Welcome, Presto

By Dan Jelly
Published June 01, 2011

It has been about a month since the HSR finally turned on the green light of the new fare payment system that is being rolled out across the GTHA. While other municipalities have had Presto for over a year, and the hardware has been installed on the HSR fleet for months, we are just starting to see the benefits here in Hamilton.

The launch of the new system has seen little fanfare. Aside from a single, small article in the Spectator, a few posters and a solitary Presto-branded bus, little has been made of what should be a fairly significant addition.

I get the impression that even this lackluster promotion wouldn't have happened at all were it not for ad materials from Metrolinx, the regional transit body that has overseen the Presto project.

Strong Potential, Imperfect Rollout

When I first heard that Presto cards were available on GO Transit last year, I quickly ordered one through the website.

To my dismay, the system was only available on the trains rather than the GO buses, so it wasn't until I happened to spot a Presto reader attached to a turnstile in TTC's Union Station that I was able to use it at all. Implementation on the GO bus system is planned for later this summer.

Although I have great faith in Presto's potential, my initial experience with the underlying technology was admittedly not good. One of the helpful features of the Presto system is the ability to carry a small, negative balance, in case you find yourself needing one last ride home before you can top up your balance online.

The problem is, once your balance goes negative, you can't do anything about it unless you visit a Presto agent (the flesh and blood, human type).

After carrying a balance of -$2.50, and trying and failing to load the card online, I finally gave up and visited the GO Station downtown. This wasn't a chore for me personally, since I pass by or through it at least twice a day, but I could imagine this simple obstacle would be enough for some to abandon Presto altogether.

I can't fault the customer service I received at the station. The attendant quickly recognized and explained the problem. I was able to pay the negative balance plus a 25 cent fee to have my card liberated from cyber limbo. Once done, I could resume topping up my card online or in person as needed.

More Automation

For the month of May, I decided to continue to load funds onto my card on an as-needed, ad hoc basis. So far it's working.

For June, I will likely load a monthly pass onto the card, retaining a small 'e-purse' for use on other transit systems. The problem is, in order to purchase said monthly pass I must once again visit my flesh and blood human friend at the GO station on Hunter street. Again, easy for me, yet likely not so much for others.

With all this technology, chips on cards, an online network of stationary and mobile readers and the ability to add balances online, why should I ever need to directly involve another human being in the process?

It would be a great addition to the Presto website to be able to purchase transit passes online, or even to have a recurring purchase set up to automatically charge my credit card each month.

My hope is that someday I won't even have to think about bus fares as long as I have this card in my wallet.

Soft Launch?

Overall my experience has been good. The system has worked well - aside from my negative balance issue and the requirement to talk to actual humans (ha ha).

Transfers have been handled properly (two hour limit, no real limitations otherwise), and it's now the end of May and I no longer have to worry about how tattered my paper HSR pass has become from frequent trips in and out of my wallet.

I am rather disappointed to see so few others using Presto. Most days I get funny looks from other passengers when I use it, and I have even surprised a few drivers (!). I have had a couple of passengers ask me where I got it, or how much it was.

If the HSR were doing a proper job of promotion and education, this information would be everywhere and they would be dedicating a promo budget, handing out free cards during rush hour, generating buzz on social media, posting more and better signage at bus stops and on buses themselves.

I am hoping that this is just a 'soft launch' to make sure the bugs are worked out before they start advertising. It would be sensible to have a live test going before making a huge splash, only to see the system buckle in a very public, embarrassing and expensive fashion.

The problem is, as a paying Presto user I have had to dig more than I should have had to for any bit of information about HSR/Presto procedures.

Even now, as I have used it for a month, there are still questions. Perhaps when I visit the flesh and blood human Presto salesman tomorrow, he'll be able to explain things.

This essay was first published on Dan's blog


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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted June 01, 2011 at 09:33:12

I love the idea of Presto, but it blows my mind that they were able to rollout on the TTC and HSR before Go Buses.

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By magic (anonymous) | Posted June 02, 2011 at 11:25:46 in reply to Comment 64368

The TTC is barely using it. It's only in a handful of subway stations and further installation is on hold. Don't expect it on buses and streetcars any time soon. I suspect it's due to their absolutely bonkers transfer system.

