LIRR tickets en route to history
Before you toss out that expired one-way ticket to Penn Station, consider this: You may be holding a little piece of history.
Beginning with the earliest days of preprinted tickets with ornate fonts and border, through modern innovations such as downloadable bar codes on smartphones, Long Island Rail Road tickets have enjoyed a history nearly as rich as the 179-year-old railroad itself.
"From wooden railroad passenger coaches to streamlined steel cars, one thing remains constant through the eons," LIRR historian and author Dave Morrison said. "You'll need a ticket to ride the train."
And as the LIRR inches closer to paperless ticketing, some train passes have become more valuable than they were ever intended to be. On eBay, an 1852 ticket between Brooklyn and Hempstead — with its origin and destinations filled out by hand — is for sale and has been priced as high as $300.
Morrison said that in its earliest days the LIRR didn't even sell tickets. Rather, conductors collected fares from passengers and recorded transactions in a book.
Before long, the railroad began selling tickets to customers at locations including hotel lobbies and general stores before station offices became commonplace in the late 1800s.
"The concept was to sell the tickets before the customers got on the train to make the conductors' jobs easier," said Morrison, of Plainview.
But selling tickets to local destinations was only a small part of a ticket agent's job at the time, Morrison added. LIRR ticket offices were also the place to go to send a telegram, ship a package or book connecting rail or ferry trips to destinations around the country.
"Stations were a lot busier back then," Morrison said. "They handled not only [LIRR] ticket sales, they handled interline ticket sales as well. You could buy a ticket here in Hicksville for Omaha, Nebraska."
Ticket types and discount deals came and went over the next several decades, including special "Saturday Excursion" tickets, "Ladies Day" tickets and discounted tickets for clergy, but the method largely remained the same.
The LIRR contracted with an outside printer to produce tickets with every origin and destination on them. Ticket clerks selected them from a case, validated them with a stamp and sold them to customers. On board trains, conductors "punched" tickets with unique signature shapes, such as a letter, a triangle or a crescent, to show that they had been validated.
In 1964, the LIRR tested a "magnetic ticketing system" at Kew Gardens and Forest Hills that let customers swipe cards at turnstiles — similar to the MTA's MetroCard — to pay their fares. It never took off.
In the early 1970s, the LIRR tested another technological innovation — the ticket vending machine. The original model sold only one-way tickets, printed on card stock. The machines got poor reviews, and the pilot program was short-lived, according to James Compton, LIRR general manager for station services and ticket technology.
A ticketing system evolves
One ticketing innovation from the disco era has stood the test of time. In 1975, the LIRR began its Mail & Ride program, which allows commuters to bypass long lines at ticket windows and have their monthly tickets sent to them.
Stephen Singer, 67, of Great Neck was the 81st of nearly 1 million commuters who have signed up for the program during the past 37 years. He said the option saved him a monthly "pain in the neck."
"It became somewhat of a fistfight, because they didn't have ticket vending machines, you could only buy the ticket at the ticket booth and they didn't accept credit cards at that point," said Singer, a Manhattan attorney who still commutes by the LIRR.
Singer recalls that when he began commuting, conductors would punch his monthly ticket each day, leaving it pretty "raggy" by the last day of the month.
The 1980s ushered in two major milestones in LIRR ticketing — the rollout of ticket vending machines at key stations, and with them the ability to purchase a train ticket with a credit card.
But not everybody was happy with the innovation, Morrison noted. Ticket clerks and agents feared the machines would put them out of work. At his 1991 retirement party, Ed Hanley — who headed the Transportation Communications Union, which represented ticket clerks and agents — destroyed a cardboard mock-up of a ticket vending machine with a sledgehammer.
With the turn of the millennium, the evolution of LIRR ticketing picked up speed. In 2001, the railroad rolled out its second generation of ticket vending machines, featuring the touch-screen technology still used today.
That year the LIRR also replaced preprinted tickets with computer printers that allowed clerks to use blank ticket stock to create a ticket from any origin to any destination.
Though important, the innovation was bittersweet for some.
"Obviously, in the years gone by, the design and the fanciness of the tickets, in my opinion, went away," Compton said. "You had the nice lettering and the nice pictures of them and the nice fonts. They looked historical."
In 2003, LIRR tickets took their first steps into the Internet age with the creation of the WebTicket program, which allows riders to buy tickets online and receive them via mail. WebTicket is still around, although it accounts for just 1 percent of LIRR ticket sales.
Ticketing goes tech
Some of the biggest leaps in LIRR ticketing have been made in just the past six years. In 2007, ticket offices began accepting credit cards for the first time. In 2011, riders were able to buy a ticket on board by using a mobile credit card reader, which is still being tested by the LIRR.
And in August, the LIRR sold its first mobile tickets to customers traveling to The Barclays golf tournament at Bethpage State Park. They could be printed at home or downloaded to smartphones, and conductors electronically scanned bar codes on the tickets as riders boarded.
The LIRR hopes to roll out mobile ticketing systemwide this year, although railroad officials have said they expect paper tickets to remain an option for riders for the foreseeable future.
Still, as train ticketing becomes more automated, paper tickets and the people who sell them are becoming more obsolete. Only 19 percent of tickets are sold in the LIRR's 30 operational ticket offices — down from 104 in the early 1970s, Compton said.
But rather than fight technology, ticket clerks and agents have sought to adapt, said Arthur Maratea, general chairman of the union that represents them. Many former ticket agents from closed offices transitioned into new jobs as ticket vending machine agents, maintaining and repairing the LIRR's 272 machines.
"Technology is going to be our biggest enemy," Maratea said. "But as long as we play a part in it . . . and reinvent ourselves, we'll always find a place for us somewhere."
But while ticket sellers may still find a future role in the LIRR, paper tickets may not, said Morrison, who predicts they may be gone "in a short number of years."
"I could see that coming," said Morrison. "It will maybe add to the value of the tickets that are already collected."