A familiar form of chaos

Even so, Metra customers will expect better after chaotic rollout of new fare-collection software

It is small consolation to Metra that it is not alone among sufferers of software meltdowns like the Feb. 1 Ventra calamity that introduced a new fee schedule intended to be simpler and, in some cases, cheaper for commuters.

Instead of a comfortable, convenient means of paying for rides, commuters suffered through several days of software crashes and slowdowns so severe that Metra eventually had to suspend collecting fares until the sources of the problems were identified and repaired.

It was a period of frustration, anger and distrust at a time when the rail agency is strenuously seeking to lure back riders who fell away during the pandemic years and seem to have become accustomed to the alternatives.

It’s easy to identify with the company. Software meltdowns have plagued highly anticipated startups from the famous initial failure of to public and private disasters including a 2020 state voter registration implementation, numerous county vote-counting system failures here in the suburbs and businesses too numerous to mention — yours probably among them. The move to new levels of technology always comes with promises of extensive trials and preparation for a seamless transition but almost just as frequently seems to fall embarrassingly short.

In Metra’s case, the vendor for its Ventra app, the information technology company Cubic, took full responsibility for the chaos and issued seemingly sincere, but also familiar to such situations, bromides.

Cubic General Manager Matt Newsome told the Metra Board of Directors that nearly 10 months of testing seemed to promise a problem-free launch of the new system. But …

“The change to the app centered around the new fare structure, which was incredibly complex,” he said.

Understandably, Metra’s leadership was not thoroughly impressed.

“You’re not the ones that have been hurt by this,” Director Melinda Bush of Grayslake told Newsome. “Metra has been damaged by this. You knew that the application was more complex. And to not have anticipated that — is something you are responsible for.”

Indeed, that is true, literally as well as figuratively. The vendor contract requires Cubic to compensate Metra for its losses, and Newsome told the board it has provided refunds to riders, who can still contact to file claims.

But it was Metra Director Rodney Craig, village president of Hanover Park, who offered perhaps the most sobering and most relevant warning, not just to Cubic but to the board itself.

“(A) first failure of this magnitude, it's ‘shame on you.’ ” he said. “If it happens again, it's ‘shame on us.’ ”

That’s an assessment that, no matter how much they may identify or sympathize with the position in which Metra found itself, customers are likely also to share — and to remember when it comes time to make decisions about transportation to and from the city.

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