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted June 01, 2011 at 21:07:20 in reply to Comment 64368

The GO Bus rollout is completely different from the TTC/HSR rollout. With TTC/HSR, once you've paid your fare, it's paid, and off you go.

With GO, it's all distance based, but it's nowhere near as simple as plugging the origin/destination into a GPS, because all of GO's distance based fares are based on Zones, not physical distance traveled. From what I understand, the workarounds to accommodate the zone based fare on buses, while still maintaining the integrity of the other 9 Transit Systems' fare systems have been nothing short of byzantine. Not that I'm any great PRESTO apologist, but comparing GO Bus fares and HSR fares is like comparing apples and battleships.

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted June 02, 2011 at 07:17:49 in reply to Comment 64419

I guess that makes sense...

Since they have the card readers at the stations for the trains, you would think you'd just scan-in at the station and eliminate the need for scanners on the bus.

But as I'm typing this, I'm remembering that (in Hamilton & Burlington, at least) you can be picked up at the side of the road, so it doesn't work for that... Yeah, this is a tougher problem than I originally thought.

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By Magic (anonymous) | Posted June 01, 2011 at 09:42:29

Finally. That was the weakest "launch" ever. I've used Preston for months on Go and now have to wait for a reason to use it on hsr (rain day)

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted June 01, 2011 at 10:09:27

I've been using Presto for the past year and have never had a problem with it. On occasion, it has even enabled me to ride the HSR for free during the period when the readers were installed but inactive – failed tap-ons would simply get me waved through.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 01, 2011 at 10:22:19

I've been using it personally. It's flaky - sometimes it simply fails to register the card. Also, the website has a problem with ambiguous failures and takes up to 24 hours to update your card after you pay.

And I'm sure even non-presto users have been unimpressed with the performance of the new transfer-printers.

The design is great, but the implementation isn't exactly spotless.

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By What no tickets (anonymous) | Posted June 01, 2011 at 10:58:41

The presto system is designed for commuters and there will be an upcoming issue when they phase out bus tickets for the HSR.

Groups give out tickets to low income people, this could dramatically change the ability of groups to assist people.

Of course, in the big scheme of things, those who struggle are rendered silent and invisible, once again.

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By mrgrande (registered) | Posted June 01, 2011 at 11:01:56 in reply to Comment 64379

I doubt they'll be phasing out bus tickets any time soon.

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By What no tickets (anonymous) | Posted June 01, 2011 at 11:12:23

I heard they will be phasing out next year, it is coming fast.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted June 01, 2011 at 13:17:12

Currently, if you have a GO Monthly Pass, you can get an HSR sticker (monthly HSR Pass equivalent) for $15 month. Can you do something economically equivalent if you buy a Presto Monthly pass?

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted June 01, 2011 at 17:11:50

Presto works on the HSR now? Really?

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By Simmons (registered) | Posted June 01, 2011 at 18:00:54

The rollout was anything but swift, which affirms your soft launch theory. Maybe once ALL systems are in sync, we'll hear about it. I'm amazed at how slowly they've rolled it out and we still don't have GO bus rollout. HSR could be doing so many promotions right now. It's sad they've ignored what is an important change in our transit use.

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By MyMy (anonymous) | Posted June 02, 2011 at 03:46:58

I didn’t see anything on the HSR site that mentioned doing away with tickets, monthly passes, etc. but that doesn’t mean we won’t all be forced to adopt the new system. Personally, I like the convenience of going to either of the two drug stores within walking distance of home to purchase my bus tickets and charge my credit card. If tickets are being phased out, it would appear individuals will still be able to get a reduced rate but you will need PRESTO E-Purse (assume the Presto fee also applies to this). This does not address the comment about groups buying tickets for low income people.

The following might answer some of the questions in prior comments and probably includes more information than most want. I haven’t included the HSR fares for children, those over 80 (Golden Age Bus Pass is available for FREE at the HSR Ticket Office) or the Special Day Pass as PRESTO does not work for them.

