The CharlieCard is a MIFARE-based, contactless, stored value smart card used for electronic ticketing as part of the Automated Fare Collection (AFC) system installed by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) at its stations and on its vehicles. The CharlieCard was made available to the general public beginning December 4, 2006. The last metal token was sold on December 6, 2006, at Government Center station.
The CharlieCard is named after a fictional character in a folk music song often called "Charlie on the MTA", which concerns a man trapped forever on the Boston subway system (then known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA) because he can not pay the 5-cent surcharge required to leave the train.
Since the card's introduction, the Charlie character has been used on a variety of MBTA signs, including construction signage and for directing passengers to various locations.
The CharlieCard is named after the title character in the 1948 protest folk music song, "Charlie on the MTA". The song was written to protest a fare increase in the form of an extra five cent exit fare for longer rides and was later made popular by the Kingston Trio in 1959.
One of the rejected names for the farecard system was "The Fare Cod", a pun on both the way locals might pronounce "Card" and the fish that was once integral to the Massachusetts economy, and also a reference to other transit cards named for ocean animals, such as London's Oyster and Hong Kong's Octopus. Another rejected name was T Go card with the T being the symbol for the MBTA.
The CharlieCard can store value (keep a cash balance) and hold a combination of time-based passes which allow unlimited rides during a set period of time. Passengers use the plastic, RFID-based CharlieCard by tapping it flat against a target on a gate or a vehicle farebox. If left in a wallet, the card can usually be read when the wallet is placed on the reader. The entire card must be completely flat against the target or else the system might double-charge the customer. The gate or farebox then either automatically debits the cost of the passenger's ride, or verifies that the card has a valid transfer or that the card has a pass that is valid for travel at the given time and location. Transit riders can add value or a monthly pass to their cards at machines located at MBTA stations and vehicles, MBTA ticket offices, retail sales terminals at select outlets and online.
The original CharlieCards show no expiration date, but they do expire without warning five years after they were first activated. The first cards began expiring around November 2011. Users may tap their cards at a kiosk to find information on the expiration date; this information is not available online. To replace an expired CharlieCard, users must go to the Downtown Crossing pass sales office during weekday business hours, or mail the card to the MBTA. Money left on the expired card can be moved to the replacement card. This policy is in violation of Massachusetts Gift Certificate Law (Chapter 510 of the Acts of 2002, Chapter 18 of the Acts of 2003) as a Stored Value CharlieCard fits the definition of an electronic card with a banked dollar value, yet currently there is no telephone or internet way for a customer to learn their balance, so Stored Value CharlieCards are supposed to never expire, according to the law, even though they currently expire for non-use.[original research?]
CharlieCards work on the MBTA's subway and bus services, most of which were converted in 2006. They were originally expected to be usable on MBTA commuter rail and ferry boat services by December 2008, with testing on the Commuter Rail originally planned for summer 2008. However, testing had been pushed back to 2009, and full implementation had not been expected until 2011. By 2012, the MBTA had abandoned plans to accept CharlieCards on the commuter rail system. CharlieCards are not accepted on THE RIDE.
CharlieCards are gradually being expanded to the other transit authorities in Massachusetts. CharlieCard acceptance has expanded to the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority (October 2010), Brockton Area Transit Authority (March 2011), Lowell Regional Transit Authority (November 2011), Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (branded "Tap and Ride Card"; February 2012), Montachusett Regional Transit Authority (March 2012), Worcester Regional Transit Authority (April 2012), Cape Ann Transportation Authority. Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (January 2013), and Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority (November 2012).
On September 18, 2008, two bike parking cages were made available at the Alewife station, next to the MBTA parking garage. The cages can hold up to 150 bikes each. The MBTA announced plans to install secure bike cages at other stations with large numbers of bicycle users.
In the past, access to these cages required a free special Bike CharlieCard. But as of the spring of 2013, any CharlieCard can be registered for bike cage access.
