New Zealand’s biggest news site today wrote a story basically accusing Auckland Transport (AT) of being thieves. I’d hate to be working at AT tomorrow having to be dealing with the fallout from this alt fact fake news.
This story has resulted in mass confusion from AT HOP card holders and lead many people to believe they’re going to lose the credit on their AT HOP cards if they don’t use them every 60 days. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The woman in the story topped up her AT HOP card online. The key point here is that AT HOP card, like any other stored value public transport card has the balance stored on the card itself. There are two ways to load credit onto the AT HOP card – the first is to do this at a retailer or AT HOP kiosk, and the second is to do this online.
Until the balance is physically loaded onto the card it doesn’t actually exist.
When you top up a AT HOP card at a kiosk or retailer it’s a real time transaction and your card balance update is immediately applied.
When you top up your card online it’s a two part process. First off you “buy” the credit online using your credit card. Typically this payment data is downloaded to every AT HOP terminal across the network in every bus, train and ferry overnight. When you now tag on to a bus, train or ferry, or ask for a balance query at a AT HOP terminal that new balance will be applied to your AT HOP card.
The woman in this story purchased the credit online but ignored the very clear instructions provided during the online top up process. Her balance never “mysteriously dropped to zero” as it was always zero. As she didn’t use the new card within 60 days of the online transaction her balance was never applied to her card.
Many people who have read the story now mistakenly believe that they will lose their AT HOP card balance if they don’t use it every 60 days.
The actual story here is the 60 day period that exists between purchasing credit online and using your AT HOP card on a bus, train or ferry, or asking for a balance at an AT HOP terminal. If you fail to use your card within 60 days of an online top up, your top up is removed from the system.
As explained above every night every AT HOP terminal is loaded with a file that contains online payment details and card numbers. Every time a person taps on to a bus, train or ferry this database needs to be queried to check if credit needs to be applied to the card.
A typical HOP transaction takes around 350ms to occur – in this time the card is read, the database queried to see if the card is valid or blocked, the top up database is checked to see if a top up balance needs to be applied to the card, and lastly the new balance is written back to the card. Every step of this process takes time, and time is critical. If transaction times were doubled to 700ms for example it would cause considerable delays to the tag on process and would create significant delays for people boarding their bus.
Best practice for any ticketing solution anywhere in the world is to have a period of time where online top up data is stored on terminals before it’s removed. If this data is stored indefinitely it would simply slow down card processing times to the point where the customer experience would be impacted.
Many people have accused AT of theft. This can’t be further from the truth. The credit is sitting there waiting for the AT card holder to tell them what to do with it, and it seems AT are only too happy to credit this back when people do make contact.
An analogy of this would be to compare it to ordering and paying for a product online from a click and collect retailer but never actually going to the store to pick it up. When you finally do the retailer has sent the product back to the warehouse because they don’t have room to store it. They’ve simply been waiting for you to contact them to tell them what you’d like to do.
Automatically refunding the balance back to the credit card that was used is not a good solution. Credit card numbers change and the card used may also not belong to the card holder.
AT’s best approach should be to make contact with the card holder if the top up isn’t applied within 60 days. I have no idea if this is process or not, but as a card has to be registered to be topped up online AT should have contact details for the card holder.
If you’re an AT HOP card holder you can be rest assured your balance will not expire if your card is not used every 60 days. As per AT HOP terms and conditions (section 9) any credit on an AT HOP card will expire if an AT HOP card is not used for a period of 6 years.
If you’re somebody who tops up online, ensure you use your card within 60 days by either taking a journey or checking the balance at an AT HOP kiosk or retailer so the balance can be applied.
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