Confused Machine Sells Two Monthly Passes for the Price of One

The MBTA’s vaunted three-year-old electronic fare system keeps revealing its quirks. Last month I purchased an express bus pass from a vending machine and got a surprise. The machine does not sell a monthly pass into the contactless stored value card, but it will print flexible plastic passes that are electronically encoded and printed on their face with the fare or zone. So I tapped on the computer screen and paid with my credit card and I received a printed monthly express bus pass through the right-handed slot on the machine. And then I told the machine that I wanted a receipt and out of the left slot what popped out?

A second express bus pass, with an identical monthly fare! Two passes for the price of one!

Buy one get one free

Buy one get one free ... oops!

I was confused so I asked the station attendant what the second pass was all about. He said that I must have paid twice, and that the pass was indeed a second monthly ticket to the bus. He recommended that I write the machine number and return the pass to the monthly pass office at a different station, when the office reopened. He figured that I must have paid for the extra pass.

But surprise! Later I confirmed that the second pass was indeed a live monthly ticket and not a receipt — it is accepted by card readers on the express bus — and best of all, my credit card only was charged once — meaning I only paid for one of the two passes! I’ve heard that I’m not the only person who has experienced this “surprise;” I wonder how often the MBTA has done this unannounced two-for-one deal.

I previously had heard of stored value Charlie Cards that erroneously had some special unlimited access for unlimited time, and I’ve had intermittent problems in the past with the fare system. For example, once when the clock struck midnight on the last day of the month my monthly pass for the previous month no longer worked and my monthly pass for the subsequent month was not yet recognized. Stranded at midnight with two monthly passes but no train fare! Imagine.

But a whole free pass — very unexpected. This potentially is an $89 mistake by the T. Mistakes like that add up quickly. The T spent thousands chasing two MIT hackers who had devised some theoretical exploit to ride the T more than they were entitled. And then the T turns around and it prints extra monthly passes for free.

Is there a contractor somewhere that owes the T some money back? I wonder how much money the T has lost through this particular quirk.