Taken for a ride

Passengers are livid: After a decade of dealing with the mess from the light rail’s construction, they’re now paying exorbitant fines, mostly due to Egged’s mistakes.

Rav Kav 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rav Kav 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The city’s neon green Rav-Kav electronic bus cards have been jinxed from the start. First there were the five-hour long lines at the Central Bus Station in November, when the first day of the Rav-Kav coincided with the return of university students to school, causing general mayhem and confusion. Now, a technological snafu between the Egged and CityPass ticketing systems has left thousands of people with cards that – oops – may not be useable on the train. There’s no way to figure it out until you try to swipe your card on a train and are denied, so good luck! The details are arcane: Anyone who bought a multiple-use card, or kartisia, before November 27 but uses it after January 1 can use it only on the bus, not on the trains. This despite the fact that the Rav-Kav cards were widely advertised to be usable for both. Sources at Egged give a long-winded explanation for the problem, which includes a mixup in the city code on the tickets.
Despite the complicated explanation, the repercussions are clear: thousands of exorbitant fines for passengers who say they’re just trying to learn how to use the new system.
David, an immigrant from Sweden, had a typical experience: after unsuccessfully swiping his Rav-Kav, which had the old code from November, he started to get off the train to buy a ticket, but the doors closed. An inspector then approached and asked for his ticket. David explained the issue, and the inspector asked for David’s ID. “Just to make sure the details match up,” the inspector told him. Then David was handed a NIS 186.60 fine.
“I was surprised,” David said, diplomatically, a few weeks later. “It’s not like I tried to go into the train and not pay.”
“I think it’s idiotic, and you can’t buy a ticket on the train,” he added. “If you’re a tourist, how are you supposed to know these things? Whoever made this system is not very intelligent. In Sweden, where I’m from, you can buy tickets with your cell phone by SMS. The system in Sweden is considered very poor, but this [one] in Jerusalem is a million times worse. It’s a new mode of transport, people are supposed to like it and use it but people are getting pissed off by it.
They need to make a better effort – first impressions are important.”
Zoe, who lives in Tel Aviv, encountered another common problem: broken ticketvending machines. The machine at the train station refused to take her bill, and she missed a train while struggling with the machine. Giving up on the machine, when the next train came, she boarded and went up to the inspectors to explain the problem and ask where she could pay. She got a fine instead.
“What did you want me to do?” she asked, still angry more than a month later.
“Did you want me to wait there for 100 years? Where’s my alternative? They need to make some sort of distinction between” people trying to get away with not paying and “people who are really trying to do the right thing.”
Zoe shared the story of a haredi woman who was slapped with a fine because she thought she could swipe her card twice for herself and her baby. She didn’t know that the baby needed a separate Rav-Kav card.
Both David and Zoe have tried to appeal their fine, but have come up against a brick wall: phone calls, emails, faxes, online forms, more phone calls, more emails, even more faxes and, for Zoe, a special trip to Jerusalem to try to fight the fine, but with no answer from CityPass or anyone who can help.
ON SUNDAY, CityPass promised to cancel the fines of any riders who got stuck with the old code and couldn’t use their Rav-Kav on the train, despite the “great financial damage” it will cause to the company. They said Egged is continuing to sell faulty tickets, and the Transportation Ministry isn’t providing any solutions.
Ron Ratner, the spokesman for Egged, called the issue “birth pangs for the integrated system.” He added that the problem would be completely solved in mid-May when the transportation technology system gets a major overhaul. A source at Egged said the company promised to help any riders who were fined due to issues with the codes get CityPass to cancel their fines. (The public can submit complaints at http://egged.co.il/PublicRequest.asp) In the meantime, riders are encouraged to save every receipt from their trips. CityPass will only cancel the fines if riders can provide proof that they paid for their trip, especially a transfer ticket that shows the incorrect code.
The public inquiry phone numbers for the Transportation Ministry, Egged and CityPass to appeal the fines don’t work, or no one answers. This fact was made painfully obvious at an emergency Knesset meeting held on Monday to deal with the problem of fines on the light rail. Yulia Shamolov Berkovich (Kadima) called some of the numbers from her private cell phone during the meeting to illustrate the poor service. She couldn’t get through to anyone. “The attitude of the Transportation Ministry toward the citizens is disgusting and disgraceful,” she said.
CityPass spokesman Ozel Vatik defended the company’s practice of giving fines. The train operated for three and a half months free of charge, and then for a month with only warnings, before starting to give fines a month and a half ago, he explained.
“We’re not required to even to have one day of warnings,” he said. “If we did it for half a year, then you’d ask why after half a year.” Vatik stressed that a strong emphasis on checking tickets from the beginning was the only way to ensure that passengers learned to pay, rather than trying to ride for free.
Many irate passengers accused the inspectors of working on commission and having paychecks tied to the number of fines they issued. A source at CityPass denied this was the case. The source also said that the inspectors were instructed to give fines for everyone without a ticket, without regard to the situation.
“The inspectors, you can’t give them flexibility,” the source explained. “There will be one inspector who will hate Arabs or one inspector who will come down hard on haredim, or one inspector who won’t give a fine because he thinks that girl is pretty,” the source said.
But passengers, angry at the noise and mess they put up with during the decade of construction for the light rail, are livid that they are now expected to pay excessive fines.
“Now bearing in mind that the paying and checking procedures are still fairly new and many of us do not use the light rail frequently, wouldn’t it make sense that these inspectors should assess each situation on its own merit?” asked one reader in a letter to The Jerusalem Post.
“Then again... they will be rubbing their hands in glee at every genuine mistake made by unwary travelers!” One mother told of her 11-year-old son who came home in tears after receiving a fine for misunderstanding the ticketing system, and is now loath to take the train again. Another shared a story of how someone’s daughter forgot to swipe her card while traveling within the 90- minute time frame for unlimited travel, and was given a fine instead of being allowed to re-swipe her card.
Another passenger told In Jerusalem that those who buy tickets in cash at the light rail stations are often forced to miss their trains as the machines sometimes take several minutes to reset between purchases. If the customer has to wait in line, more than one train can pass before he or she is able to purchase a ticket. And often the machine has run out of change, so that the passenger cannot buy a ticket at all if he or she does not have exactly NIS 6.60, he said.
Zoe demanded to know why the fines were so excessively high compared to the price of a ticket. She pointed out that years ago when she lived in England a subway fare was £2, and the fine for riding without a ticket was five times that amount, or £10. Jerusalem’s fine is 28 times the cost of the fare.
“Why is the fine so disproportionate...?” she asked.
“Obviously, these people don’t have 186 shekels; they’re taking public transportation.”
CityPass spokesman Vatik said the fines were determined by law. He stressed that the people complaining were a small minority, and begged Jerusalemites to focus on the positive aspects of the train.
“There are 70,000 travelers per day, and during the peak hours trains come every six minutes,” he said. “It started as an 85-minute journey from end to end, now it’s 47 minutes. We need to pay for these services.”
But trying to focus on the positive won’t help the hundreds of passengers who already have fines and are struggling with a mammoth bureaucracy to find a way to cancel them.
“It really makes me angry, I hate coming to Jerusalem because of it,” said Zoe. “And you know what else? I haven’t paid to ride the light rail since, I just get off when an inspector comes. And I’m not going to pay to ride, ever.”