When Terry Hamilton first moved to the Mount Dennis neighbourhood last December and realized he could commute to his office downtown using the Union Pearson Express, he was thrilled.
The 15-minute ride to Union Station from the stop at Weston was not only quick, but travelling on the “absolutely fantastic” airport rail service made him feel like he was in “a completely different city” than the one he experienced while captive to the crowded TTC bus and subway, Hamilton said.
But after a few weeks of commuting bliss he noticed something troubling. He was running up charges on his Presto fare card much faster than he expected. Each trip from Weston to Union was supposed to cost $5.02, but some days he was being charged several times that.
Hamilton called Presto customer service and was shocked to discover what the problem was — he was being deceived by duplicate fare card machines.
Most UP Express stations are served by both UP Express trains and GO Transit trains, and there are two different types of Presto card readers installed on the platforms: a green one for GO Transit customers, and a silver one for UP Express riders.
If customers tap their fare card on the wrong one, they can be charged for both a UP Express fare and GO Transit fare for a single trip.
By the time Hamilton caught the issue he’d been overcharged by $171.26. He said Presto and UP Express staff were helpful and he had no trouble getting a refund.
But he contended it’s “absurd” that there are two different types of machines at the same train platform. While the two types of readers are a different colour and there are signs indicating how to use them, Hamilton said “if you’re just looking for the Presto tap, you’re not going to notice that.”
“It continues to boggle my mind actually,” he said. “I thought the whole point of Presto was a fare system that would go across all of the different transit options.”
Metrolinx, the agency that operates Presto, concedes other customers have been confused by the two kinds of readers.
Spokesperson Amanda Ferguson said the reason for having two different types is that originally the UP Express was designed as a separate system with a different fare structure than GO. However, in 2016 the agency brought fares for the two services in line with each other.
She said customers travelling to or from Pearson on the UP Express are supposed to tap their fare card on the silver UP Express Presto readers.
UP Express riders travelling anywhere else can use either the green GO Transit readers or the silver UP Express devices. But crucially, when those customers tap their card a second time at the end of their journey, they must do so on the same colour device that they did at the start of their trip. If they tap on a different colour device, they’re charged a second fare.
Hamilton said he was overcharged because he was tapping on a silver UP Express device at Weston, but then tapping off at a green GO device when he arrived at Union. To the Presto system, that made it look as though he was making two trips, one on UP Express and another on GO.
And because he wasn’t “tapping off” at the end of what looked like a GO trip, he was charged the maximum amount for travelling the whole length of the Kitchener GO line.
Hamilton said he never expected to see a GO Transit fare card reader at the UP Express stop at Union because GO trains operate out of a completely separate part of the station.
Metrolinx said it put a GO Presto reader near the UP Express platform at Union in part to allow commuters travelling between Union and the Bloor and Weston stops on the airport service to have the trips count toward the GO loyalty program that provides free rides at the end of the month for frequent users.
Ferguson said Metrolinx is “working to improve the user experience” and is launching a pilot initiative at Union “to test out designs that would better visually distinguish the two types of machines.”
According to Olivier St-Cyr, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information and an expert in user experience design, public-facing technical systems that rely on people to correctly interpret visual cues like signage are often the least effective.
“People can be relied on to some extent, but if they have to remember too many pieces of information or the information becomes complex, then yeah, people will fail,” he said.
St-Cyr said visual cues are particularly likely to be ineffective in an environment like a busy train station, where there are already multiple signs competing for people’s attention and customers are rushing to their destinations.
He argued it would be ideal to just have one type of machine, but if that’s not possible Metrolinx could design a system that prevents people from choosing the wrong device. For example, he suggested that if possible the devices could be programmed to reject a customer’s payment if they end their journey by tapping their card on a different colour device than the one they started with.
“Getting a clear system that works that doesn’t require people to remember things and process extra information to make a decision is the ultimate goal,” he said.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr