The Opus bottleneck

Thousands cram their way into the Place des Arts metro station after a free Stevie Wonder concert on June 30.

Thousands cram their way into the Place des Arts metro station after a free Stevie Wonder concert on June 30.

Being the city of festivals, Montreal is no stranger to mass gatherings. It happens so often that the STM has gotten crowd control down to a science. Two stations – Pie IX and Jean-Drapeau – were specifically designed to handle large crowds for big events. Others can, with the help of some extra staff, be made to handle lots of people for a special event. It happens every Saturday night at Papineau (during the fireworks festival), and after every Habs home game at Lucien L’Allier.

The way it works used to be very simple. Open up a gate or unlock a turnstile, pull out one of those old-style fare collection boxes, and have an employee accept change, collect tickets or check passes to herd the crowd through quickly. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped a great deal.

At least, it did until Opus.

Users try to figure out the new turnstiles at Place des Arts

Users try to figure out the new turnstiles at Place des Arts

The Opus smart card has a lot of things going for it. It allows the STM to better control fares, it can be replaced when lost (assuming it is registered), it can be refilled, and it reduces human error in fare collection.

But there are also problems with it, similar to the problems I earlier mentioned with the accompanying magnetic-stripe cards. Two of them have a direct relevance here:

  1. Opus is not human-readable
  2. Opus is slow

The first part makes it useless to add extra staff. You can’t tell by looking at an Opus card whether it’s valid or not. You can’t manually deduct fares from an Opus card. Without a specialized reader (and I’ve yet to see an STM employee with a portable one), all they can do is tell you to stand in line at one of the turnstiles.

The tickets are a bit easier. Fare information is printed on the back, and so they can be taken and verified. Exact change can also be counted by a human. So long as the old paper transfers are still available, this method can still be used to clear passengers. But the vast majority of users use unlimited passes of some kind, either weekly or monthly.

The second part only makes the situation worse. With a magnetic-stripe plastic CAM, sliding the card through its reader would receive instant feedback: a green light and welcoming chime saying the card is valid, or a red X that denies the card-holder entry. The mechanical computer would make its decision by the time the card had completed its swipe.

With Opus, though, the computer takes a couple of seconds to figure out whether a card is valid. It may not seem much, but multiply that couple of seconds by thousands of passengers, and the delays add up.

Turnstiles at Papineau

Turnstiles at Papineau after fireworks

At the Papineau metro station on Saturday night, I decided to actually time how fast people could get through. In one minute, 80 people made their way through the five turnstiles (including the one at the booth). That works out to 16 people a minute through each turnstile, or one every 3.75 seconds. Last year, with the extra staff checking passes through an open gate, the rate was much higher.

Passengers board the 45 Papineau after fireworks

Passengers board the 45 Papineau after fireworks

Outside, passengers heading up Papineau were boarding the 45 bus. It took four minutes and 25 seconds to board 65 passengers (all standing in a line), which works out to about four seconds for each passenger. In the pre-Opus days, passengers would board buses as fast as they could climb the stairs.

It’s not obvious what can be done to alleviate this problem. There’s no simple way to design cheap smart cards that show their contents in a human-readable way. A redesign of the readers that would allow them to communicate faster would certainly be much better, if such a thing is technically feasible. Otherwise we’ll just have to live with longer delays when using public transit.

35 thoughts on “The Opus bottleneck

  1. DAVE ID

    Bottle-necking at the turnstiles or bottle-necking at the platform? If you prevent the bottle-neck at the turnstiles its gonna bottleneck at the platform. You cannot win. Though if you bottleneck at the turnstile it slows down the traffic to the platform allowing for a smoother loading and unloading of trains. Which though maybe not optimal sounds better as a system.

    Your hard-on for bitching about Opus has led you to clutch at straws I’m afraid.

    Opus creates less trash. Management is easier and requires less staff. And seriously, barring the Cloverfield Monster a few seconds ain’t gonna kill nobody in the Metro plus we’re not in Kyoto.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Bottle-necking at the turnstiles or bottle-necking at the platform? If you prevent the bottle-neck at the turnstiles its gonna bottleneck at the platform. You cannot win. Though if you bottleneck at the turnstile it slows down the traffic to the platform allowing for a smoother loading and unloading of trains.

