The San Diego-based weapons systems manufacturer that also built Metro Vancouver’s Compass Card system fought for two years to keep TransLink’s serious concerns about its product a secret, before documents detailing those concerns were finally released to CTV News.

As millions in cost overruns mounted and the system’s fare gates sat idle for years, a freedom of information request shows that behind the scenes, TransLink was demanding that Cubic Corporation do a better job living up to its end of the $194-million deal.

Those letters – secret until now – may have shifted public anger from TransLink to its contractor, and may have affected the results of a referendum that was fought on alleged TransLink mismanagement, observers said.

“This project was a total disaster from a couple different points of view,” said NDP transit critic David Eby. “Maybe we could have realized this wasn’t explicitly TransLink’s fault, that they’ve got this vendor who’s not doing the job, and maybe that would have made a difference in the referendum.” 

Eby said he’s surprised the problems in the Compass system haven’t ended up in court, as has happened in other jurisdictions using Cubic technology. “I really think that TransLink and the provincial government should have grown a spine and sued,” he said.

Cubic Corporation’s subsidiary Cubic Transportation Systems was hired in 2010 to build the Compass Card system in Metro Vancouver, which would allow riders to use a card rather than cash and paper transfers to pay for transit rides.

At the time, the company seemed a good choice: it was operating the fare card system an iconic metro system, the London Underground.

According to the contract, the Compass system was meant to be up and running by March 2013. But months later, while Compass fare gates were installed, the system wasn’t being rolled out. 

The problem: that the card validators on buses that are supposed to read each card’s tap weren’t reading fast enough, and were making errors. That could mean that a customer could get overcharged on his or her fare.

At the same time, the region was headed for a referendum on whether to raise sales tax to pay for a $7 billion transit expansion that would include a Broadway subway, Surrey LRT, and a new Patullo Bridge.

One of the No side’s arguments was that TransLink was incompetently managing its fare card rollout, and its proponents repeatedly pointed to Compass delays.

“It certainly didn’t feel like TransLink was trying very hard,” Jordan Bateman, leader of the No campaign, said in an interview.

On Oct. 30, 2014, CTV News requested correspondence between TransLink and Cubic about any work defects in the Compass system. 

At first, TransLink refused to release the documents. CTV News complained to the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, which handles FOI disputes. TransLink relented, but Cubic fought the release, arguing it would hurt Cubic’s brand. After a written hearing, CTV News won. 

The documents – released this month – show Cubic had promised a fix to the issues with the validators. But by October 2014 it was clear to TransLink that the fix wasn’t happening.

“TransLink has expressed concern for some time regarding Bus Mobile Validators not performing to the requirements of the Project Agreement,” wrote project manager Susanna Reardon on Oct. 6 of that year. 

“Cubic has made some progress over the past several software revisions. However contrary to previous assurance to TransLink, Cubic has now advised it does not intend to make further modifications to the Bus Mobile Validators,” she wrote.

TransLink called the validators problems a “Project Work Defect” – and demanded they get fixed.

In another letter on Oct. 14, 2014, Compass Project Director David Beckley wrote Cubic to warn of similar problems on the fare gates themselves: “The gates as currently designed, built, configured and installed do not meet requirements.”

And on Oct. 15, 2014, a final letter from Reardon on the West Coast Express validators warned Cubic to live up to terms in its contract. “Cubic again states that the system was ready for WCE launch as of October 1, 2014. TransLink again must vehemently disagree.”

Correspondence from Cubic wasn’t released but in its filings with the Information Commissioner, the company says TransLink’s letters “present TransLink’s subjective, and Cubic believes to be incorrect, assessment of” the issues facing the system.

The company also said in its filings that it has taken the disagreement to a dispute resolution system within the contract. Cubic refused to comment to CTV News for this story, saying their policy forbids it.

By that time, other problems in Cubic systems were becoming apparent. The company faced lawsuits in Chicago for triple-billing riders by charging Ventra Cards, bank cards, and credit cards in a single tap. In London, dormant cards held $100 million, with no way to recover the money. And in Syndey, failed machines couldn’t charge the Opal card properly and reports said the problem cost $190 million.

In October 2015, TransLink decided the only way forward was to change Vancouver’s transit system to suit the readers. Bus readers couldn’t be counted on to properly gauge how far a rider had travelled, so the agency eliminated zones in the system. Now, all bus trips are one zone

It’s not clear how much money that decision cost TransLink. 

“These systems are not simple. They’re not easy to implement,” said TransLink’s Vice-President of Information, Lloyd Bauer in an interview. 

“We needed the system to be at a certain level. There are a lot of people coming through in a short period of time and we needed to make sure the system was performing,” he said.

“The best decision at that point was to go to a one zone system."

Bauer said the Compass Card has resulted in a seven per cent increase in fare revenue – some $20 million in the last seven months – and he said the agency is not concerned about any lost revenue from multiple zone bus trips.

He said he would not have publicly made the case that it was not TransLink who was ultimately responsible for Compass system flaws.

“At the end of the day it’s our system. We’re responsible for it,” he said.

Cubic has “stepped up” and fixed some of the problems now, which means the agency is now considering bringing zones back as it consults with its riders about its fare review.

“We’re revisioning the tap-out on the bus,” he said. “We’re comfortable with the technology.”

Bateman said he doubted the letters would have made any difference in the referendum.

“This is a paper trail that set out that they could show they were doing their due diligence. If you’re a private company facing the same problem you’re on the phone, you’re pushing. Was TransLink doing the same?” 

Read the letters sent by Compass Card officials to Cubic Corporation's senior contracts manager below.