PRESTO is supposed to make transit easier, but Via Rail can't support it

The concept of universal transit smart cards has been floating around for the better part of a decade now and with them comes the promise of simplicity, less fare evasion and wider accessibility to access transit.

I was in Vancouver two summers ago and had my first experience with the Compass Card, a reloadable smart card that works on TransLink's bus, rapid transit, ferry and commuter rail services. The city closed the fare gates to stations several years ago, making a Compass product (either a reloadable card or single-use one) necessary to ride the train. The introduction of such a system didn't necessarily prevent people from accessing transit — since there's simple-use tickets, it still remains available to those that cannot afford the $6 card charge.

In Toronto, where I moved several years later, the PRESTO card is being rolled out, and resembles the fare card available in Vancouver, but also larger cities like Winnipeg and Vancouver. The greater Montreal area does have their own smart card as well, but you're required to load tickets on it instead of funds.

The PRESTO smart card in the Toronto region covers the TTC, Toronto's own transit system, but also the transit systems in Mississauga, York and Durham regions, Oakville, Burlington and Hamilton. Since the system was designed by Metrolinx, it supports GO Transit and the UP Express, as well as OC Transpo in Ottawa. Though I haven't had any issues with the card before, there are numerous complains online that are getting resolved as the rollout continues.

Using PRESTO on GO Transit vehicles is only possible because of the frequency of the service. On the Lakeshore West line, which I live near and ride most frequently, trains come in both directions every 30 minutes. The same goes for the Lakeshore East line and several lines are seeing two-way all-day train service introduced. Many of the bus routes available are at frequencies of a hour or less which makes the use of PRESTO, and with it turn-up-and-go trips, possible.

Back in 2016 the Ottawa Citizen discovered a business strategy from PRESTO that includes using the card as a payment device on both Via Rail and Greyhound services. While I quite like the idea of being able to use one card to pay for trips across local, regional and province-wide transit, it's not as simple as just adding payment devices to stations.

Let's use Via Rail as an example, where we're travelling between my hometown of Stratford and Toronto. The trips originate from London and keeping the fact that there's only two trips per day in mind, at 8:40 a.m. and 9:05 p.m., it tends to get crowded.

Currently to get a train ticket you must purchase one either online, over the phone or in-person, guaranteeing a seat on the train. When we add PRESTO to an infrequent system, it doesn't work well for several reasons.

The most important idea behind PRESTO is that it enables turn-up-and-go travel, or the idea that when you can just show up to the station and hop on board a train. If there isn't enough room for you on the current one, there's not a long wait for the next one so it's not a big deal.

But when you try to enforce the rules of this sort of travel on a non-frequent service things get messy. Unless the frequency of Via Rail service is increased to ever hour or so, it won't make a good fit for PRESTO. Currently there's almost a 12 hour wait between trains, so someone visiting town for the weekend would not be happy about waiting so long just go get home.

Then there's the thought of too many passengers showing up and not enough room for them all. There's 12 seats left on the train, but a play just let out and there's 30 people trying to get home on the last train of the day. How do you decide who gets on the train and who gets left behind? No easy answers exist for these questions, and I highly doubt that the company would send a bus to pick up passengers.

If the province is really adamant on implementing the payment card on the national network, it could add it to the corridor between Toronto and Quebec/Montreal. Trains in this area usually run every two hours which, though not as frequent as they ideally would be, would be suitable for the type of service that's required. You still run the risk of having too many people and not enough seats, but you could probably incentivize people into waiting a hour or two for the next train to come.

The biggest ordeal of implementing PRESTO across more systems throughout the province is that though the government payed for its development, until high-speed rail comes to the Windsor-Quebec corridor, it won't be a suitable system for the type of transit the smart card promotes.

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