The automated fare collection equipment is also compatible with the MBTA's CharlieTicket, a paper card with a magnetic stripe that operates as a stored-value card or time-period (monthly, weekly, or daily) pass. The MBTA first implemented the stored-value CharlieTicket on the Silver Line in February 2005. The ticket is inserted into a slot in the gate or farebox, the fare is deducted, and the remaining balance is displayed on a small screen. The ticket is then returned to the rider even if there is no remaining value.
CharlieCards can be reloaded, and CharlieTickets can be purchased and exchanged for new ones at Fare Vending Machines (FVMs) in converted stations, and elsewhere in the system including buses. All FVMs accept credit and debit cards; most also accept cash and coins, including the discontinued MBTA tokens. The AFC fareboxes on buses and light rail trains accept CharlieCards, Change Tickets, CharlieTickets, cash (up to $20 bills), coins, and MBTA tokens. When customers pay with cash on the bus, they may receive their change on a "ChangeTicket".
The MBTA gives a discount for CharlieCard users that began with the fare increase that took effect on January 1, 2007, and continuing with the July 1, 2012 increase. For example, a subway or trolley ride costs $2 with a CharlieCard but $2.50 with a CharlieTicket or cash. Local bus riders get a $0.50 discount with a CharlieCard ($1.50 vs $2), express bus riders pay an extra $1 or $1.50 depending on the route, and similar surcharges had been planned for commuter rail, and harbor ferries, but not THE RIDE. The MBTA also plans to continue providing the cards themselves free of charge, at pass offices, at stations throughout the system, at local retailers, and online.
There is also a senior citizen/disabled citizen Charlie pass, with reduced fares for qualifying individuals, called a "Senior/TAP" (Transportation Access Pass) CharlieCard. Middle school and high school students also can obtain a discounted CharlieCard.
Effect on transit employees
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Token collectors have been retrained as Customer Service Agents (CSAs), brought out of their booths, and assigned to guide MBTA customers in the stations. However, new insulated booths were constructed which allow the CSAs to monitor fare machine use and assist when necessary. The MBTA also plans "Hub Stations" within six existing subway stations. These glass-walled control rooms will house personnel monitoring various signal and alarm systems, including closed-circuit television. Personnel in the Hub Stations will be able to direct customer service agents to customers, and will interact with customers via call boxes located throughout the system. To support the added technology, the MBTA is connecting all subway stations in a fiber optic loop digital network, largely using its own right of way.
Automated Fare Collection facilities
The bulk of the MBTA's vehicles and stations were transitioned to the CharlieCard-compatible system throughout 2006, with Fields Corner the last to be converted on December 22, 2006.
Fare Vending Machines are available at all underground stations, as well as on the baggage-claim level of Logan International Airport terminals, inside Fenway Park, and at all stations on the Green Line "D" Branch. Proof-of-Payment Validation machines will also be installed at selected stops on the other Green Line branches.
There are no plans to install Fare Vending Machines at Silver Line surface stops at the present time. Instead, the MBTA plans to install fare card sales terminals inside retail stores at other heavily trafficked locations in the system, including along busy bus routes and near selected Green Line and Silver Line stops, and in non-traditional locations such as Fenway Park.
CharlieCard on the Green Line
The Green Line is the most heavily traveled light rail line in the United States, with an average of 230,000 riders each weekday. Because of this heavy ridership, at selected stops on the Green Line the MBTA implemented a system known as Show-N-Go, which allows riders to flash their monthly passes and enter through the rear doors of a train, reducing congestion at the front door. This worked well when monthly passes were on paper tickets, as each month's pass differed visually from the previous month, but became an issue when the MBTA encouraged riders to store their monthly passes on their CharlieCards, as passes held this way cannot be verified visually.
The MBTA's solution was to turn the surface portion of the Green Line into a proof-of-payment system to increase the efficiency of boarding at peak times on surface Green Line stops. All doors on all trolleys open at some or all stations, depending on the branch. Passengers can pay their fare in several ways, depending on their payment method. Passengers paying with cash must enter through the front door and pay at the farebox, where they may receive a proof-of-payment receipt. Stored-value CharlieCard or CharlieTicket holders may also need to pay at the farebox.
