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October 14, 2010

CharmCard shows lack of charm on light rail

The Maryland Transit Administration's new CharmCard represents a significant advance for the agency, but light rail rider Jerry McCann of Lutherville hasn't found it all to be smooth riding. From what I've seen from my few rides on the light rail since the card's introduction, McCann makes some valid points -- especially about the problems in buying a round-trip ticket.

I thought you might want to hear from an early Charm Card adopter about how it works.  It's OK but less than charming.

The actual technology of the card itself seems to work well but there are some important information gaps in the literature that comes with the card and on the website about how to use it on the Light Rail.  It's important to keep in mind that Light Rail users have been trained to be ready to have their paper tickets and passes periodically inspected by uniformed "Fare Inspectors".  Within this context its important that MTA make sure Charm Card users know that they no longer need a paper ticket or pass on the Light Rail.  Fare Inspectors now carry a Charm Card scanner box that verifies that a rider has used the card to pay an appropriate fare.

Without that knowledge I assumed the Charm Card would act like a debit or credit card had been acting at the machines. With a credit card one selects the desired ticket, inserts a credit card and receives a fare ticket and, if requested, a receipt.  With the Charm Card one can still request a receipt but no fare card is issued.  That's electronically captured on the card for possible scanning on the train.  As a result I missed one train trying to figure out what I had done wrong or how to get my money back.  Neither is possible.  Instead I purchased a second fare and requested a receipt to make sure I didn't get ticketed if a fare inspection occurred.  Luckily there was a fare inspector on the next train who explained the new system to me claiming its all in the literature that came with the card.  It's not: I checked again last night.  We bought the card at a CVS drugstore for $2.50 and registered it online.  The literature in the envelope does not discuss Light Rail.

The information is also not on the website.  Light Rail isn't mentioned on the CharmCard page:
On another part of the website the following not very informative statement appears:
"Light Rail: At the TVM on the right side of screen under SMART CARD select ‘Purchase Single-Trip Fare or Activate Pass for First Ride’. Select single trip fare or activate a previously purchased pass. Touch your card to the target. Your fare will be deducted or pass activated and verified."  This fails to explain that the typical Light Rail requirement of having a paper ticket no longer applies.

Another problem is highlighted in that statement.  One can purchase single trips but not round trips.  Since I'm a periodic rider of the Light Rail (2-3 days/week) weekly or monthly passes that expire with the calendar are no good to me but round trips are.  I had hoped that the Charm Card would make this process more convenient but now I need to purchase a ride every time I get on the train instead of just in the morning.

The final annoyance is that I get off downtown at the Lexington Market Station.  The ticket vending machines at the Southbound station are equipped for Charm Card access. That's nice but heading downtown I've already purchased a ride.  The ticket vending machines at the Northbound Lexington Market station which is one block North of the Southbound station are not yet equipped for Charm Card access.  So not being permitted to buy a round trip ticket I need to add a block to the walk to the train going home to purchase the ride back.  This may be fixed sooner or later but my experience with the Light Rail is that it is likely to be later.

Like I said, technology is OK but the experience is less than charming.

Jerry McCann

We'll let you know what the MTA has to say when we hear from them.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 12:13 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Light rail


I second Jerry's comments on the lack of a round-trip option. I think the CharmCard is "smart" enough to have a round trip pass that'll only work on light rail, just like the paper passes do. I can see how it could be an inconvenience for the northbound riders to go across the tracks at Convention Center and University Center/Baltimore St. to activate their single trip pass. If anything, I think the MTA should look into what Metro Transit in Minneapolis has set up for smart card use for their light rail, which has a separate reader near their TVMs where it's as simple as "swipe and go" without having to pushing any buttons.

Another thing I've noticed is that the CharmCard appears to be not just an inconvenience to riders, but to fare inspectors too. I've seen fare inspectors do their routine 'spot checks' and be stopped in their tracks by a CharmCard holder because it takes them half a minute to boot up their scanner. Some don't even bother to scan the card at all just to not go through all the trouble of using their machine. I'm sure the MTA is trying to come up with ideas for efficiency on the light rail but until that happens, I don't think many riders will be running to the transit store to get one.

The price difference between a day pass and a round trip pass is thirty cents. I'd rather pay 30 cents more for the flexibility to ride any MTA mode that day. Round trip tickets only work on Light Rail and nothing else. I would get rid of them too if I was MTA.

The Day Pass problem is the deal-breaker for me. I was part of the pilot test program for the Charm card, and live right near a Metro station. My wife and I don't often need the MTA but when we do it's a Day Pass or nothing--I've taken four Metro/Light Rail trips and six bus rides in one day. But the Smart Card thus far retains only the ability to have money subtracted from a balance, not any ability to carry a record of a Day Pass.

Yeah, without the day pass this becomes a lot less valuable to me -- plus I had the same experience with not know ing how to use the Charm Card with Light Rail -- I think I probably debited two one-way trips off my card, and then ended up buying a ticket with cash -- so I THINK it must have cost me $1.60 x 3 to ride light rail this morning. The first poster says he was a beta user, meaning MTA had the chance to fix this before going live with it and they chose not to do so...? What the...? The Light Rail machine should be programmed to tell the would-be rider, "no ticket will be issued, just show your smart card to an officer who asks for your ticket." I am not happy, and I think I've just invested $2.50 in something I'm not going to use after I get rid of the money that's on there now. What a pain! MTA dropped the ball!

The MTA needs to do something about their so called Charm Card. I just started working down in Hunt Valley and I have to ride the LIght Rail everyday. I thought getting the Charm Card would be a good idea as opposed to buying a day pass everyday, only to get thrown off the light rail today by a fare inspector who told me I can't use my card on the light rail. He made me get off at the next station to buy a pass. I bought the pass, waited for the next light rail train to come by and after getting on it, there was no fare inspector to collect the pass I just wasted!!!

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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