Light rail woes

Dear Citypass, the company that built and operates Jerusalem’s new light rail, you’re doing a terrible job.

Some years back, Jerusalem’s plucky and not-at-all-corrupt elected leaders decided to construct a light rail for the crowded, dirty, divided city. Better public transportation would spruce up downtown and help unify the disparate parts of the city, it was thought, bridging not just the politically charged Arab-Jewish divide, but also the many different Jewish communities and neighborhoods that don’t speak to each other.

It’s too early to tell if the broader goal has been realized. Certainly Jaffa Street is a more beautiful and enjoyable place to sip coffee since it was turned into a pedestrian mall serviced by the rail.

But whatever history’s verdict will be on the train’s social and political impact – for whatever reason, history has an opinion on everything that ever happens in this town – Jerusalemites have already drawn one unanimous conclusion about the light rail. Citypass, the private company running this public service, is really, really bad at what it does.

It would be a waste of everybody’s time to get into all the daily rage-inspiring missteps of Citypass employees – from unnecessary and unjustified fines to chronically broken-down ticket machines to bizarre ticket policies.

Instead, I’ll just describe two short experiences that happened to me recently that would not have happened if I had been interacting with a more competent company.

I live in a pretty, tree-lined neighborhood of Jerusalem called Beit Hakerem, located near the entrance to the city. The closest light rail stop to my home is “Hehalutz.” One morning I walked to the stop and stood in line to buy tickets from the ticket machine.

I wanted to buy a fistful of tickets to last me for the next month or so. I had left the Jewish Agency at the end of June, returning the company car, and will be riding New York’s subways by mid-August. So I don’t want to sign up for a magnetic card – and don’t want to make the special trip to city hall or the central bus station just for that purpose. That’s right, you can only buy a refillable magnetic card in two locations in this million-resident city.

Instead, I decided to buy a couple dozen single-ride tickets at a time and keep them in my pocket to be used as needed. That’s how you buy bus tickets in this country, so why not the Jerusalem light rail?

I bought 10 tickets and sat down to wait for the train. The elderly woman to my left saw my stack of tickets and said, apologetically, “You know you have to use them all today, right?”

“What do you mean? Why do I have to use them today?” I answered in bewilderment.

“They expire at midnight,” she explained.

“But I just bought them!” I protested, as though she was the culprit.

“Tickets have to be used the day you buy them. It’s on the sign.” She pointed to a large sign with a lot of writing, including instructions in three languages.

“Why?!” I asked, feeling robbed.

She shrugged. “No reason,” she offered with the apologetic smile of someone delivering bad news not of their own making. “That’s just how it is.”

I looked up the phone number for customer service and called. Four menus and nine minutes later, a human being (a young woman, in fact) answered and asked how she could help.

“I accidentally purchased 10 tickets. I didn’t realize you had to use them all in one day. I just wanted to keep some in my wallet. How do I return them for a refund?”

“We don’t give refunds,” she said, maddeningly.

“Really? But this must happen a lot. Nobody would assume that the tickets will expire for no clear reason.”

“Yes, it happens all the time.” She answered, without noticing the admission.

“Well, if it happens all the time,” I wondered, “why do they let the tickets expire? Are they counting on people making this mistake? Are they basically robbing us?”

“It’s just the policy,” she said, realizing belatedly and unhappily that she was on the wrong side of the argument. She wasn’t being paid enough to defend the bad guys, she probably thought to herself.

“It’s not your fault,” I offered. I couldn’t help it. It really wasn’t her fault. “But Citypass owes me some money back because they’re going to cancel tickets only a few hours after I bought them, for no reason at all.”

“Send us a letter, and the expired tickets, and maybe they’ll refund the money,” she suggested.

I hung up. Not only did the company actively rob unsuspecting customers using the trick of an incomprehensible one-day expiration policy (since the tickets expire at midnight, what happens if you buy the ticket at 11:50 p.m. and get on the train 11 minutes later? Has anyone tried this?), but its phone support had no meaningful answer for those seeking a refund.

