Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

WMATA has embarked on an ambitious program to revolutionize the way it collects fares from riders, allowing them to use a credit or debit card to pay their fare directly. This will increase convenience for riders, and lower the agency’s costs for fare collection. But many riders wonder why they have not seen more changes in fare collection, and sooner.

The answer lies in the history of fare collection on Metrorail. While the paper farecard may seem antiquated today, it was considered revolutionary when introduced in 1977.

When Metrorail opened in 1976, with service from Farragut North to Rhode Island Ave., a flat fare of 55¢ during peak hours and 45¢ off-peak was manually collected by station attendants.

When the second phase of Metrorail, the Blue Line from National Airport to Stadium-Armory, opened in July 1977, automatic fare collection was introduced. Then, only one other transit system in the US had introduced similar technology: BART, in San Francisco, which opened in September 1972.

At that time, other cities had begun to use magnetically encoded tickets (like the London Underground, in 1970), and many cities had long used simple mechanical turnstiles to collect tokens and coins. But only BART and Metrorail used a card which actually stored cash value, as well as faregates which computed a distance-based fare and deducted it from the value on the card as the rider passed through.

Since 1977, the technology has received incremental upgrades, but until now it hasn’t gotten a complete overhaul. For example, farecard vending machines have been augmented with the ability to accept credit and debit cards and reload SmarTrip cards. However, at their core, the farecard vending machines, exitfare machines, and faregates are still the same technology that was introduced in 1977.

The age of the system makes it inflexible, compared to newer systems. For example, when peak-of-the-peak fares were introduced, they taxed the faregates’ limited processing capacity, resulting in slightly slower farecard and SmarTrip processing. Features like online top-up and passes on SmarTrip have also taken longer for WMATA to implement.

As an early adopter, WMATA has not had the benefit of the decades of technological development which followed the introduction of the paper farecard on BART. When the New York City Transit Authority introduced the MetroCard in 1993, they were able to use a plastic card which is more resilient than the paper Metrorail farecard. The ticket vending machines used in New York City are more advanced, too, with an easy-to-use touchscreen interface. Neither of these were available to WMATA in 1977, and would have been costly to add as the system aged.

WMATA has also been criticized for its dependence on a single vendor for its fare collection system. This, too, is a factor of the system’s age. Open standards for fare collection systems are relatively new. The introduction of automatic fare collection in 1977, and even the introduction of the SmarTrip card, predate these standards. In fact, when launched in 1999, SmarTrip was the nation’s first contactless smart card for transit.

Since WMATA intends to replace its fare collection system, with phased implementation of the new system beginning in 2014, the current system will see only limited upgrades in the interim. Riders now have the ability to reload their cards online, and automatic reload is scheduled to arrive in the fall.

More substantial changes will likely have to wait until the implementation of the New Electronic Payments Program, WMATA’s name for the next-generation system. As described in this presentation to the WMATA Board of Directors, a pilot program could begin in the summer of 2013. As the pilot expands, riders will gain the ability to pay their fares directly using credit and debit cards, certain mobile devices, and identification cards like those issued by universities and the federal government.

The New Electronic Payments Program will also make it easier for WMATA to sell new kinds of passes, like Smart Passes, as well as to operate loyalty programs or cross-promotions with area merchants.

In the future, we’ll delve more deeply into the new fare program.

Kurt Raschke is an information technology professional and transit enthusiast interested in how technology can improve the usability of transit systems.  A car-free resident of Silver Spring, he is a frequent user of Metrorail and Metrobus.  He also blogs at Raschke on Transport. All views expressed here are his alone.