Friday, July 07, 2006

Train Mon's Final Verdict: "Charlie" equally as so-so as the rest of the MBTA

This actually started out as a "Letters to the Editor" (of the Boston Metro) letter in response to a "Letters" response to a publish in the Boston Metro about "Charlie" and the MBTA's "proposed" fare increases. Since the Boston Metro seems to favor "Letters" that pick challenge its own writers' publishings rather than responses to other "Letters" it hasn't been published. So I'm putting it up for the whole wide world to see, and adding in a lot of additional commentary that the Metro with its truncate-truncate-truncate attack on "Letters" wouldn't include anyway.

Here's my e-mailed "Letter":
"In response to the June 21st Letter 'MBTA execs are not subway users,' I agree that most top officials at the T haven't seen the inside of a dingy Orange Line car since the trains ran through Dudley. However, some parts of Mr. Chase's argument were just plain whiny, if not silly. To sum it all up: Newer, slower turnstiles: unnecessary, I agree. Just upgrade the old ones to swipe 'Charlie' through! Energy-Wasting/Littering: not any worse than ATM printouts—at least Charlie cards have use before being discarded. Plus, the card will reduce the litter of transfers. All similar looking: at least we distinguish between Charlie 'Ticket' and Charlie 'Card'—in New York a MetroCard is a MetroCard whether its a daily, weekly or monthly and whether its unlimited or pay-per-ride. Yet I do, indeed, miss the old, creative monthly passes which changed color every month and had various shots of the system depending on which type of pass you bought (Bus, Subway, Zone 1, etc.), and I'm sure many seasoned riders and transit buffs alike do too."

So let's analyze point-by-point:
1. Many T executives indeed haven't taken notice to the fact that the Orange Line cars have, by far, some of the worst looking interiors of subway cars throughout the world. Grafitti, both scratched-on, a plague on New York City Transit, and permanent-markered, isn't the problem--it's the growing prevalence of cut-up seats, ranging from a few slashes through the seatback padding to styrofoam (or whatever the heck it is) showing where the liner was been ripped away to no seatback padding at all, just the ugly metal back base. Honestly, though, I'd rather look at the rusted silver base than a whole lot of yellow styrofoam.
My unrealistic solution: Replace the Orange Line cars, and make good on a promise that goes at least as far back as 1987--when the old Orange Line was torn down--to not only make a "new and improved" line, but also provide new and improved cars.
My realistic solution: Put in hard, plastic seating, like most of New York City Transit. In other words seats with no padding that are 0.01% less comfortable than the ones with the cheap padding anyway that thugs and drunks won't cut up late at night when there's practically no one on the trains (to witness this) and they can get away with destroying public property. I honestly don't know what kind of rush one can get by ripping apart the seats. Graffiti has its rivalries, but seat-destroying?! I'd love for their to be some vigilante who tracks these people down and bursts into their house just to rip the back padding out of their chairs and couches. The seating issue on the Orange Line is approaching the level of every third seat; in a year we're looking at every other.

2. The newer turnstiles are one of the biggest wastes of money the MBTA has undertaken, and that's big coming from a company that really knows how to waste money (new North Station Orange/Green Line complex, need I say more). When NYCT upgraded its turnstiles in the mid nineties to combat fare beating the change was simple--bigger, beefier turnstiles that were better at slowing down if not thwarting the "Sesame Street" fare-beaters: harder to go over them, harder to go under them, harder to squeeze through them by bending back the arms. Years later, with Boston attempting to do the same thing, somewhere in the collective warped minds of T planners it was decreed that gates--which first take forever to open after inserting your card correctly and then stay open long enough to get a whopping seven people through if timed right (according to a Boston Globe article I read recently)--actually combat fare beating. My first real-world experience with the magic gates was at South Station ; I almost doubled over laughing looking at these curious mechanisms. I was on my out of the Red Line and noticed how even on exit, the gates take a painfully short amount of time to open and then stay open long enough for at least two average-walking people to stroll through the opposite way!
So what's the T say about all this: where the new turnstiles have been put in, there are station personnel on-hand, sometime both the former sit-in-my-booth-and-snarl-at-you token clerks and T police officer, to combat this glaringly obvious flaw. To their credit, the machines do detect either more than one person entering in the same direction or a person entering after someone exiting. The only problem is that the way the machine sounds an alarm for one or more fare beaters is to emit the same "uh-uh" game-show-style wrong answer buzz that it does when you insert your Charlie card in all but the one correct way. So basically unless the "personnel" are actually paying attention rather than helping some good-looking person of the opposite sex (or same sex, whatever their fancy) with "info" or yakking away on their cell phone to their buddy two stations away, they don't see the fare beater(s) anyway and all the buzzing sounds exactly the same. Sounds flawless to me. Here's the other problem: this new "automated fare collection"--which is a misnomer because the automation is in the machine that doles out the Charlie Cards/Tickets, not in the already automatic turnstile system--does not do what the $230 M spent on it was designed to do--eliminate the presense of station personnel in the first place. It's a move just as beneficial to the T as the automated checkout machines at Stop & Shop. What good are they if the run into (frequent) problems and an attendant (former cashier) needs to be there on standby anyway? What good are the new automated "Charlie" dispensing machines and turnstiles if they're so much a pain in the rear that the former-booth-clerk-turned-station-attendant has to be there to help people with them?!
But forget fare-beating for a while because let's be honest: even the T admits it accounts for a very miniscule loss of revenue--not even as much as the T's recent reimbursement program for service running more than 30.0 minutes late, a program so flawed that apparently your dead pet goldfish from when you were seven can get in on the action. Let's get back to using the turnstile legally and how slow it is compared to the simple turnstile design. You input your card the one right way and wait a painfully short amount of time for the magic gates to open, time which has already begun to make or break people running for a train in the station. For all the yuppies praising the new gated system over the "antiquated" three-tier arm designed I give the following example of why those 2-point-something seconds lost in the new gated system are precious: while walking briskly toward Sullivan Square for the first leg of my ride home the other day I heard the faint, virtually inaudible brand new multi-million-dollar train-announcing system announce that the "next Orange Line train to Forest Hills is now arriving." Hastening, I reach the station foyer as I see the train pulling in below, whip out my Charlie card, make a clean swipe through the "antiquated" turnstile and race down the stairs, making the train by barely a second. Now, let's try that again with the new gated system: I would race to the turnstile and assuming I put the card in the right way, which, let's be honest, anybody in a hurry would be less likely to do, the gates open 2-point-something seconds later; by the time they do--again assuming I put my card in the right way in the first place and don't get the buzz and have to do it all over again until I realize "oh yeah, upside down, arrow away"--I'm hitting the bottom steps of the stairway as the train is pulling out of the station. So yes, every second is precious--especially in the morning to get to work on time.