I learned my lesson, I thought.

The very next day, I once again stood at Hehalutz stop waiting to buy a ticket – just one this time. I arrived at the machine with a two-minute warning on the overhead display. I keyed in all the right buttons within about 30 seconds and pushed my credit card into the slot. Suddenly the screen popped up a red X, with the text: “The machine is temporarily out of order.”

I looked around desperately. I was late for an important meeting. Where do I find another machine? Just one minute to go. Suddenly I noticed, at the other end of the station and across the tracks facing the other way, the second machine. And there was no line! Checking the tracks to make sure I wouldn’t make the news as Jerusalem’s first-ever human pancake, I jogged across the rails and keyed the buttons into the second machine. Insert the credit card, wait for it, wait for it…and…No! The second machine was also out of order!

I had only two choices. Hail a cab into town, paying roughly five times the cost of the light rail ride, or board the train that had just arrived, without a ticket.

The fine for riding without a ticket: 180 shekels. And you run the risk of experiencing first-hand the infamous aggression of Citypass ticket attendants. (Just last week, 14 passengers who went to court over unfair fines they received from Citypass attendants saw all 14 fines overturned by the court.)

I’ll buy a ticket at the very next stop, I thought, as I jumped aboard the train.

I stood by the car door, keeping an eye out for attendants making their way through the crowd. I felt like a criminal. A couple people in the car noticed I hadn’t punched a ticket in the required slot, but looked away without comment.

At the next stop I jumped off. I had maybe a minute until the train doors closed, so I ran to the ticket machine on the platform. Ah! Ten people elbowing each other in a semi-circle that refused to behave like a line, every one of them angry that they will be missing the train as an elderly man slowly deciphers the buttons he needs to press to purchase his ticket.

I jumped back on the train and planned to try again at the next stop.

At the next stop – I swear I am not making this up – I jumped off, got to the machine just as someone was finishing, started to push the right buttons and got (if you guessed right, you’re starting to get my point) the “out of order” screen!

I cursed under my breath and jumped back on the train. The next stop, the shuk, was already my destination. I jumped off and walked away.

I take away from these experiences a few conclusions I’d like to share with the Citypass corporation and my fellow Jerusalemites. Though I have no proof, I am convinced the expiration policy is intentional. (If that’s libelous, let it be. I’m that angry.) Nobody, not even Citypass phone support, not even the two ticket attendants I spoke to a couple days later, has any idea why this policy is in place. It’s a vast mystery, like why the cellphone company’s billing errors are always miraculously in the company’s favor, never in yours.

On the other hand, the same company whose tickets mysteriously expire, forcing us to occasionally contribute cash gifts to the company’s coffers (most of the people who have heard this story told me it happened to them too), that same company can’t keep a damn ticket purchasing machine working.

To recap, if you want to ride the light rail without signing up for a magnetic card you’ve got to keep buying tickets each day that expire by that night, which means you’ll be standing in line while trains go by two meters away from you because only a single ticket machine stands on each side at most stations. Roughly every third time you walk up to a machine (I’ve been counting over the past two weeks) it will be out of order. And nobody at Citypass customer support has the faintest idea how to offer you any help whatsoever.

Citypass doesn’t realize that though it is a private company, it manages a public service. Jerusalem’s light rail belongs to me, the resident of Jerusalem, not to a private corporation. Citypass, or more accurately the French company Veolia Transportation, part of the Citypass group, runs the light rail because it is supposed to be more efficient and dependable than the municipality. But Citypass doesn’t behave as though it is the steward of a public trust. And that’s a violation of that trust, plain and simple.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, even if the municipality should not be in the business of running trains, shouldn’t it at least be overseeing those who are? Ride the train, Mr. Mayor. Try to buy tickets at different stops. Try to find out from Citypass why my tickets expire the same day I buy them.

And Citypass, you still owe me for eight tickets I didn’t use that day. Make it seven for the free ride I was forced to take because of your faulty machines.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.