However, selected stops on all four of the Green Line branches contained ticket validators which allowed passengers to have money deducted from their CharlieCards or CharlieTickets before boarding, and provided them with a proof-of-payment. With this receipt in hand, passengers could enter through the rear doors of trolleys. In addition, MBTA inspectors with handheld validators were stationed at the busiest stops to deduct money from and verify monthly passes on CharlieCards, also allowing these riders to enter through any door. (Thirty of the handheld readers had been deployed, with an additional 20 coming by the end of January 2007, according to the MBTA.) Persons holding monthly passes could also just enter through any doors. All passengers, even those who entered through the rear doors, were still be required to go to the front of the train and make payment (or show their receipt) to trolley drivers. MBTA Transit Police conducted random checks to make sure riders had paid their fares.
In July 2012, the MBTA reverted to a "front door only" boarding policy on surface stations outside of peak hours to combat fare evasion. This policy also requires passengers getting off the streetcar to walk all the way to the front of the car to exit.
Security flaws in the CharlieCard technology were studied and reported in a presentation by Henryk Plötz and Karsten Nohl at the Chaos Communication Congress in December 2007, which described a partial reverse-engineering of the algorithm used in the MIFARE Classic chip. The MIFARE Classic smartcard from NXP Semiconductors, owned by Philips, was reported as compromised in March 2008 by a group of researchers led by Karsten Nohl, a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science, University of Virginia.
In addition, the security used on the mag-stripe CharlieTickets was broken by a team of MIT students. They were scheduled to give a talk about their findings at DEFCON 16 in August 2008, but were stopped after a federal lawsuit was filed against them by the MBTA, which resulted in a restraining order being issued. However, their presentation had already been published by DEFCON before the complaint was filed. On August 19, the court ruled the students could give their presentation.
Other MIT students leveraged the technology behind Charlie Cards in 2013, with the development of Sesame Ring, a wearable ring embedded with an RFID tag that would save riders time in passing through MBTA station turnstiles. The students formed a company called Ring Theory and funded development of the product using a Kickstarter campaign. Sesame Ring can now be ordered online.
Other transit systems employing technology similar to that used in the CharlieCard include Atlanta (the Breeze Card), New York City (MetroCard), Washington D.C (SmarTrip), Chicago (Chicago Card/Ventra), the San Francisco Bay Area (Clipper card), Houston (METRO Q Card), Los Angeles (TAP Card), Miami (EASY Card), Hong Kong (the Octopus Card), Montreal (OPUS card), Greater Toronto Area & Ottawa (Presto card), Seoul (T-money), Shanghai, Taipei (EasyCard), Singapore, Tokyo (Suica), Delhi (Yatri Card)and London (the Oyster Card).
- Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. "The Charlie Card Reusable Ticket System". Retrieved 2006-12-29.
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- MBTA bids farewell to an era the last brass tokens are sold
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- MBTA, Fares and Passes: Reduced Fare Programs"
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- Cf. Wikipedia MIFARE Security article
- NXP Product information on the Mifare card
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- DEFCON 16 Speaker and Talk Abstract list - August 8, 2008
- McGraw-Herdeg, Michael and Vogt, Marissa, "Students’ subway security talk canceled by court order", MIT Tech newspaper, August 8, 2008
- Defcon Speakers Sued
- "EFF to Fight Order Forcing Students to Cancel Subway Hacking Presentation". Efluxmedia. August 12, 2008.
- Judge backs hackers in Boston subway dispute
- Slice of MIT. "Wear your MBTA Pass as a Ring." http://alum.mit.edu/pages/sliceofmit/2013/08/30/wear-your-mbta-pass-as-a-ring/ Retrieved 2013-09-05.
- http://www.ringtheory.com/ Retrieved 2014-04-10.
- Brelinsky, Ian; Myhre, Brian; Novosad, Jennifer; Suarez, Chris, "Privacy, SmartCards and the MBTA: A Policy Analysis of the MBTA’s New Automated Fare Collection System", MIT 6.805 class project paper, December 10, 2004, Massachusetts Institute of Technology