3. The point that the writer was trying to make that the Charlie Card/Ticket producing machines waste more energy than printing tokens is simply unfounded.It definitely costs more to produce metal tokens. I think the point was more belly-aching about the disappearance of the tokens. Look around, buddy--all over the world fare-by-token is or has long since disappeared; and forget T tokens' historical value--a lot better tokens than the T's bland one with the train on one side are or have disappeared--take NYCT's famous "Y-cuts" for instance. Plus, passes don't get lost in amongst loose change, especially when you're in a hurry.

4. That the Charlie Cards/Tickets cause more littering is also unfounded. If all goes well, the Charlie Ticket will virtually eliminate a lot of paper waste due to the current prevalence of bus-to-bus transfers, as well as transfers for bus-to-subway and subway-to-bus in the few areas where they exist. And to reiterate my point made in the reply letter, the "Charlie" printing machine moreover produce less waste than ATM machines, especially when you consider that over 80% (unscientific) of ATM printouts don't even make it from the machine to the ATM foyer trash cans.

5. The writer then goes on to belly-ache about the design of the new Charlie Cards/Tickets. Like our bland, but homely, tokens of yesteryear, I do miss the old monthly passes which changed color every month and featured a representative of the type of pass you bought: "Bus" had a bus picture, "Subway" had a subway shot, "Zone 1" had a commuter rail lomotive, etc. The pictures, which started out as artwork way back when the pass program first started and then progressed to "professionally" shot scenes from the current system, even changed from month-to-month and year-to-year along with the colors (although obviously the colors repeated every 15 months or so). But I guess we must adapt to the times. Some crazed lunatic in a top hat and a leisure suit hanging out the window of a Green Line train with subway-sized windows holding what we can only assume is a Charlie Ticket, save for the fact that proportionately it's the same size as his head, wasn't exactly what we would have liked to "upgrade" to but alas the simple, yet powerful and direct name "MetroCard" was already taken. Plus it goes along with that song... and the way the slow-moving turnstile upgrades are keeping people either in or out of the system just like the song.
Let's talk about real issues: first, an obvious month-to-month problem created with the same-design-every-month style is the fact that it inherintly slows down Commuter Rail conductors who now, rather know instantly from the color, have to check that the pass is for the right month; on the other hand, during rush hour, half the time they don't even ask ignorant riders who show the "Charlie" side of the card to flip them over. Another is that the new "Charlie" no longer describes the extent to which you can ride. For example the Combo pass does not allow exiting--or entering--at Quincy Adams and Braintree (you need the Combo Plus), and used to list such on the back of the Pass like endorsement and restriction notes on the back of a driver's license. That's a loss.
I would like to however take back my point about Charlie Ticket versus Charlie Card--they're pretty much the same, as evidence by this source! The "Card" will eventually become a virtually permanent piece of plastic that can be used over the course of a year as basically a renewable pass. However it can just as easily be used as a renewable pay-per-ride pass... just like the current "Ticket"! So basically, minus the stupid little bells and whistles and a slight design change, the only anticipated feature will be a never-throw-away unlimited pass capability. Ok so that does add to my "less litter" comment...

So let's recap:
Orange Line cars: Need new seats...badly! Sure they might be harder and slightly less comfortable, but they would be stronger against a high or drunk moron with a box cutter!
New "magic gates": exactly in line with the T's train-of-thought about how to blow millions better spent on improving service... or at least to reduce the disgrunted nature of overpaid over-benefitted employees--especially all those token booth clerks that "automation" is supposed to replace, but who get stuck being station attendants anyway. And by the way... magic gates=SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW!
Charlie Card: Overall mediocre in creativity and monotonous from month-to-month, but energy-saving, litter-saving and seemingly on the right course to an even smoother monthly fare collection.

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