Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Off TRAX

Posted By on May 18, 2010, 8:59 AM

Utah Transit Authority officials were under fire last month for the salaries and bonuses reportedly planned for top executives. And after an everything-that-could-go-wrong-did-go-wrong day of public transit, I have a better sense for where that cash should be going. ---

The day began at the 9000 South TRAX station in Sandy, where I typically buy a round-trip ticket from the vending machine on the north end of the platform, which accepts credit card. But the credit-card feature was not functioning. “Ha!” I thought to myself. “I have cleverly remembered to bring my $1 coins with me. They will address this situation adequately.” Unfortunately, after putting the $1 coins into the coin slot, one could hear that they were not reaching the bottom—nor did the coins return when the transaction was cancelled. Out $4 in coins and still without a ticket, I used the two one-dollar bills I had on me to buy a one-way ticket.

Immediately, I called the UTA customer-service number from my cell phone, whereupon the automated system informed me that assistants were all helping other customers, and that I would be placed on hold. Twenty-three minutes later, I was still on hold—and to make matters more excruciating, the same insipid electro-jazz instrumental was played on a loop for the entire time. I finally surrendered, and called back later in the day, where a helpful assistant took my information in order to send a refund of my lost cash.

And then the afternoon rolled around. Since I had only been able to purchase a one-way ticket into downtown, I approached the ticket vending machine on the north end of the Gallivan Plaza platform, freshly-acquired cash ready in hand having prepared for this necessity. But the machine was out of order. I moved to the machine at the south end of the platform, where a line—not surprisingly, at 5:10 p.m. when the other machine was out of order—had formed. By the time the woman ahead of me reached the machine, she attempted to buy her ticket—only to see the red screen of death indicating that completion of the transaction was not possible. So during rush hour at a downtown stop, both machines were not functioning.

Immediately I called the customer service line, whereupon I was put on hold and forced to listen to the same excruciating electro-jazz instrumental. A mere six minutes later, an agent came on and I was able to report the double-machine outage. When asked about what I should do about the inability to purchase a ticket, she said, “Well, we don’t encourage riding without a ticket …” She eventually offered to provide her contact information so that, should I be approached by a transit officer for my proof of payment, they could call her to verify that I had called in the problem on the platform. Opting not to deal with yet another phone interaction with UTA customer service or the possibility of being escorted off the train to sort matters out, I opted to walk to the next platform—missing one southbound train in the process—and purchase a ticket.

I offer this personal anecdote with the caveat that I’m a regular TRAX rider, and that the experience described is far from typical. Public transportation, on the whole, generally involves fewer frustrations than commuter driving does. However, I have some suggestions for better uses of some of the $296,000 UTA CEO John Inglish is scheduled to receive this year:

  1. More service technicians for the ticket machines, and checking on their status throughout the day.
  2. More customer service agents during peak travel hours.
  3. Dear God, spring for some on-hold music that doesn’t make you want to throw yourself in front of one of those trains.
UPDATE (5:45 p.m.): UTA Public Relations Specialist Chad Saley sent an email apologizing for the circumstances described here, and offering a week's free pass for my trouble. I declined his offer, but thanked him for his reply. He added, "Also, I'm open to suggestions for new hold music, electro-folk perhaps."

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