Tag Archives: Opus

Opus subscription comes with guarantee

The STM has launched its Opus subscription program, which allows people to register for automatic Opus card renewal through pre-authorized credit card payments or direct deposit.

Though the service offers no financial incentive (like a 12th month free), it does come with a replacement guarantee, which means that if you lose or break your Opus card, you can get it replaced, with the fare on it, for only the cost of the card itself.

The Opus system was supposed to offer this for all card holders, but for some reason it has been delayed. So far it is only offered for cards that come with photo ID.

New deadline for Opus renewal: Nov. 15

The AMT and STM have decided to give reduced-fare Opus users a one-time grace period to renew their ID cards (probably since many of them – including my little brother – didn’t know they had to renew their cards, thinking they were good for two years).

Students now have until Nov. 15 (which I guess means they can buy their November passes but they can’t use them past that date?)

The STM says it is buying ads on Facebook to reach many of those students and remind them of this weird new policy.

Opus renewals running smoothly, surprisingly

People get information from workers outside SPEQ Photo at McGill

People get information from workers outside SPEQ Photo at McGill

In early September, when students had to line up for hours to get photo ID Opus cards to take the bus and metro to school, the STM suffered the wrath of users and the media, and appear to be committed to not repeating this problem.

In order to handle increased demand as students renew their Opus photo ID cards, they have setup new temporary locations at Berri-UQAM, Côte-Vertu, Lionel-Groulx, Honoré-Beaugrand and Jean-Talon metro stations, as well as the Fairview bus terminus in Pointe-Claire.

But, as if they were trying to make this whole thing as complicated as possible, there’s one set of locations for renewing cards, and an entirely different set for replacing cards. And they all have different opening hours (and days).

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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.

CAM stop the music

OPUS mug shot

The word came down a few weeks ago: May 2009 would be the last month that regular monthly passes would be given out at the STM. From June 1, everyone, including me, would have to switch to Opus.

I had resisted for months for various reasons. First of all, they cost more. I could pay $68.50 for a regular pass or $72 for a regular pass on an Opus card. I chose the cheaper option. Since Opus cards have expiry dates on them, mine will now last longer than those who jumped on board right away.

Furthermore, despite being used by thousands of commuters, the system wasn’t fully tested yet. There were still flaws, enough to give The Gazette’s Max Harrold an almost endless supply of Squeaky Wheels columns.


  • The cards are slow compared to the magnetic passes. Like those single-use magnetic cards that are littering our streets and metro stations, there is a delay as the computer reads them. It takes about two seconds from the point you put a card on a reader to the point where it’s recognized. Multiply that by all the passengers getting on a bus, and everything becomes slower.
  • There is no way for a human being to verify an Opus card. If the computer system breaks down or a reader doesn’t work, a bus driver or booth attendant can’t simply look at the card and see that it has a pass on it. So they’re trained to simply let you through when problems like this occur.
  • Some smaller transit agencies haven’t yet installed Opus readers on all their buses, including CITSO, which serves Châteauguay.
  • One of the primary advantages of Opus to consumers was supposed to be that they could register their cards and get replacements (with their fares intact) in case the cards get lost. Unfortunately, this system isn’t running yet for regular users. Instead, they say forms will be available “in 2009.” The STM blames the other transit agencies because they all need to be on the same page for this to launch.
  • Though the Opus card machines all look the same, you can’t buy all the different kinds of fares at all the stations.
  • Though users are encouraged to have different types of fares from different agencies on the cards, you can’t put STM tickets and AMT TRAM tickets on the same card, because readers on STM buses don’t know which one to deduct. The workaround is to use two cards, but that causes problems for seniors and students using reduced-fare cards ($13.50 each since a photo is required).
Opus machines run on Windows

Opus machines run on Windows - Floppy disk fail!

And, of course, the machines have a habit of breaking down.

Because I’m an uninteresting transit user (one STM monthly pass), I haven’t experienced any problems yet. And most others made the transition smoothly as well. Others saw long lines as they tried to get cards.

A selection of monthly passes I've used over 16 years

A selection of monthly passes I've used over 16 years


Even if the various problems are eventually solved, I’m going to miss those plastic monthly passes and their magnetic strips, called CAM for “carte autobus-métro”. Each month had a new design (designed top secret to discourage counterfeiting) and since January 2008 had pictures of metro stations on them.

I’ve had monthly passes since I started high school in September of 1993 (you can see that pass in the foreground above), and bought a pass every month since September 1996. First a reduced fare card, then the AMT’s intermediate fare until I was 22, then back to reduced fare under the Carte Privilège, and finally an adult fare as of November 2005 when my last student pass expired. That’s 183 monthly passes, ranging in price from $17.50 to $68.50.

And I’ll miss the sounds of those mechanical turnstiles and the two-tone access-granted sound they issue. Instead, all we get is a soulless beep.

What’s next

The process of conversion is still ongoing. Here’s what’s in store over the coming months:

July 1:

  • The weekly CAM Hebdo stops being sold, with some exceptions
  • Seniors and students 6-11 will be forced to switch to photo ID Opus cards as reduced-fare CAMs won’t be sold (Students 12+ were forced to switch in the fall since ID cards were only issued in Opus form)
  • Single-use tickets will no longer be sold in reduced fare – they can only be loaded onto Opus cards
  • Students 12-17 will no longer be able to pay cash for bus trips (seniors and children will still be able to for now)
  • The AMT stops selling magnetic-stripe TRAM passes for zones 1-3, forcing those users to switch to Opus.

Sept. 1:

  • Old-style tickets will no longer be accepted for fares (those with tickets left can get them exchanged)
  • The STM begins its proof-of-payment system, so everyone on a bus or metro train will be required to keep proof of payment on them at all times and can be fined if they’re found without it

Jan. 1:

  • As all remaining transit agencies complete their Opus system installation, the magnetic-stripe TRAM card will no longer be sold
  • Unless there’s another extension, the “discount” on Opus cards ends, and their price climbs from $3.50 to $7.
Old-style tickets and transfers from a decomissioned turnstile are swept into a pile with dust to be thrown away.

Old-style tickets and transfers from a decomissioned turnstile are swept into a pile with dust to be thrown away. The tickets are no longer sold and will not be accepted as of Sept. 1.

Maybe I’m just afraid of change.

UPDATE: Another ode to the CAM at Hors des lieux communs.