Special SkyTrain gates promised for disabled passengers who can’t tap out

TransLink plans to close faregates now left open by end of July, in favour of short-term fix

Lorraine Tran using a stick to tap out at faregates. The device has a mouthpiece on one end and the chip portion cut out of her Compass card on the other end.

TransLink intends to build special new doors beside existing SkyTrain faregates that will be opened by proximity sensors when a wheelchair-bound passenger approaches who cannot tap a Compass card themselves.

That’s the permanent solution TransLink officials are now promising to solve the problem of access for the severely disabled that has been a continuing black eye for an otherwise successful launch of the Compass card system.

“We’re going to fast track this,” CEO Kevin Desmond said Thursday.

It will cost $2.5 to $5 million and take 18 months to build the specialized doors and sensor systems.

And there are unresolved challenges still with how it will work. Different longer-range RFID cards that will open the doors and be issued to the users won’t be part of the Compass system, Desmond said, so TransLink must still work out how those users will pay for access.

In the meantime, TransLink will add extra staff to expand its Station Assistance Service so paraplegic passengers who can’t tap a Compass card can call for help.

Staff monitoring a station by video camera could remotely open the gates for a disabled passenger, or else that passenger could call at least 10 minutes ahead of arrival to get in-person help through the gates. That’s an improvement from 30 minute waits currently.

At the end of July, TransLink will end its practice of keeping one gate open for disabled passengers at SkyTrain stations when staff aren’t present to assist them, and instead switch to the improved assistance program.

A staff report says it would cost too much – an extra $12 to $30 million a year – to continue the current practice of staffing gates and keeping one open at each station when no attendants are available.

The improved Station Assistance Program – with four more staff added to ensure two people are on shift at the monitoring centre at all times – would cost an extra $500,000 while the permanent fix is pursued.

TransLink will also work directly with affected passengers to craft customized assistive devices for those who could use them to tap out at the gates themselves.

Disabled passenger Lorraine Tran is already using such a device, which is basically a stick with a mouthpiece that she can lift with her mouth, with the chip cut out of her Compass card affixed to the other end. She can lift the stick and tap in and out herself at the regular accessible Compass gates.

All of this aims to help a relatively tiny number of paraplegic passengers have continued independent access to the transit system that they’d come to expect before faregates were installed.

TransLink estimates just 15 to 50 people can’t get through the faregates without some specialized solution, and even fewer might actually use the new special doors if some of them can get by with sticks like Tran’s.

Desmond said such workarounds will work for some but not all severely disabled users, and he defended the expenditure on the new doors as a “pretty small investment” to ensure access.

“For people with a disability of that nature that are willing, ready and able, and have the gumption and human spirit to make it through our system on their own independently and want to do that from the standpoint of human dignity – we need to make sure they’ve got that access.”

Disability Alliance BC executive director Jane Dyson said the sensor-operated doors are the “most dignified and practical option.”

Wheelchair-bound transit advocate Tim Louis praised the solution and called it a “fabulous deal” to make a billion-dollar rapid transit system accessible in perpetuity.

“We’re very pleased,” he said. “It’s going to work.”

Fare revenue jumps after gates close

TransLink recorded an eight per cent jump in fare revenue for April and May from a year earlier.

Desmond said that’s “clearly the result of the impact on fare evasion” from the move to finally close gates in early April.

He said transit riders have embraced Compass much faster than expected.

More than 915,000 Compass cards are in regular use – representing more than one in three residents in the region – up from 350,000 active cards at the beginning of the year.

Almost half the cards are registered, so if lost or stolen their balances can be transferred to a new card.

More passengers are using the Compass card’s stored value function, which makes up 22 per cent of fares paid now, while cash fares paid on buses was down 23 per cent in April.

Thirty-five per cent of users on the system have monthly passes on their Compass cards and 113,000 have signed up for autoload, so a monthly pass or stored value top up happens automatically.

The total cost of the Compass card/faregates project is now estimated at $190.2 million.

TransLink is slated to sign off with system provider Cubic in July to agree to “total system acceptance” under the contract.