The site also includes information about


All information is from

PRESTO & HSR - now available on all HSR buses.. read more! (decent info page on PRESTO, the HSR and transferring to GO)

Payment Type Effective January 1, 2011
Cash (EXACT FARE) $2.55
Ticket or PRESTO E-Purse $2.00 (5 for $10.00)
Monthly Pass or PRESTO Monthly Pass $87.00

Payment Type Effective January 1, 2011
Cash (EXACT FARE) $2.55
Adult Ticket or PRESTO E-Purse $2.00 (5 for $10.00)
Adult Pass or PRESTO Monthly Pass $87.00
Senior Annual Pass $205.00 per year

This pass runs from May 1 until April 30 of the following year. You must be 65 years of age or over to be entitled to use this pass and a resident of the City of Hamilton. This pass can be obtained from the Ticket Office at the Hamilton GO Centre, 36 Hunter St. E. from Monday - Friday, 8:00 am until 4:00 pm (except holidays) or call 905-546-2424 ext. 1882 for more information. Seniors can pay the full amount up front, or complete Pre-Authorized Debit and have $18.00 per month debited from their bank account. Renewals will commence on Monday, April 11, 2011 and any time thereafter.

This fare applies to STUDENTS who are 19 years of age or under as of September 1st of the given school year in regular full time (two credit minimum) day class attendance at a school administered by the Board of Education or the Separate School Board or any secondary school inspected and approved by the Ontario Ministry of Education. Persons attending such schools will be provided with a school photo ID card or can obtain an HSR Photo Identification Card. (These cards are provided during the school photo session free of charge, or at our Ticket Office for a fee of $3.00). Students can obtain the card application form from the school office.

Payment Type Effective January 1, 2011
Cash (EXACT FARE) $2.55
Secondary Ticket or PRESTO E-Purse $1.65 (5 for $8.25)
Secondary Monthly
Pass or PRESTO Monthly Pass $71.00

2011 Summer Youth Pass - For the period from July 1 (Canada Day) through to and including September 5, 2011 (Labour Day) , the HSR is offering an HSR Summer Youth Pass for elementary / secondary students aged 19 years of age and under (as of September 1st of a given school year). This pass is valid from July 1 through to and including September 5, 2011 (Labour Day) and will only cost $71.00 for the summer period (a savings of more than $71.00). These HSR Summer Youth Passes will be distributed to HSR vendors in mid-June, at the time that regular Month Passes are usually available. They can also be purchased at the HSR Ticket Office. Students must show a valid student photo ID card (expiry Sept./11) along with the Summer Youth Pass when boarding any bus. Valid on regular service trips on all HSR routes.

Please be certain that you carry and show the driver your required identification when using a reduced fare. The operator has the right to ask you at any time to produce this identification. If you do not possess it at the time of being asked, it is required that you pay an adult cash EXACT FARE of $2.55

Presto Card - Initial Card Fee (card valid for 5 years) of $6.00

GO TRANSIT Fare Integration
When you purchase a GO Monthly pass from the Hamilton or Aldershot GO stations, you can purchase an HSR Sticker for $15.00 which entitles the bearer to unlimited use on all HSR routes. This ticket must be purchased at the same time as the GO Monthly Pass. Stickered GO Passes are valid only within the calendar month designated on the pass.
This sticker is applicable for the following passes:
the GO Adult Monthly Pass
the GO Student Monthly Pass
Each of the above GO passes is clearly marked with the valid month and must have an HSR sticker with the matching monthly designation in order to be valid for use on the HSR.

GO Integration Using PRESTO - The co-fare and fare subsidy will be applied on a trip specific basis. The card will calculate and deduct the appropriate discount for the local trip to or from an activated GO Train station. So, a GO Integration single ride using PRESTO will be $0.50 per trip for your returning HSR trip from GO Transit. When outbound from HSR to GO, a discount of a $1.50 will be applied when you transfer to the next portion of your trip. For example, when you travel on HSR and transfer to the GO Train, the fare you pay GO will be reduced by $1.50.

See also Watch the video. For GO, if you haven’t set a default trip, you tap the card prior to boarding and when you get off to determine the fare.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted June 02, 2011 at 20:47:50

TTC won't use it because it will be too costly to purchase all of the necessary hardware needed to equip their entire fleet of vehicles.

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By R Don Lyres (anonymous) | Posted June 03, 2011 at 16:31:26

Is that also the reason why there are no cash registers in the ticket booths?

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