By Andy Williams, Contributing Editor
It has been four years and one failed startup in the making, but Houston commuters may soon use a contactless smart card as their transit ticket … offering convenience and speed over their existing magnetic stripe-based cards.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, known simply as METRO, serves the United States’ fourth largest metropolitan area that includes Houston. A fare collection and ticketing system was supposed to have been in place by 2004, but when that deadline came and went, the transit authority overseeing the project dumped the current provider and hired a new one. Now, it looks like the system should be live by the third quarter.
Out with Cubic …
In 2002, the agency hired Cubic to provide a smart card fare system, which was to be operational by 2004. In March 2005, however, the agency terminated its contract with Cubic, claiming the company was in default. As stated in a press release issued by METRO on March 18, 2005, “In Dec. 2004 and early Jan. of this year, METRO performed a series of tests on the hardware and software Cubic had delivered as of Dec. 1, 2004. Finding that many system components either had not been delivered or did not meet the requirements of the contract, on Jan.18, 2005, METRO issued a Notice of Default to Cubic, identifying 18 significant default conditions.”
In with ACS …
While METRO’s action is currently in litigation, the authority late last year awarded a new contract to Affiliated Computer Services, Inc. The original Cubic contract was for $8.5 million. The contract with ACS, which includes significantly more equipment and services than the Cubic scope of work entailed, is valued at $14 million.
Dallas, Texas-based ACS, normally a provider of business process outsourcing and information technology solutions, got into the transport business just last year when it acquired the Transport Revenue Division of Ascom, a Switzerland-based company that has now shifted its focus to its other two divisions: wireless and security solutions.
After METRO terminated its existing Cubic contract, it went through a competitive bid process that initially included nine companies.
“We wanted a provider that had existing systems in operation that we could go see,” said Mr. Lobron, a Pennsylvania consultant hired to oversee METRO’s smart card conversion in 2004, when the original Cubic system was to have gone live. Once METRO had narrowed the prospects down to three finalists, “we went around the world to see their systems. We were looking for a system that had been tried and tested. The solution presented by ACS is running in Lyon, France, and therefore met our requirements.”
The transit division of Ascom, which ACS purchased, handles numerous transit systems around the world. It has an Atlanta, Georgia office and serves U.S. customers in New Jersey and Metrolink in Los Angeles, according to Mr. Lobron. Other installations include:
- Athens – Greece
- Milan – Italy
- Calgary – Canada
- Berlin – Germany
- Hong Kong – China
- Paris – France
- Naples – Italy
- Nice – France
- Toulouse – France
- Berne – Switzerland
- Barcelona – Spain
- Medellin – Columbia
- Goiania – Brazil
- Sunderland – United Kingdom
- Montpellier – France
- Warsaw – Poland
“ACS took over the Transport Revenue Group that includes tolls, parking and fare collection,” explained Sanford Weinberg, vice president of fare systems for ACS Transport Services in Atlanta. “We’re also in the process of deploying a fare card program for Montreal. We do work in Paris, Warsaw (Poland), and Leon (Mexico) among others. We have over 100 smart card projects around the world.” Ascom at the time of its sale to ACS, had been in the transport business for more than 20 years, he said.
“I know that one of the criteria was that the agency wanted a contractor with proven technology. One of our strengths is that we have a rather large reservoir of proven installations,” said Mr. Weinberg.
Making up for lost time …
ACS has wasted little time in meeting its new METRO contract. “The project is moving ahead at a pretty good pace,” said Mr. Lobron. “The designs are in and installations should commence by the end of this month. We plan to be operating by the third quarter on a contract that was just executed last November.”
METRO has pulled the Cubic smart card project equipment from the buses. ACS is currently replacing that hardware with its own equipment. “METRO removed all Cubic smart card project equipment from its property,” Mr. Lobron said. “The agency has Cubic fare boxes on buses which are 12 years old.”
The system ACS is putting in is “based on systems that ACS (Ascom) has in 50 other cities around the world,” he said. “That consists of a card reader on the buses. The cards will be MIFARE-compliant and we’ll have retail POS devices at 250 retailer locations around the city.”
The Equipment includes ticket validators, point of sale devices, and ticket vending machines.
Besides the 1,300 buses, METRO also has a 14-mile light rail system. “We’ll be installing the equipment for that in late 2006,” said Mr. Lobron.
The system carries 300,000 riders daily and METRO hopes to be providing 70% of these riders with smart cards in the first year. The initial card order, said Mr. Weinberg, will be about 200,000 units. Besides the contactless transit card, the agency will also be producing disposable contactless paper tickets. A card supplier has not yet been selected, he added.
“The cards will have a stored value and other transit products and potentially could have e-purse capabilities, but that’s a call of the agency,” added Mr. Weinberg.
Users will have a choice of methods for reloading their cards, such as ticket sale locations, self-service terminals, or via the Internet. In addition, contactless tickets can be reloaded automatically by using a subscription service.
“We’re taking it one step at a time,” said Mr. Lobron. “The public has been waiting for this since 2002. We want to see it work. We all have great hopes and dreams for it.”
ACS is a FORTUNE 500 company supporting client operations in nearly 100 countries. It provides business process outsourcing and information technology solutions to commercial and government clients. Its web site is www.acs-inc.com.