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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 Centermarker station.

The CharlieCard is named after a fictional character in a folk music song often called "Charlie on the MTA" (or, more simply, "M.T.A."), which concerns a man trapped forever on the Boston subway system (then known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA) because he can't pay the fare required to exit.

Though Charlie is primarily used to promote the CharlieCard and CharlieTicket, the character is also used on a variety on MBTA signs, such as construction signs and signs directing commuters to Fenway Parkmarker from the Fenwaymarker station.

CharlieCard and CharlieTicket details

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 flatly against a target on a gate or a vehicle farebox. The card can be read when left in a wallet and the wallet placed against the reader. The gate then either automatically debits the cost of the passenger's ride card, verifies that the card has a valid transfer or verifies that the card has a pass that is valid for travel at that time at that particular 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.

At present, 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 has been pushed back to 2009, and full implementation is not expected until 2011. CharlieCards will not be accepted on THE RIDE.

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 reloaded 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, beginning with the fare increase which took effect on January 1, 2007. For example, a subway or trolley ride costs $1.70 with a CharlieCard but $2.00 with a CharlieTicket or cash. Local bus riders face a $0.25 surcharge over the CharlieCard fare ($1.25 - $1.50), express bus riders pay an extra $0.70 or $1.00 depending on the route, and similar surcharges are 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.

As of March 2008, a researcher claims that the CharlieCard's security is weak.

Other transit systems employing technology similar to that used in the CharlieCard include Atlantamarker (the Breeze Card), New York Citymarker (MetroCard), Washington D.Cmarker (SmarTrip), Chicagomarker (Chicago Card), Hong Kongmarker (the Octopus Card), Montréalmarker (OPUS card), Seoulmarker, Shanghai, Taipeimarker (EasyCard) , Singaporemarker, Tokyomarker (Suica), and Londonmarker (the Oyster Card).

Bike CharlieCard details

On September 18, 2008 two bike parking cages opened at the Alewifemarker station, next to the MBTA parking garage. The cages can hold up to 150 bikes each. To use these cages, one must obtain a free plastic Bike CharlieCard, similar to the CharlieCard used to board the train. Cards can be obtained from the MBTA customer service agents at Alewife station, or at the MBTA customer service center at Downtown Crossingmarker station.

Effect on transit employees

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 CSA 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 Cornermarker the last to be converted on December 22, 2006.

Fare Vending Machines are available at all subway stations, as well as on the baggage-claim level of Logan International Airportmarker terminals, inside Fenway Parkmarker, and at 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 Parkmarker.

CharlieCard on the Green Line

The Green Line is the most heavily traveled light rail line in the United States, with an average of 200,000 riders each weekday. Because of this heavy ridership, at selected stops on the Green Line the MBTA implemented the Show-N-Go system allowing riders to flash their monthly passes and enter through the rear doors of a train. This worked well when monthly passes were on paper tickets (and this was the case well before the introduction of AFC), however it 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, increase the efficiency of boarding at peak times on surface Green Line stops. All doors on all trolleys will open at all stations. Passengers can pay their fare in several ways, depending on their payment method. Passengers paying with cash must continue to enter through the front door and pay at the farebox, where they will 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 contain ticket validators which allow passengers to have money deducted from their CharlieCards or CharlieTickets before boarding and providing them with a proof-of-payment. With this receipt in hand, these passengers can enter through the rear doors of trolleys. In addition, at the busiest stations, MBTA inspectors with handheld validators will be stationed at 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 have been deployed, with an additional 20 coming by the end of January, 2007, according to the MBTA.) Persons holding monthly passes can also just enter through any doors. All passengers, even those who entered through the rear doors, may still be required to go to the front of the train and make payment (or show their receipt) to trolley drivers. MBTA Transit Police will conduct random checks to make sure riders have paid their fares.

The name

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. Ironically, the CharlieCard will make future fare increases easier to implement.

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 security used on both the mag-stripe CharlieTickets and the RFID CharlieCards was broken by a team of MITmarker 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.

The MIFARE Classic smartcard from NXP Semiconductors, owned by Philips, had been previously compromised in March 2008 by a group of researchers led by Karsten Nohl, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Computer Science, University of Virginiamarker. It had also been 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.

See also


  1. MBTA bids farewell to an era the last brass tokens are sold
  2. THE RIDE. Retrieved on July 14, 2007
  3. DEFCON 16 Speaker and Talk Abstract list - August 8, 2008
  4. McGraw-Herdeg, Michael and Vogt, Marissa, "Students’ subway security talk canceled by court order", MIT Tech newspaper, August 8, 2008
  5. Defcon Speakers Sued
  6. Judge backs hackers in Boston subway dispute
  7. NXP Product information on the Mifare card
  8. Ragan, Steve, "U.VA. researchers crack smartcard chips – Mifare Classic security proven weak", The Tech Herald, March 12, 2008
  9. Cf. Wikipedia MIFARE Security article

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