Auckland Transport board members gather in secret today to finalise a divorce settlement with smart card operator Snapper Services, and hopefully come up with a rescue plan for the stalled $98 million integrated ticketing project.
If the reports leaking out of the Auckland Council are correct, Snapper has turned the tables on AT's attempt to sack it from the project and collect more than $1 million in damages for missing deadlines.
Instead of going weak at the knees on receiving the June 18 letter from Bell Gully lawyers on AT's behalf, Snapper is demanding compensation from AT reportedly for, among other things, altering the specifications of the contract on the go.
AT rejects this, but worries that results are never guaranteed in a drawn-out court battle and seems ready to cave in.
One thing is certain - the planned launch from late this year of a fully integrated ticketing system involving "all Auckland buses, rail and ferries", a promise still lingering on AT's website, is a joke.
It is particularly so when the public agenda for today's meeting turns a Nelsonian eye to the whole fiasco.
Chief operating officer Greg Edmonds reports that "work has commenced to plan the pilot of the rail and ferry solution of the Thales core system" and that there's "good progress for rail and ferry to go live of the AT HOP card at Britomart and Newmarket stations".
No mention of the "go dead" disaster engulfing the bus network, which carries the vast bulk of commuters - the ones likely to be wanting to "integrate" across to train or ferry to continue their journeys.
The bust-up has been a long time coming. I predicted it in February when Snapper missed a deadline to link its system into the master network being designed by Thales, the French technology giant. That's when the trials were to begin.
Six months on, Snapper's Korean-sourced system has still failed to learn the trick of speaking French, and AT has belatedly come to the conclusion it never will gain sufficient fluency to be able to communicate adequately.
Meanwhile, Thales, which has met its deadlines, is now billing AT $627,000 a month for the expense of having to retain a reduced project team until a bus system is in place and fully interoperable and tested.
How much it will cost and how long it will take to obtain 650 in-bus ticket readers to replace the existing Snapper machines, to say nothing of who will pay, is yet another problem to deal with.
Auckland Transport has only itself to blame for its present predicament. In 2009, after a lengthy international tender process, Thales was selected by AT's predecessor, ARTA, to deliver an integrated public transport ticketing system.
One of the winning points was that it had a stable, well-tested system in use in cities around the world.
Wellington-based Snapper, an offshoot of investment company Infratil, missed out, but angrily contested the results through the legal system and lost. Snapper's sister company, New Zealand Bus, runs the main Auckland bus company and, at the time, Snapper chairman Paul Ridley-Smith told the Herald: "We're not going to plug into Thales. We have a perfectly functional, 100-per-cent-effective, totally integrated ticketing system, so why would you build another?"
Threat? Promise? Wishful thinking? Whatever, a year later New Zealand Bus had an apparent change of heart and was rapidly installing the Snapper system into its 650 Auckland buses and pleading to be allowed to integrate them into the new Thales system.
The ARTA board refused to make a decision in late 2010, preferring to pass the buck to the incoming AT board.
The story then goes that Infratil's founder, the late Lloyd Morrison, a friend and neighbour of Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, lobbied vigorously to get Snapper back into the picture.
Arms were twisted and AT, which relies on Government funding for rail electrification and the like, was persuaded that bringing the dead Snapper back to the table wasn't such a bad idea after all.
How wrong they were. Nine months after trials were to begin, there's still not a bus system to trial. And in a few months, instead of a one-card system for all public transport, we're going to have two cards, both called HOP, one usable only on NZ Bus vehicles, the other for trains and ferries.