Aug 24 2011

Opus Card Problems

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Opus card. It has made using public transit in Montreal a lot easier, at least in terms of buying and using tickets and passes. The single, rechargable “chip” card makes a lot of sense, and I’ve had no real problems with it. Well, except for what I’m about to describe.

opus cardSome background: I live “off island,” on the South Shore of Montreal where the transit system (RTL) is separate from Montreal’s STM. Generally, this presents no problem; I pay a bit extra to get a monthly pass that I can use on both systems. (The standard STM monthly pass is $72.75, while my combined RTL/STM pass is $113).

Before the Opus system was installed, the pass was a paper card with a magnetic stripe. I’d get in line a few days before the end of each month and would buy a new pass for the upcoming month from a ticket agent. I had to buy these passes at the terminus in Longueuil, as they were not for sale at the regular STM outlets. Again, not a problem as I passed through the terminus twice a day, five days a week.

With the Opus card it’s even easier. I have one rechargeable card that I can recharge at a machine. Sadly, although Opus recharging machines exist in virtually every Metro station on the STM system, I could only recharge my combined RTL/STM pass at the terminus Longueuil. A bit of a setback, but no biggie since passing through the terminus was part of my commute.

Then, last June, I was thrust into a new situation. Due to an externally imposed (but ultimately welcome) “sabbatical,” I did not have a need to commute into Montreal five times a week. I knew I’d be going into town frequently, but I didn’t think it was worth buying a full monthly pass. I thought it might be better to buy my tickets a la carte.

That’s where it gets complicated.

It’s complicated because when you’re paying “per ride” on my commute, you’re not just dealing with two systems, you’re dealing with three. Or more precisely, two and a half. Or maybe two and a virtual. It’s like this:

  • RTL tickets are needed to ride the bus from my house to the Terminus Longueuil, where the STM Metro’s yellow line terminates (and all RTL busses terminate). Those tickets are $3.10 each, or six for $16.75.
  • STM tickets are needed to ride the Montreal Metro and bus system. Those tickets are $3.00 each, or six for $14.25 and 10 for $22.50.
  • Special STM tickets are needed if you are starting your STM ride in Longueuil. This is because some idiots feel that any Metro station that’s “off island” should charge more. (People taking the Metro from any of the three stations in Laval also pay extra.) These tickets cost $3.00 with no discount for bulk purchases. (Re-read that, and ask yourself if it makes any sense.)

It gets worse:

  • RTL tickets can only be purchased at Opus machines at the Terminus Longueuil, on the ground floor level.
  • Regular STM tickets can only be purchased at Opus machines in STM Metro stations, with the exception of the Longueuil station (and most likely the Laval stations).
  • Special Longueuil STM tickets can only be purchased at Opus machines at the Terminus Longueuil, on the Metro level (the level below where the Opus machines for the RTL are).

Did you catch that? I have to go to three different locations to buy all the tickets I need to get around on a per-ticket basis.

It gets even worse:

Once you’ve put the three different kinds of tickets on your Opus card, you have to keep track of how many of each you have left so you don’t end up stuck with the dreaded red light on the turnstile when you’re in a big hurry to get somewhere. This would be OK if the readers on the Opus machines gave a clear indication, but they don’t. They do not distinguish between the two different kinds of STM tickets!

Here’s a blurry picture of what my Opus card contained one day a couple of weeks ago. It shows how many tickets I have for each of the three variations. The one in the middle is obvious, as it says “RTL.” But can you tell which, between the top one and the bottom one, is the regular STM tickets (for use only on the island of Montreal) and which is the one I need to enter the system in Longueuil?

Opus Card Recharge screen

If I’m down to one or two of the top variety and have six or eight of the bottom variety, which one do I recharge? (Bearing in mind that each requires being at a different geographical location in order to recharge.)

The Solution(s)

The solutions are easy, at least in theory. The hard part is getting the human beings behind two or more disparate systems to work together for the benefit of the riding public. Believe me, that’s no easy task.

But if they were to find the desire to fix it, here’s how to do it:

Solution, Part 1

This is easy: reprogram the interface so it differentiates between regular STM tickets and “off-island” STM tickets. Look at the photo above; by checking my status before and after using an off-island ticket, I was able to deduce that the top item refers to those tickets. I have since written it in Sharpie on my Opus card, which is about the most inelegant solution ever. But if the screen said:

  • STM-off-island
  • RTL
  • STM

…then I’d know at a glance what tickets I have available. It’s a simple matter of labeling. Is that so hard?

Solution, Part 2

This bit is harder because it involves (a) getting networks to work together (somewhat difficult) and (b) getting people to commit to getting networks to work together (very difficult).

If the networks had better awareness of each other — and the labels were clearer — then I’d be able to go to any Opus recharging station anywhere on the system and load up with whatever tickets I need.

The most frustrating part is that the systems are aware of each other; at any Opus recharging station all three types of tickets are shown on the console. They just don’t let you purchase anything other than the ones that are allowed at that station.

That is as stupid and user-unfriendly as anything I’ve seen, and it is (at least in theory) easy to fix.

4 comments so far

4 Comments on “Opus Card Problems”

  1. frabjous2001on 25 Aug 2011 at 12:06 am

    I live on the north-west side of Mount Royal and work downtown. I take the ATM train that goes through a tunnel under the mountain and that was built just after the first world war, close to 100 years ago. If I want to get on the ATM at the stop closest to my house, I have to pay 96$ because it’s in zone 2. The reason, I am told, that the stop IN MONTREAL was relegated to zone 2 is because it is off autoroute 15 and can be used by off-island commuters. Oh.

    When CN and CP sold the original two lines to the MUCTC in 1982, they gave them truly antiquated rolling stock that hadn’t been updated in years. Since the the mid nineties, the ATM has consistently contracted Bombardier for new expensive rolling stock which is ongoing, never seems to end and always has cost overruns.

    Don’t get me started on renewing my card. Will the pain never end?

  2. mareon 25 Aug 2011 at 12:14 am

    That sucks.

    It always amazes me how bad user interfaces are designed in Montreal. You’d think with its 4 universities and as one of the UNESCO Cities of Design things would be better thought out.
    But look at the Bixi stations, and the STM kiosks. Both are designed by engineers and the design is done as an afterthought, after all the hardware was in place.

    They tested these systems before they implemented them on a big scale, did nobody notice these things?

    Actually almost all (graphic) design is pretty bad over here, more so when you come from the Netherlands where every lamppost is a wonder of industrial design.

  3. Christianon 09 Sep 2011 at 9:05 am

    Another issue: if you have three different kinds of tickets on your card, it leaves only one remaining slot for a monthly pass because the OPUS chips have 4 slots. In such a case, you can renew your monthly only when the previous one has expired, because there’s no room for the next month’s code (and no code to designate the current month and the next one). So you end up buying your pass on the 1st of the month, or you buy a second OPUS card for the monthly pass. I spoke to 2-3 STL employees before someone could explain to me why the OPUS machine wouldn’t let me renew my monthly pass (the on-screen error was something like “Unavailable”).

  4. Frankon 11 Sep 2011 at 11:55 pm

    I feel your pain.

    Actually my card has the off-island STM in the third slot since I assume it was the 3rd type I added to the card. Though I haven’t had as much of a problem since going into town I almost always take and RTL bus which crosses the river. It’s only on weekends and holidays that I need to use the upcharged STM ‘tokens’. But limited weekend service is not the time to realize you are out of tokens when a train is about to leave. I’ve missed 2 trains like that.