Clipper / Caltrain Frustrations

May 11, 2011

Below is a letter I sent to Clipper's customer service and Caltrain's Board of Directors...

To whom it may concern -

I have called 6 times and spent more than three hours on the phone this month with Clipper customer service trying to resolve an issue with my auto-loaded Caltrain monthly pass.

These conversations have exposed some things that I feel need to be addressed in Clipper and its customer service agents. Please bear with my story below to understand my suggestions:

  1. This all started when I realized I forgot to tag off at my destination station on the the first workday of the month (Monday 5/2). I tried to tag in the afternoon, but that was rejected. Apparently there is a maximum time window between tagging on and off that is enforced. This restriction prevented me from "fixing" my mistake on my own. SUGGESTION: increase the tag on/off time window.

  2. I phoned Clipper customer service immediately to try to resolve the situation. The woman I talked with told me that this "happens all the time" and that she would take care of it that day. Fantastic! I asked her several times if I needed to do anything more, and she assured me that I did not. I was away on business travel for the rest of the week, but the following Monday morning (Monday 5/9) I seeked out a Caltrain conductor to check the status of my card. It still had a negative balance and he told me that I needed to buy a paper ticket or he would write me a $250 citation. I purchased the paper ticket (I have to get to work after all) and phoned Clipper customer service again. The agent informed me that the first agent was incorrect in advising me that I didn't need to tag on/off that morning, and that I needed to tag on/off the next day and everything would be fine. The conductor on the train should have known this policy and advised me to tag on/off instead of purchasing a paper ticket. SUGGESTION: ensure all customer service agents and Caltrain conductors are experts at the Clipper policies.

  3. The following day (Tuesday 5/10) I tagged on/off and a regular one-way fare was deducted from my balance, not the monthly pass that I was expecting. Another call to Clipper customer service yielded information that the "autoload message errored out" (I do not know what this means) and that she would put in a request to have another autoload message sent through the system. She also advised me to phone back later that day so that she could put in a request for the one-way fare to be refunded, since the "tags" do not make it back to the central database more than a few times a day. Ok, thank you very much -- 30 minutes for that call, and 30 minutes for the followup call later in the afternoon to get my money back. SUGGESTION: decrease the time between tagging events and customer service agents being able to see those events.

  4. This morning (Wednesday 5/11) I tagged on/off and again a regular one-way fare was deducted. ANOTHER call to Clipper customer service to try to get to the bottom of this. After giving up on one unhelpful agent, I called back again and spoke with someone more helpful who informed me that starting on the 10th of the month, monthly passes would NEVER be able to be initialized. The previous two agents apparently did not know this part of the lengthy Clipper policy book, and thus this explains why the autoload was failing the past two days. She advised me that the best course of action at this point is to purchase 8 ride tickets for the remainder of the month. This is very inconvenient for me. SUGGESTION: ensure all customer service agents are experts at the Clipper policies.

I am VERY FRUSTRATED at this point. I have spent over three hours on the phone with customer service agents who do not know the Clipper policies, and have led me astray multiple times with bad information. I wish I could "take my business elsewhere" but there are really no other options.

Yes, had I tagged off on that first day there would not have been a problem. A well designed system allows for easy recovery from mistakes. Clipper does not fit this criteria. Clipper's policies and agents make mistakes costly and expensive for riders. Clipper is a very poorly designed system.

Please please please take my suggestions to heart. With a better system, Caltrain should see increased ridership through increased rider satisfaction. I think an electronic card is a good direction, but it is implemented so poorly at this point it's net value is questionable.

Sincerely, Zack Steinkamp