Here's how they did it.
The monumental task of installing Presto card readers on the TTC’s massive fleet of buses and streetcars is finally underway.
By the end of this year, the transit commission has pledged to complete its long-awaited switch to the electronic fare card and do away with physical tokens, tickets, day passes, and Metropasses.
Allan Foster is in charge of this largest mass deployment of new fare technology in TTC history. As the senior project manager of the TTC’s fare card system, he’s responsible for the team currently installing card readers and other electronic devices in each of the TTC’s 1,900 buses.
Every night between 9:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., about a dozen workers—a mix of TTC staff and Metrolinx contractors—make alterations to approximately 10 vehicles, laying wires and connecting communication antenna so that by the next morning riders with Presto cards can pay their fares electronically.
“All of the work happens typically within three or four hours,” Foster says. “It’s almost an assembly line that we have on each vehicle.”
By the time a bus comes into the Queensway garage to be fitted with Presto, Foster’s team has already prepared its assigned card readers by programming them with information about the host vehicle.
“Basically we’re giving the card reader a personality,” Foster says. “We’re telling that reader: ‘you are device X, and you are going to be installed in vehicle 1234.'”
The next step is to run network cabling through the vehicle cavity. The readers appear wireless, but each one is actually physically wired to a central cellular communications unit recessed inside the bus or streetcar.
Once the wiring is in place, the readers are connected up and bolted in place.
Lastly, a special antenna that gives the communications unit the ability to send and receive location and card balance information is affixed to the outside of the vehicle.
If the cellular connection fails, which routinely happens when a streetcar or bus dips underground, the Presto system is designed to continue working until the link is re-established.
All of the various installation tasks—the programming and installation of the readers, wiring, and mounting the antennas—are divided up among the team of 12 workers. Foster emphasizes that the workers are divided into crews, who specialize in each step of the process.
Once the electronics are up and running, the bus is handed to the TTC for an hour of testing. At this time, workers inspect the wiring and physical aspects of the Presto system, then process a number of test transactions to ensure payments flow correctly to the remote servers.
Foster expects his team will be able to complete up to 20 vehicles per night, when Presto work eventually expands to a second garage.
Unlike the streetcar rollout, this time the transit commission is activating Presto on each bus the moment installation is complete, rather than waiting and powering up the readers en masse.
“We purposely held the units out of use for streetcars,” Foster says. “They were actually available for use immediately after the installation, but for streetcars the strategy was to get a critical mass of vehicles done and then we would turn them on.”
“We’re not doing that for buses. We don’t see an advantage to keeping the units out of service…it’s better for the system to slowly add devices over time,” he says.
Right now, TTC Presto readers are processing about 1.3 million taps per month—about two or three percent of overall ridership. Foster expects those numbers to spike once readers are installed in all buses and subway stations by the end of the year and electronic daily caps and Metropasses are introduced.
“When all of that comes together, we will have a much better proposition for customers,” Foster says. “It’s a huge shift for our customers in terms of how they pay and transfer on the TTC.”