'Charlie' to begin new ride with modern fare system By Anthony Flint and Mac Daniel, Globe Staff | November 9, 2004
T riders will soon be carrying the CharlieCard instead of tokens or monthly passes, an automated fare card with a back-to-the-future theme.
Instead of ''Charlie" being stuck on Hub trains, as in the song popularized by the Kingston Trio in 1959, he is portrayed on the cards as triumphantly returning to modern-day Boston to ride the transit system with ease.
Governor Mitt Romney joined the banjo-strumming trio to sing ''Charlie on the MTA" at the card announcement outside the Government Center T Station yesterday. State officials say the aim is to give automated fare collection a friendly face with cultural and historic links to Boston.
Some riders, particularly the young, had no clue about Charlie.
''I thought maybe it had something to do with the Charles River," said Kara Kitner of Boston, emerging from a Green Line trolley. When the reference was explained, she predicted, ''People won't know."
Ted Holmes of Newton agreed. ''Ask anyone under 30: Charlie just isn't going to mean anything," he said. ''It was almost 60 years ago."
The song -- known popularly as ''Charlie on the MTA" (the system was then called the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the precursor to today's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) -- was written as a campaign ditty in 1948 for a candidate opposed to a fare hike. The fictional Charlie enters the system, but doesn't have a nickel to pay an exit fare, required at the time, so he rides ''forever 'neath the streets of Boston . . . the man who never returned."
MBTA General Manager Michael Mulhern said the T's marketing experts warned that Charlie might not be recognized.
''It did come up when we were weighing the pros and cons of the different names, but we wanted a card with a strong connection to Boston, Boston's history, and at same time weave in some MBTA history, and the song does that," Mulhern said. ''It transcends generations. And now we have a fictional character all our own, that is uniquely Boston's, that other transit systems don't have."
As the $140 million automated fare collection system is phased in -- the cards will be usable first on Silver Line buses along Washington Street in February, then on the Blue Line in the spring, and finally systemwide by 2006 -- there will actually be two cards.
One will be the CharlieCard, targeted at frequent riders, a plastic card with a computer chip, which will be used like a debit or credit card or the FastLane toll pass. Riders and employers will obtain cards at stations or online and stock it with whatever dollar amount they choose; fares will be deducted whenever they wave it near sensors at new subway turnstiles or aboard buses. The T is planning to cut a deal with a bank so that the CharlieCard can be easily replenished and used to buy other items as well.
The CharlieTicket is a paper version that will be available at station vending machines for more occasional commuters. Riders insert either cash or a credit or debit card and get the fare card stocked with the amount of money they indicate. The paper cards must be run through a magnetic-strip reader.
Both the paper and plastic cards show a smiling man dressed in 1950s attire, sitting on a Green Line trolley with one hand holding his hat and the other out the window, clutching a green card that appears to be glowing. In the song, he is reaching for a sandwich delivered by his wife.
Before selecting the name in the $29,000 marketing effort, the T studied fare card names in other cities: the Oyster in London, the Octopus in Hong Kong, the Orca in Seattle, and the Breeze in Atlanta. Names considered included T Zap, T Go, T Card, and T Liberty.
''Finally, the right idea won," said Coco Delgado, 39, an executive assistant from Somerville and a Red Line rider who supported the Charlie name the moment she heard about it. ''It's friendly. It's definitely Boston . . . and it's got a catchy theme song built right in."
As for some younger T riders not getting the Charlie reference, Delgado said, ''Get the Dropkick Murphys to record a version of it, and you're golden."
Some riders said they mostly looked forward to the convenience of the cards, whatever they are called. ''That's going to make it a whole lot easier," said Debbie McDougall of Augusta, Maine, feeding dollar bills into a token machine.
Mary Alice Guilford of Boston, however, begged to differ. ''It's just another card we'll have to carry around all the time," she said. ''Aren't we controlled enough by all the plastic?"
State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios said he had concerns about privacy with the new fare cards, since data on passengers can be stored for 14 months. The Cambridge Democrat cited a recent court case in which a driver's FastLane records were used to show a defendant's whereabouts.
Jodi Sugerman-Brozan -- a member of the T Riders Union and the Rider Oversight Committee, a watchdog panel -- said the CharlieCard is ''fun, it's different, and better than just calling it the T card."
But, she said, the cards should come with new discount packages for regular riders, different pricing for off-peak use, and a new bus-subway transfer policy.
The new cards were unveiled in a white tent set up outside the Government Center station on City Hall Plaza, at an event attended by Romney, Mulhern, state Transportation Secretary Daniel A. Grabauskas, and Richard Doyle, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration, which is providing some funding for the conversion.
The Kingston Trio, with one original member, performed the song, and the governor, who is not known for hamming it up, stood to one side holding a microphone and sang along on the first verse and all choruses, which he knew by heart. ''I've always wanted to do that, since about the fifth grade," he said later.