victoria in Fall 2022. Umo’s installation will cost $23.2 million, with the federal government covering 50%, the BC government covering 40%, and local governments covering 10%

Seattle’s Link LRT system uses a smart card as well, but the stations do not have any fare gates. Instead, their fare collection depends on the honour system of passengers tapping in when they enter, and tapping out when they leave. But as of January 2022, Sound Transit, the public transit authority responsible for Link LRT, estimates its fare evasion rate has increased from 4% in pre-pandemic 2019 to 40% of all passengers in 2021, with other estimates putting fare evasion as high as 70%. Fare revenue now covers just 6% of Sound Transit’s costs.

The online survey on what projects should be included in TransLink’s 10-year expansion priorities is open through May 4, 2022.

TransLink has indicated the Compass technology and fare gate upgrade project is contingent on the completion of a business case, and funding from senior governments.

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