      It’s very rarely such an either-or proposition. Any event large enough to require extra staff also requires extra trains, which arrive at the station empty. There is no bottlenecking at the platform level because there’s almost always a train in the station.

      1. DAVE ID

        There’s ALWAYS bottle-necking at the platform after events. especially at the stadium. I consider letting 6 trains go by before I get on a bottleneck.

  2. Beeg

    It’s been about a year since the STM introduced Opus following months of anticipation-building press leaks. Remember how they went on and on about how they studied the transit cards in London and Hong Kong, copying the best elements and rejecting the worst?

    It’s been a year since Montrealers were told they would soon be able to register their Opus cards in case of loss or theft. Moreover, you could go online, access your account and refill your card without having to go to a Metro station (super awesome for people who take a bus to get to a Metro). This seemed to be the chief user-side advantage to the new system. Buy a card once, set up an automatic debit on your credit or bank account, never worry about not having bus fare. Lose your card? Log on, cancel it and buy a new one. Easy, right? Useful, right? Where are we, about a year later? If you qualify for a reduced fare and you lose your card, you can go to McGill metro to get a replacement. Otherwise, the details of the e-commerce/online management is “will be available on this site in 2009” (

    Steve has already discussed some of the other downsides, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone talk about any other real or potential upsides. Yes, the Opus card might reduce fraud, though the savinsg are mitigated by the loss of fares when the Opus reader isn’t working (and bus drivers/metro booth operators just let everybody through). The machines are insanely slow. The electronic card reader at my office, purchased in 1999, works instantly. Like in 25 milliseconds. You walk by it, pass your card near it (through clothes, a bag, whatever), you’re in. Opus? The metro readers are pretty good but the bus ones stink. I’d say half my trips were slowed by the reader not getting at the chip through the few bills inside and the thin layer of nylon that constitutes my wallet. So now I just take it out. It still takes a couple of seconds. When fifteen people are boarding the 55 at the St. Laurent metro, the extra time means a long wait (inevitably someone has a transfer and someone else is paying in change). We miss the light. More people run to the bus. It fills up even more. We get off schedule. None of this is really awful, it’s just stupid. The Opus system, at tremendous cost to the public purse and to users (that card ain’t free) was supposed to improve the transit experience. By all accounts I’ve read, it’s made it worse.

    Now, had they integrated the Opus card into the Bixi network, I would’ve been really impressed, and ready to give the STM and its regional cohorts a pass.

    Opus fail.

    PS: To reply to the actual content of Steve’s post, in cases like these, why not just let everybody through gratuit? Sure, it represents a cost to the system, but who cares? Not a horrible trade-off, in my opinion, especially if crowds are piling up.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I don’t recall any promises to be able to add fares online, though perhaps I missed it.

      One of the big selling points was the ability to pay for fares by credit and debit card, and that works (most of the time).

      As for letting people on free, that would only increase the traffic on the system, and the delays aren’t so disruptive as to necessitate it (besides, a lot of people who go to these events pay cash or tickets, which is pure profit for the STM).

      1. Mathieu

        You know I started writing a comment and I realized I didn’t know why the fuck OPUS was introduced. It is now EASIER to lend your card to someone (previously you had to present a PRIVILEGE photo ID along with a reduced CAM to the bus driver; now with they don’t care about the picture on OPUS), a LOT of bus RFID readers are broken which effectively results in a free ride for people when that happens AND, like pointed out here, the readers are really slow, abnormally slow even, which might mean two things:

        1) The longer time might mean that OPUS cards have more complicated circuitry and respond to a mathematical challenge to prevent piracy (so-called smart RFID cards) which is fucking ironic because it’s been hacked already.
        2) The readers are just plain POS.

        Excuse my french above… I just hate that the STM has been duped into spending millions into a poorly thought engineering project.


        1. Alex T.

          The readers ARE a POS. Like I’ve mentioned before, the problem isn’t with OPUS but with the GFI Genfare Fareboxes the STM has. Go for a ride on the RTL or one of the participating south shore CITs and you’ll notice how fast OPUS can be!

  3. Philippe-A

    In AMT trains, the ticket-issuing honnor-code-enforcing agents have portable readers. But even 3 guys with these gizmos would take way more time than a single employee visually approving the old style fares.

