Time to gripe about the Clippercard program that Caltrain rolled out last year.
I've taken the Caltrain to work for about 5 years. 45 miles each way, twice a day, on average about 4 days a week. About 2,000 rides over that time.
I pay for Caltrain with a monthly pass. My company pays for 25% of my fare, and they use a company called Wageworks to help coordinate payroll deductions for my fares. Up until January 2011, the monthly pass purchase process involved only 2 steps: open the envelope with my monthly pass when it arrives, and then immediately stick it in my wallet. Easy! The first time setup process was also quite simple: Tell Wageworks that I want a monthly pass online. Easy. So over those 5 years of riding, I spent maybe 15 minutes of time dealing with tickets for Caltrain.
That all changed in January 2011 when Caltrain switched to the Clippercard. Paper passes now replaced with an electronic card. In 13 months since the transition occurred, I have had to contact Clippercard customer service 8 times to get charges removed from my account or to just figure out what the F was going on.
I think that some stinky product and marketing decisions are at the root of the reason why I've had so much trouble. So I'm writing about it.
My main gripe: Clippercard/Caltrain migrated from a process that required you to take your pass out of your mail and put it in your wallet before your first ride of a month, to a process that requires you to remember to tag on and tag off on your first ride of the month that's loaded with confusing nuances. Huge step backward in usability with no benefits to offset.
1: To activate your monthly pass, on your first ride of the month you must tag on at your departure station. If you forget to tag on, you can't just jump off at the next stop and tag on unless its in the same fare zone. The train that I ride stops only 1 or 2 times in any zone, so this is hard. Example situation: I forgot to tag on once in 2011. I went to a familiar faced conductor who had checked my ticket no less than 500 times in the last 5 years and explained my situation. His answer: "Exit the train at the next station and buy a ticket". Seriously? I'm a paying customer for 5 years with no incidents, Caltrain migrates to some messed up system for tickets and I have to buy another ticket?
2. If you forget to tag off, you get billed an extra $20 for what Caltrain considers to be a one-way fare. That's $20 on top of the $150 monthly fee. I've done this at least 5 times. Now, I have calendar alerts set up on my phone to force me to remember to tag on and off.
3. Once you've forgotten to tag off once and bitten the bullet on that extra charge, your monthly billing cycle with Wageworks gets totally screwed up. Wageworks transfers the exact amount of the monthly fare to Clippercard every month. Once Clippercard charges you an extra $20 for not tagging off, you're stuck with a negative balance that sucks funds from your next monthly charge. And then you can't buy the monthly pass automatically. Sadly, the way you find out that this happened and you don't have a monthly pass is... when you're scanning your Clippercard on the first day of the month. Which means that you can't get on the train without buying another f'ing one-way pass which costs you another $15. There is no way to add extra money to your Wageworks deduction, so I canceled my Wageworks account for now to try and get the balance of my Clippercard back into shape.
4. Monthly pass fees are based on how far you travel. I travel between Zone 1 (22nd Street) and Zone 3 (Mountain View). This means that you can't use your monthly pass to go to Zone 2 on the first day of the month because you can't tag off in the right zone. It may seem like an edge case to you, except that freaking SFO is in Zone 2 and the majority of monthly passes are Zone 1 to 3. So when I tried to use my pass to go to SFO on the first day of the month once - you guessed it - extra $20 charge to get off at a station that's 50% closer than the monthly fare I bought! Another example of the folly of tagging off: Last month, our train stopped somewhere in the middle of Zone 2 because of an electrical problem. They let us off about a mile from the nearest station. A friend and I decided to take a cab to work because we had to make a 9AM meeting. With no way to tag off on the first day of the month... I realized I had yet another customer service call on my hands. We couldn't have even walked the mile back to the nearest station and tagged off there because it was freaking Zone 2! And now the kicker: I called Clippercard to get them to refund the one-way fare I got charged with for this. They did, but they said it would take 5 days to take effect. In the meantime, that means that I've got a Clippercard with a negative balance which means I can't freaking activate my monthly pass.
In a perfect world, my Clippercard would be proof enough that I paid, and there would be no tagging on or off. Conductor would see that I'm a monthly pass holder. In fact, they actually CAN see that on their scanners. So why the F do I have to tag on and off? Despite the 100 curses I've placed on Clippercard, the root of the problem here may actually be with Caltrain's pricing system. Caltrain charges everyone based on how far they travel. Even monthly pass holders. Travel between Zone 1 and 3 costs more than travel between Zone 1 and 2. To make sure that you're not buying a monthly pass to travel fewer zones than you're actually travelling, Caltrain and/or Clippercard make you tag on in your departure zone and off in your arrival zone. If they just charged one price for all monthly passes, there would be no need to tag on or off ever. You either have a valid pass or you do not, and conductors can see that when they scan your card.
So if I've thought this out right, the root of the problem is Caltrain's pricing system. Would save me and many others a lot of time if you just charged 1 price for a monthly, and I'd pay more for the convenience of not having to call customer service 8 times.
Caltrain: This mess could get cleared up with some attention by someone whose focused on improving the experience. I volunteer myself to help (selfishly!)