A flashing "See Agent" message at the BART gates is the last thing an already rushed commuter wants to see at 8 a.m, because it probably means a longer delay is in store to replace or exchange a demagnetized, now unusable ticket.
But as more and more people carry cell phones and rely on portable media players like iPods to keep themselves entertained on the train, it’s a scene that appears to be becoming more common. BART officials say it’s imperative that riders keep their vulnerable tickets away from these devices.
Portable media devices and cell phones of all kinds will demagnetize a ticket at close contact, meaning they will distort or remove the information — including the remaining available fare — encoded on the ticket’s magnetic strip.
Despite what BART described as a relatively small percentage of returned tickets, commuters on Internet forums like bartrage.com, have expressed frustration with the seemingly frail tickets.
"I usually just buy a new ticket and go on with my life," one BART rider, identified only as BARTAngel, wrote on the online forum in April. "But this ticket had over $8 on it. More money than I wanted to donate to BART."
A BART engineering study completed Oct. 11 found that the way riders handle and store tickets is the main cause of demagnetization, be it from a magnetic purse clasp, cell phone or other electronic device, BART spokesman Jim Allison said.
"BART sells approximately 2.7 million tickets a month so it’s no surprise thousands of tickets are turned in as demagnetized," Allison said.
If a ticket becomes demagnetized, BART will make refunds or exchanges, Allison said. The process, however, may be more hassle than some riders are willing to go through. Tickets purchased with credit cards must be mailed back to the BART offices in Oakland. Tickets purchased with debit cards or cash may also be mailed back or exchanged at certain stations during specified hours of the day.
Several years ago, BART had tickets that were weaker and even more susceptible to small magnets, BART spokesman Linton Johnson said. The agency ushered in a new, tougher series of tickets, but as more people tote portable electronic equipment, the number of demagnetized tickets has increased roughly back to where it was before, he said. BART officials do not consider the problem to be serious, however, and are not considering any changes to ticketing technology as a result of it at this time, he said.
Skyline College physics professor Paul Goodman said that it’s easy to manipulate the information magnetically encoded on the small ticket — evidenced in the ease with which ticket gates add or subtract the remaining fare. But that ease in recoding the information also contributes to its vulnerability to everyday items, Goodman said.