  4. Caroline

    Bottle-necking was very much happening on the old magnetic Cam system. I think that it isn’t so much the system that should be blamed as the stupidity of its users. I, for one, don’t take 3,75 seconds to get thru. I don’t ever even stop walking.

    1)Extend the arm with opus card in hand
    2)Place card on reader pad thingy as soon as reachable
    3)Peep walking
    4)By the time i reach the horizontal bar my card has already been read
    5)Pick up the card while going thru and ta-da.

    But most people wait to be in front of the bar to put their card on the reader pad thingy, then wait for the beep, then pick up the card, then go thru. THAT takes 3,75 seconds.

    1. DAVE ID

      Exactly. I don’t notice a slowdown either. I fly right through (and I take up some room).

      The biggest problem are people who don’t understand that WAVING the card doesn’t work.

    2. Pamela

      Finally…a smart comment! I too have no problems with my Opus on the bus or at the metro. I used to hate how my monthly CAM card always de-magnetized by week 3 and I would have to wait in line to show my card. Now that was a major waste of time. Yes the Opus might not be perfect…but neither was our system before. I know we Montrealers love to complain about everything but this is getting ridiculous.

      1. CJ

        Not all card-readers are the same – and I have to believe that not all the cards are the same either.
        My card takes a VERY noticeable delay before the card reader at my metro station accepts it. It is usually 3 seconds after placing it on the turnstile.

        It has already been revealed that some of the card-readers they have installed are different makes and not as efficient or quick as others.

        I’ve also had to exchange my card because there are times when it simple will not work. I got into a nasty argument with an STM employee one day after I went to the booth because my card wouldn’t work – he accused me of lending my pass to let someone through and then trying to use it myself.

        I also don’t buy the argument that OPUS produces less waste. You get 3 receipts for it from the machine. Though you do have the option to refuse them – I need them for my taxes.

    3. mare

      Unfortunately with paper tickets passing doesn’t work that way. The turn style only unlocks half a second *after* you take your ticket out, which is just too late to go through if you want to do that in a fluid motion. Plus people using tickets are obviously not using the metro very often so they’re not used at this at all and end up bumping at the bar and that costs valuable seconds.

      The readers are very slow, I went to other cities that use RFID systems like London and Rotterdam and they were much faster. And stronger so they could actually be read through your wallet, even when you have other cards in it. Must have been cheaper. Or made in Quebec. But probably not both.

    4. Kevin

      I’ve tried that technique, and I ended up slamming my crotch against the bar.
      So I usually end up swiping, holding the turnstile, and waiting for the beep.

      I guess your arms are much longer than mine.

  5. Kakei Chan

    Give it some time. In cities where RF embedded cards have been implemented in public transit for over 10 years, both system and users have matured enough to eliminate all the kinks that we are experimenting.

    Check out the speed of the Octopus card in Hong Kong:



    If that kind of speed and efficiency is imposed on the get go, people would go mad, and complaints of inhumaine ways of the system will pour in. (think of how we like to “chialer” in Quebec)

  6. Alex T.

    OPUS isn’t what’s slow, it’s the fareboxes on STM (and STL and SURF) buses that are slow.

    Go for a ride on RTL and you’ll see how lightning fast the RTL’s Proximity Reader is.

    I do agree that the lack of human verification can cause long lineups. How about, during these events, and ONLY during these events, everyone gets in free but they have to “pay” when then get out. Spreads out the queues to 60+ other stations rather than 2 or 3.


  7. Jean Naimard

    The biggest flaw in the Aux Puces (there. I revealed the [bad] pun) card is it’s fragility. Don’t bend the sucker if you don’t want to be left high and dry.
    But the system BEGS the people to bend it. 99.44% of the people I see putting the card alone on readers bend it to do so.
    Even worse, I’ve seen pharmacy cashers bend the cards when they were reloaded them.
    Instead of being a flush flat surface, the reader should be pyramid-shaped, and sufficiently small that it would be pointless to bend it to contact the card to the reader (how about making the readers more sensitive, so it could be read from 2-3 inches?).
    I was extremely lucky to find a rigid card protector. Apparently, those are only available in unicorn supply stores, halal taverns and catholic condom shops.
    And yes, it’s slooooow. I stopped counting how many times during rush-hour I’ve seen bus drivers waving a long line of people waiting to board so they can board faster. And it’s silly to assume that all people who board buses at métro stations transfer from the metro: more than once I was taking the 211 from my girlfriend’s who live near Lionel-Groulx and I was simply waved so by the driver (and, with my luck, it always happenned when I had a pass loaded on the card, not tickets [I ride my bike during the summer, so I take tickets instead of a pass]).

