RTD Board Rips Xerox for Ongoing Delay of Smart Card Fare System

One of several problems with RTD's smart cards is that the card readers on train platforms don't always work. Photo: David Sachs
One of several problems with RTD's smart cards is that the card readers on train platforms don't always work. Photo: David Sachs

While cities like Seattle move toward ticketing via mobile phones, Denver’s transit agency is still struggling to implement a re-loadable plastic “smart card” to pay fares. RTD’s quest for this simple fare tech is now eight years long, and the cost has run to at least $21 million.

The contractor, Xerox, is embarrassingly behind schedule in delivering the fare technology. At Tuesday’s RTD board of directors meeting, District G Director Gary Lasater suggested it might be time to go with a different company.

“This is ridiculous,” said Lasater, who designs software for a living. “My customers would be climbing through the roof and down my throat if we weren’t delivering products on a timely basis.” Lasater said RTD should “get some lean, mean, young, up-and-coming companies that will deliver you something better and quicker and cheaper than the garbage Xerox has foisted upon this group.”

Smart cards are not a frill. They streamline the passenger experience and can make bus trips faster and more efficient. A quick tap of the card on the bus (or on the train platform) saves a lot of time compared to digging for dollars and dimes to come up with $2.60. Add that up across thousands of passengers, and you’re talking about big potential improvements for bus speeds and reliability.

RTD has tap-on cards — the EcoPass for businesses and the CollegePass for students — but passengers can’t use them to add or store money, and they aren’t available to the general public. RTD released a small number of “MyRide” cards to some riders in January, but it’s a half-baked pilot.

The most recent snag on taking a smart card system-wide is the inoperable web portal for customers, which is not secure. Xerox has been testing the online environment but it’s still not ready for prime time. The company will inform RTD by December 23 whether it passes the cybersecurity test, Chief Operating Officer Heather Copp told the board. But that won’t be the end of it.

“We will then develop our own testing plan — we haven’t been in that environment in nearly six months — to see if any changes need to be made,” Copp said.

Another problem is that the card-reading machines on train platforms don’t function properly. Sometimes the screens go black, and Copp said other malfunctions point to a “systemic issue.” This is a problem RTD has known about for around two years, she said, but a recent hardware test confirmed it in the eyes of Xerox.

So why doesn’t RTD just cut its losses and start anew?

“It’s much more complicated than that, than just terminating the contract,” Copp said. “We terminate the contract, remember, we have four hundred and some thousand cards out there, if not more, that our riders use every day between the EcoPass and CollegePass program. If we terminate the contract we would have no method for those people to ride our system. And so it’s just not that easy… we also have a lot of money invested in this program.”

In the meantime, RTD is withholding payments from Xerox until the system goes live. That’s not enough for District B Director Barbara Deadwyler, who said she was pessimistic that the system will be done a year from now.

“I understand what you said about it not being such a good idea if we terminated the contract, but how long does RTD continue to support and keep these people on board in order to get this running?” Deadwyler said.

RTD is “in bed with these people for a very long time until we go to a new type of environment, which we can’t afford to do in the near term,” Copp said.

  • John Riecke

    They should stop the program, keep the ecopass and collegepass since they’re already working, and hire a new outfit to design a phone-based system, then have it replace the current card system in whole.

    • Miles Bader

      “Phone based” systems are not acceptable. The system must be available to everybody, regardless of which model phone they own, to those who don’t own a smartphone, to those whose battery is dead, etc.

      Having a secure phone app as an alternative fare-instrument, for those that want it, would be fine.

      Contactless-card based systems are easy, cheap, convenient, widely-deployed, and extremely well-developed technology. This is not rocket science. That this company fucked it up has to do with the company, not with the particular tech they’re using.

      • John Riecke

        Fair enough.

    • Jill Alberts

      As someone who rides the bus and does not own a smartphone: please do not make smartphone ownership (and a data plan) a requirement for citizenship.

  • jmfay

    Meanwhile 4 incumbents including one who had no opponent; just got re elected to the RTD board. We have 4 new people due to term limits but basically we have the same board who not only cant get this done but also cant make sure the a train is working!

