CharlieCard? What CharlieCard? I don't see any CharlieCard

A concerned T rider files this report via e-mail:

CharlieCards seem to be expiring today in spite of the promised extension.

This morning, my everyday card with a monthly pass on it came up as "EXPIRED" and wouldn't let me in. The attendant at Davis said that this was happening a lot - he gave me a new card, told me to go to Downtown Crossing to get the pass transferred over, and to tailgate someone to get in this morning.

A dozen or so of my co-workers have mentioned having the same thing happen today. Did the promised extension not happen? I thought my card's expiration had been reset to some time in 2013, but I can't even check any more - the fare vending machines immediately refuse to have anything to do with an expired card. I'm wondering if the card expiration the FVM displays got updated, but some other expiration date didn't. Similarly, the card has disappeared from the my account in the online MyCharlie system entirely.



Free tagging: 


ditto for me. I was given a

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ditto for me. I was given a new card with an expiration date printed on it, for 10 years from now.

I still don't understand why they have to expire.

Of course I also don't understand why the fare vending machines can't be programmed for commuter rail stations-- why do i have to walk away from the machine to find a faded b&w printout that is scotch taped to the side of [only] one of the machines, to look up my station name, find its zone, then walk back to the computer and put the zone in?

I tapped my card in multiple

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I tapped my card in multiple machines, multiple times, and still the extension date never changed.

It was all a lie.

MBTA lies

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People have been complaining about this for weeks. The MBTA straight-up lied. Maybe they didn't realize all these cards would already be expiring and they'd have the extension ready later, but its not like a lie born out of complete ignorance of their own operation is a better scenario for them. Less craven, perhaps, but more incompetent. They've handled this whole situation absolutely horribly and seem to have made a point not to train their front-line staff in any way. I realized that my card was making an odd noise for a few weeks before it expired. I deduced this was probably an expiration warning and was prepared to get a new pass for the next month but it actually gave up right before Thanksgiving.

Now, I figured out that's what was happening and I assume I was right. Not a single MBTA employee knew what was going on and these were all taps on buses. They normally just thought I didn't have money on my card even though it was a unique sound. Not a single person knew what was going on right up to when the card failed (though was still readable enough for them to know it had a valid monthly pass, though it required a few screens to scroll through at the pay station). That's inexcusable. Even conservatively, this must be impacted hundreds of people and the MBTA isn't lifting a finger to inform their employees much less riders. All they have is one, obviously dishonest mention on their website in a less than prominent location. Their homepage takes time to brag about selling MBTA mugs and to warn riders that the MBTA plans to just not bother during winter storms, but no mention at all about the death of the first group of Charlie Cards.

Update from the OP: My card is fixed now

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I sent in the quoted mail to Adam.

On a lark tonight, after I got back to Davis I tapped my card on one of the fare vending machines there. Something flashed by on the screen a little too quickly to read - something like "Autoload complete". After that, I tried tapping it again and it seems to work now, with an expiration date of 6/14/2014. Similarly, now that I'm home, I can see it again in my MyCharlie account. So while today's glitch was annoying, it does seem to have been transient - I'd advise other people who had surprise expirations today to try them on a fare vending machine again.

(To the previous commenter's question about why they have to expire at all - the RFID chip they're built on is only rated for 10 years of use by the manufacturer, so it makes sense for there to be a known expiration date on the same timescale, rather than have people experience whatever happens when the chip fails at some unknown time. There are other ways for it to fail, too - I'd particularly worry about the loop antenna in the card breaking if someone flexes their card a lot, by keeping it in a soft wallet or their pocket or something.)

RFID expiration dates

It makes sense to expire them when the manufacturer suggests, but many of the Charlie Cards (including all of those issued in 2006 and 2007) expired after 5 years instead of the manufacturer's suggestion of 10 years.

Accounting issue?

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Maybe the T doesn't want to keep carrying liabilities for 10 years on Charlie Cards that have been abandoned with small amounts of cash on them.

Mine expired promptly on

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Mine expired promptly on December 1 even though the machine cheerfully allowed me to add a monthly pass to it three days beforehand and I heard no warning noises or text. The Davis Sq. attendant at 7 am on December 1 acted sincerely like he'd never heard of such a thing, but he did give me a new card and tap me into the station with instructions to go to downtown crossing to transfer my pass. Thankfully, I was going that way anyway, and had time to waste waiting at the desk there. The staff at the desk did what was needed, but they acted like this was something special and rare. Fare machines shouldn't be able to add passes to cards that are going to expire that month.

Incompetent, Inefficient, What else is new?

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My wife and I were at North Station a couple of weeks ago on a Sunday and both our cards came up as expired. The very nice attendant gave us new cards on which we loaded value. She told us to go down to Downtown Crossing to transfer value from the old cards to the new. This is very annoying to say the least. Why can't they have this service at other stations, too, or God forbid be able to do it online? Since it was Sunday, we asked her of the office, booth or whatever was open and she told us, "yes." Of course, we got down there and it was closed.

By the way, have we had Charlie Cards for ten years already? Doesn't seem like it, but maybe time flies.

Downtown Crossing Customer Service Window

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You're lucky the Customer Service office in Downtown Crossing was closed. Otherwise you might still be there standing in line.
Worst decision ever is when they decided to consolidate and closed the Government Center and Harvard Square versions. Those ones had lines that moved, sort of.

The Harvard Square pass sales

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The Harvard Square pass sales office is still open. Though they did reduce its schedule -- it used to be the last 4 and first 4 business days of the month; now it's 3 and 3.

You forgot "obstructionist"

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Ah, yes, doing it online. One of the many, many options you would have available to you if the MBTA had elected to store account information in a central database. Instead, they have opted to store account info on the card itself. That CharlieCard you're carrying around contains a fare balance, with crackerjack encryption protecting the information. When you add value at a kiosk, there's a reason you have to swipe twice: the second swipe is writing a new value to it.

But the T couldn't be bothered with networking the card readers, so it's all on your card. So you get to take your expired cards to Downtown Crossing to do anything about them. Meanwhile, some enterprising MIT students broke the encryption on the cards and gave a presentation that almost-but-not-quite connected the dots on how you could update the fare balance on your own cards (because, again: crackerjack-box-decoder-ring style encryption). Rather than address the security breach, the T hit them with a lawsuit and a restraining order preventing them from releasing their findings.

If card values were only

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If card values were only stored centrally, what happens on a bus when it loses its network connection?

The same thing they do currently

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It seems like the fareboxes aren't working half the time anyway, and the driver just waves you onboard.

Having said that, it is an interesting problem to deal with. One possible solution is to store the transactions which took place, and upload them later to the central server. There, they can be reconciled with the other fareboxes. It is a non-trivial coordination problem, but I think it is solvable. The centrally stored value could be checked against the Charlie Card whenever it is used, and if it comes up suspiciously a number of times, it could be flagged for review. You would also need to allow Charlie Cards to possibly hold a negative balance until the next update (at the end of the day). This is OK -- SF Bay Area "Clipper" Cards let you go negative, you just can't use them again until you fill up. That's why they're not handed out for free -- you have to put value on them or pay a fee.

I thought they were using some kind of trust-but-verify approach to Charlie Cards, but I guess not.

An unrelated expiration date

An unrelated expiration date bug for CharlieTickets:

I came across a ticket which was bought on 06/11/2011. The expiration date printed on the ticket is Feb 06, 2012. But if I put the ticket into a vending machine and go to the info screen, it says the expiration date is Dec 11, 2012, which is 18 months from purchase as it should be.

I have no idea how such a simple calculation could get messed up.