Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Ticket systems bewilder customers

An Auckland bus. Photo / Doug Sherring.
An Auckland bus. Photo / Doug Sherring.

On a cold, wet winter morning, the last thing you want to hear as you clamber on board the bus is a censorious mechanical voice announcing to your fellow travellers that you've incurred a penalty payment.

I knew it was going to happen. The Hop card helpdesk had warned me the previous day when I rang to complain that the on-bus card reader had gone haywire as I got off the bus.

She was not surprised. It had been happening a lot. It was a system error, and in the Kafkaesque world of Snapper travel, I'd be penalised the next day for not clocking off after the previous journey - even though the machine had refused to let me do so.

If I rang the next day, after the transaction had been transferred from the bus reader into the master computer overnight, the helpdesk would manually cancel the penalty. That was Tuesday morning. The last time I looked, mid-yesterday afternoon, as far as Snapper was concerned my last trip was on Monday evening, before the nightmare began.

On Wednesday afternoon, Auckland Transport came up with the explanation that it was an isolated error, caused by the driver of an Outer Link bus keying in the incorrect trip number. As a result, passengers had been unable to tag off, meaning an automatic penalty charge on their next trip plus a public dressing down by the machine.

The only problem with this explanation was that I hadn't travelled on the Outer Link that day. In response, NZ Bus and AT said, woops, it was the Inner Link not the Outer Link and only one bus was involved.

All of which is a bit boring, except that these are the people supposed to be delivering the much-heralded and much-delayed integrated ticketing system, and at the heart of the delays is the Snapper system that incorrectly penalised me and who knows how many other grumpy passengers on Tuesday and on unknown other days before and since.

If the existing simple system is so prone to error, what hope is there of stitching it into the new integrated system linking buses, trains and ferries.

With about $100 million of public money at stake and deadlines being missed with seeming impunity, it's past time Auckland Transport and Snapper and Thales - the lead contractors - and the politicians came clean and revealed what's gone wrong, and how they plan to get it back on track.

French technology giant Thales won the contract to provide an integrated ticketing system for Auckland public transport that would enable commuters to seamlessly transfer between buses, trains and ferries without having to pay a new fare each time. Wellington card company Snapper, a sister company of Auckland's main bus provider NZ Bus, lost the tender but after heavy political lobbying was allowed a bit-role involving the NZ Bus fleet. They agreed to make it compatible with the Thales system and had until the start of this year to do it. The two systems are still not talking to each other.

For months, AT publicly pretended nothing was wrong. Foolishly they forgot to remove the incriminating evidence from their website.

AT's Hop Timeline is still promising that "from late 2011" there'll be a "closed pilot to test some of the future functionality" of the integrated system. We're still waiting.

From "late 2012", it claims, there will be "a full integrated system" involving "all Auckland buses, rail and ferries". Yet recently, it was announced only rail and ferries would be involved.

In April last year, AT chief executive David Warburton was claiming Hop cards would be in use on ferries and trains by the end of the year. It hasn't happened.

Thales says it has completed its job, and is claiming penalty payments because Snapper has failed to produce. Snapper says it's the other way round.

AT is wringing its hands as the lawyers hover like vultures. In the meantime, I have a penalty to sort out.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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