Technology and the MRT

My philosophy regarding technology is simple: technology should help us solve problems. If that technology is applied to a non-problem, then that is a waste of resources that should have been instead directed on real issues.

The MRT has three modes of entry-exit payment mechanisms. The first one, used since it started operating, uses magnetic cards/tickets. You can buy a single-journey ticket, or if you take the MRT regularly, you can get the stored-value ticket at one hundred pesos. During rush hours, the queue for purchase of tickets can get long. Also, these cards are technically not reloadable, and the maximum amount for the stored-value is one hundred pesos. Because of these issues, the MRT opened the possibility of using third-party payment mechanisms.

The second one, which is a third-party provided service, is the so-called Globe G-Pass, an implementation of RFID technology. You are given a chip enclosed in a circular case, and you tap the chip into a sensor attached to a turnstile (see how it works here). You can reload value via the reloading booths at MRT stations, or via Globe’s G-Cash mobile money solution.

There are inherent issues with this solution. First, not all turnstiles in all MRT stations have G-Pass sensors installed. On a rush hour, you need to know first what turnstile to queue up – it should have a sensor installed. You should know this beforehand. Second, the sensor must be online. Usually when it is offline, MRT personnel just tapes a sign to the sensor stating that it is offline. On a rush hour, you queue up to a turnstile with a G-Pass sensor, and it will be too late before you find out that the sensor is offline – you might have wasted around a minute or two on that. What if all sensors for that station are offline? Third, this solution would be more efficient if you are a Globe subscriber. While you can check your balance and reload at reloading stations, that would mean lining up (if there’s a line); it would be faster if you check your balance via text message, or reload via G-Cash. So if you are not a Globe subscriber – tough luck. Also, they should have instead employed the technology that the Japanese use – tap the phone! If you are careless, you might lose the chip.

The third solution (still experimental at the moment) employs m-codes (or 2-D barcodes). The service is called Juan Card, another prepaid solution. Here, you are sent an m-code, and to enter, you must point the m-code in your mobile phone screen to a sensor attached to the turnstile. As the use of this technology is not yet widespread, I cannot evaluate this solution completely, but some of the problems with G-Pass apply to Juan Card as well – limited sensor installs, long queues during rush hours, and unnecessarily complex loading solution per trip.

(There is another, low-tech solution called the Flash Pass, but I suggest you click on the link and read. It is relatively simple, low-tech, and prone to falsification, so there’s no need to discuss it.)

Again, technology should help us solve problems. In this case, what have we solved? It seems all the solutions are defeated by the fact that the wrong problem is addressed. The problem is that the MRT can no longer efficiently and sufficiently serve the volume of passengers during rush hours, and RFIDs and m-codes will not solve that. Unless they can improve on that area, these technologies are basically useless.

Do you like math? If so, let me give you a problem.

Here are some data to use:
* Car/Train capacity
* Train availability requirement – how many trainsets operate at given time
* Ridership data – most recent is for last year

Do the math. Like how much people are they packing for each train set, etc.