  8. Simon Gee

    A solution to solve bottleneck problems (and actual human visual verification) with the Opus cards during big events is this and quite simple: Remember back in the old days when you went to Cegep and you had a sticker on your Student ID that read Fall XX Winter XX. They could implement these “stickers” every month where the user can have an option/choice of either swiping the Opus card or show the bus driver/metro attendants the verified “sticker” on the Opus card. Easy solution no?

    1. Fagstein Post author

      That would lead to a lot of stickers. Plus they could be forged. Plus they would need dispensers since we’re already moving toward automated purchase of fares. Plus they couldn’t be disabled if the card got lost (and hence, couldn’t be replaced). Etc.

  9. Tux

    Just from how it was planned and implemented, I can tell Opus originated in a boardroom. Lots of guys in suits who all drove their cars to get there.

    I get angry when I think of how much implementing Opus must have cost. That money could have been used so much better. Making repairs to our crumbling leaking metro stations. (I’m just waiting for falling concrete to kill someone) Or hey, how about letting the stations in Laval act like regular metro stations and quit gouging the people whose fare hikes paid for them. Or, and here’s a crazy idea, more buses!

  10. Becks

    seems like all this Opus,automation stuff is one of those improvements that really isn’t.

    people constantly haveing problems, the system is slow, people being waved onto busses /through turnstiles(which ultimately means lost revenue)

    for years paper tickets and bus-passes worked just fine…and were low-tech….and yes the tickets can be recycled

  11. dewolf

    I only had one chance to use an Opus card before I left Montreal last summer and the scan time was a bit slower than I expected. I’m now in Hong Kong, which pioneered the use of smart cards for public transit, and it takes less than a second for the cards to be read.

  12. Jim J.

    This post reminds me why I don’t own an air conditioner in my home.

    Don’t get me wrong, an air conditioner is nice. Owning one would be snazzy, what with all that refreshing cool air washing over me when it is hot as hell outside.

    But, living in the Northeast, how many days a year would I acutally enjoy it; i.e., how many days do I actually need an air conditioner? I would say, roughly 20 to 25 days. So, why go out and spend hundreds of dollars on an air conditioner, plus all the associated electricity (wasteful in its own right), for something I need 5% to 6% of the year?

    Now, I realize Opus has its drawbacks – this post makes it clear. (Since I don’t live in Montreal anymore, I admit my insights are not perfectly <<au courant>>, either.) Also, I freely admit that Montreal has a fair amount of mass gathering events, especially in the summer.

    However, when you look at the total number of passenger boardings of metros and STM buses for an entire calendar year, what percentage of those boardings provided some kind of inconvenience (specifically, a delay getting past the card reader) to the user?

    Sometimes, you engineer systems to work appropriately 90%, or 95%, or 99% of the time. Beyond that is either too complicated, too expensive, or simply incompatible with infrastructure or technology.

    And as for Habs games, just walk over to Bonaventure or up to Peel Metro. For Pete’s sake, it’s what, five minutes’ walk?

    And one final point – if you honestly expected Opus (or any system concocted by a government, for that matter) to work perfectly right out of the box, then I wish I had your sense of optimism. As someone who works in government, I can sincerely say that you can put 25 brilliant and experienced minds in a room to concoct an initiative, run it through 10 different agencies and bureaucracies, run 2 pilot projects – there is always some unanticipated event that will come up – even something that seems painfully obvious to the average person who has the benefit of hindsight.

  13. Shawn

    To those above who talk about how their Opus cards work so flawlessly: mine worked great the first month, but as soon as I recharged it for month two it started to get erratic.

    Opus, to me, is like Bixi. Something that looks fine to designers but functions poorly in real world.

  14. ladyjaye

    One thing I hate about the Opus is how if you go too fast, your card gets read and you can’t go through and then you get the evil eye (if not rightout yelled at, like it happened to me before) by the STM employee who has to let you through… If the readers worked properly, this wouldn’t happen (just like someone else pointed above, my office card let me through much faster than the Opus ever has so far).