    Its funny how all these problems come out after the election and how voters dont even inform themselves when they vote; especially when they vote party line!

    We cant even begin to tell you how bad it is to get places. Today we went from our home at yale and quebec to 9th and monaco; to wesley and evans; to university and county line and we spent a good 20 minutes each time waiting on connections; because the 21 doesnt connect well with the 65; because the 73 doesnt connect well with the a train and the list of issues goes on from there.

    We need voters to realize how bad this system is and how ineffective this board is at fixing problems.

  • Vertigo700

    Can’t they just hire the people who did Chicago, New York, Washington DC and almost every other major city that has smart card systems?

  • AndreL

    There are longstanding bona-fide vendors of contact-less fare systems with more than 10 years of proven experience, operating in different continents even. It is really an established technology that serves dozens of millions of travelers daily. A bunch of proven concepts exist, and work efficiently. They work well, bugs have been pared down before, and one-off costs for a medium/small-ish system like RTD (which is the case on a global scale) far outweigh benefits of customization with something new, never used elsewhere.

    Why did Denver accepted to be the guinea pig for Xerox botched entry in this market? If they were at least offering free services or implementation, that could be the case. As it stands, it is either outright corruption or sheer incompetence.

    It would be like a school district commissioning a fleet of new school buses to an airplane manufacturer that decided to enter the road vehicle market, without yet a proven concept or working prototype.

    They should cut losses, sue Xerox heavily for the delays, and procuring and off-the-shelf solution. For a system like Denver’s, without gated facilities like subways, and with a single operator (RTD) concerned, it is probably faster to contract out a new system instead of giving any more rope to Xerox. The solution is not to give the job to some startup either.

    • Frank Kotter

      Not totally fair. It appears that Xerox does indeed have operating systems in multiple locations. Although UAE is not exactly what I would call a comparable system is the underground consists of a single line and its finances are a dream to anyone who has been responsible for government contracting – But online they boast global coverage.

      Yes, things didn’t go well. However, are we sure Denver was a partner in good faith? It would be interesting to get an interview with someone on the project from both sides.

    • iSkyscraper

      Actually, Xerox ACS is one of the big boys of smart card equipment/integration. ACS has been around a long time, and Xerox acquired them in 2009. Their Montreal OPUS card is a good example of their work. Surprised they screwed up Denver so bad. It wasn’t like they went the Toronto route and broke in an entirely new systems aggregator (Accenture), with predictably disastrous results.

      • kclo3

        They might have some experience working with the backend; I’m just not sure that actually translates to any real work done integrating that with the frontend, which seems to always have been done by a different contractor even in Montreal. It doesn’t really matter because quality from them has universally gone downhill since their merger with Xerox, while the work by Cubic and Schmidt-Bachmann seems to be a lot more improvable and expandable after initial launch.

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  • Charles Buscemi

    This is such a joke. Eat the xerox costs, its a sunk cost. Why we did not invest w/any of the already up and working systems out there i have no idea. There are off the shelf technologies htat already have all these problems solved. Just buy one, and lets get on w/it. Do not re-invent the wheel.

  • LevelHead

    Add Buenos Aires to the list of cities that also already has this figured out…

  • Devin Quince

    I love how RTD blames everyone, but themselves when they could pull off getting dressed.

  • Michel S

    It’s worth noting Xerox has also played a role in the botched development and roll-out of similar plastic tap cards for SEPTA Key in Philadelphia, which is being panned in the local press for its poor user interface as well as for significant delays in its production (now 3+ years behind schedule). Seems like this poor performance is a pattern for them.

  • iSkyscraper

    Would be interesting to see which city deserves the award for screwing up smart cards the most. There are several contenders. Toronto would be the betting favorite in my opinion. Their experience in throwing money at Accenture to invent a system on the fly rather than use market leaders like Xerox ACS or NXP has had predictable results:

    http://news.nationalpost.com/toronto/chris-selley-the-ttc-is-going-to-all-automated-fare-payments-the-unreliable-presto-rechargers-warn-of-chaos

  • Jeffrey Rowe

    I’ll just continue to purchase my discounted RTD paper ticket booklets at King Soopers until RTD gets this ongoing mess figured out. I’m not holding my breath . . .

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