    And don’t get me started on the AMT (we had a REALLY bad experience last week involving the use of 2008 tix at Lucien L’allier AFTER I had called them to ask about the procedure to follow for using them). My bf was treated like shit by the employees there and we lost so much time that we missed the train to St-Jérôme and took the Metro to Laval instead. And yes, we filed a complaint afterwards.

      1. ladyjaye

        They told me that all I had to do was to go to the ticket counter and exchange the 2008 tickets for 2009 tickets. In reality, this is how it works: they will reimburse the 2008 tickets but if you want current tickets, you gotta pay full unit price or buy a set of tickets (on an Opus card no less, which makes it impossible to split while on premises). We wanted to pay the 33-cent difference but to no avail.

  15. Caroline

    Oh and about the old ”OPus is not human readable” argument that you keep bringing up in all your Opus-bitching posts, and that when there’s a reader that is not working, then people get in ”free” and they end up losing money…Seriously?

    Back in my old days of Cegep Ahuntsic, at least half the every bus load that I ever boarded only made a color copy of the montly cam and stuck in their little card holder with the privilege card and voilà! I can count on one hand the number of times I saw people getting busted for it. Were they human readable? Yea sure. Did the drivers ever actually bother to check if they were genuine? Lol

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Opus was designed to cut down on fraud, and I don’t argue that this wasn’t successful. In the case of photocopied passes, some drivers just never checked them, though almost all cases I’ve seen where blatant fraud was attempted on a bus the person was discovered. Those lazy drivers who let photocopied passes through are just as likely to let people get by without validating their Opus cards.

  16. Jean Naimard

    More Opus “FAIL”…

    I just cleaned the pockets and nooks and crannies and couch and whatnot where loose change usually congregates and I had more than $20.

    So I decide to load 10 tickets on the “carte qui gratte”* and head for my friendly neighbourhood métro station.

    Since it was late at night, no change I’d inconvenience people while stuffing more than a handful of change in the machine.

    So, here I go, pumping coins in the machine, while the counter goes down slowly…

    $19 … $17 … $15.15 … $12.05 …

    When I got at about $1.65, the screen went red, said something about having too big a refund value or something like that, and the machine puked every single coin I put.

    I tried a second time…

    $19 … $16.25 … $12.50 … $8.65 …

    And, again, at about $1.65, the machine puked every coin again.

    It hates me, I guess. Luckily, I did not get a BSOD…

    So I go to the changeur, and ask him if he could give me some change. I hand him 26 quarters, and I get back three shiny polar bears, which I stuff again in the machine, along with the rest of the change, and I finally got my 10 tickets.

    The receipt only says $20.00, though, not 304938 coins…

    * Scratchy card – aux puces – get it??? :)

  17. Mystic

    The one thing I found useful about OPUS was that you could use Interac to buy your 6 tickets at the machine, rather than carrying cash with you. I was ripped off 3 times by the OPUS machine claiming that my payment was accepted then later resending the message and saying it was refused, yet ended up charging my bank account. Thankfully it was removed from my account, but only 4 days later! Still, it was pretty useful for those that had no money. Now I find out that beginning last month that they will no longer be distributing 6 tickets in the automated vendors. So I have to go back to the Changeur, with cash, just like the good ‘ol days. Which means in the end that this new system has reversed back to how it was in the past, except now you’re given a piece of paper that if you put it in your pocket, there’s a high probability that it won’t work anymore when you try and use it. So infact, the system has reversed even further back. Magnetic tickets never refused me if a corner was bent, or ever got stuck in the turnstile preventing people from using that turnstile until someone fixes it.

    I don’t use public transit everyday, like I used to, but right now I’ll tell you that my once or twice a week voyage into the city where I never had any problems with transit before, with the exception of the line closures, now boasts a slew of new problems I’d rather pass on. I’ve gone through 2 OPUS cards that just plain stopped working after 2 or 3 uses, several trips to the changeur to reissue a ticket so that the machine would read it, and even some instances where I was able to validate my ticket, but the turnstiles would refuse to unlock to let me through and I was forced to slip through because there were 20+ people waiting in line at the changeurs box.

    And you know what. All this work to prevent fraud, and the only people it’s really going to affect are the honest people that pay for their fare whenever they use transit… The rest will continue to hop turnstiles, walk right passed bus drivers when getting on and spit at the feet of inspectors. And that’s how life will go on…


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