The Long Island Rail Road wants to prohibit cash transactions onboard trains, despite concerns from some LIRR riders, advocates and labor leaders who say the move will inconvenience customers, while potentially costing the railroad more money.
MTA officials said last week that the proposed new cashless policy would be a “pilot” program for the LIRR, but not for sister railroad Metro North. Under the plan, beginning in March LIRR conductors would no longer accept cash, including for ticket purchases, “step-up” fees for customers traveling during peak hours with an off-peak ticket, or for those looking to extend their trip.
LIRR rider Peter Tse of North Woodmere said the proposed change is the latest example of an increasingly “unfriendly” railroad system. Tse noted that at the Rosedale train station, out of which he travels, ticket vending machines are frequently out of service — driving some customers to buy their tickets onboard.
“The machine can be broken for four or five days at a time,” Tse, 57, said. “This is considered public transportation . . . They have to be able to take cash.”
MTA chairman Patrick Foye said the authority’s board will discuss the proposal further at its regular meeting next month before a decision is made on whether to enact the policy, and “if it doesn’t make sense, we won’t continue with the pilot. We’ll change it.”
LIRR officials said the proposal comes as cash transactions on trains have dropped more than 40% over the last two years, and as the railroad has introduced new fare options for riders, including electronic ticket purchases on mobile devices and credit card transactions on trains.
Customers would still have the option to use cash at ticket vending machines and at ticket offices. If enacted, the policy will be preceded by an "ambitious public education campaign," the railroad said in a statement.
“I think the real point is that anybody who wants to pay cash or feels the need to pay cash will still have an opportunity to pay cash,” LIRR president Phillip Eng said. “As we see the trend going away from cash, we think this is an opportunity to identify savings — and one that we’ll monitor closely.”
The savings would be realized in part by eliminating the positions of several ticket agents charged with handling cash drop-offs by conductors at the end of train runs. Although the workers likely would be moved to new positions, future vacancies would not be filled.
As part of its cost-cutting, the railroad plans to close seven ticket offices in April: at Patchogue, Port Jefferson, Wantagh, Lynbrook, Amityville, Massapequa and Flushing. The move would bring the number of stations with open ticket offices to 23 — down from 97 in the mid-1990s.
Labor leaders have said eliminating cash transactions on trains — which account for about $8 million annually — amounts to a major service cut for riders, especially those who are more likely to buy their tickets onboard trains with cash, including students, low-income workers, and the elderly. Tickets for senior citizens and the disabled — who do not pay an extra fee for paying their fares on a train — make up about half of the onboard cash transactions, according to the Transportation Communication Union, which represents LIRR ticket agents.
And while the railroad encourages riders to take advantage of other ticket-buying options, Nicholas Peluso, a Transportation Communication Union representative, said it is reducing those options with the planned ticket office closures, which he said also will impact customer safety and security at stations. He also noted that the railroad’s 20-year-old ticket machines are prone to breakdowns, and that some Eastern Suffolk stations don’t have any ticket machines at all.
“I still can’t see a commuter railroad this big just completely going cashless. I think it’s impossible in the neighborhoods and towns of Long Island, that that can succeed,” said Peluso, who believes the change contradicts railroad management’s recent push for improved customer service. “It seems like a big inconvenience for all our customers . . . Why are we taking things away from them?”
LIRR union chief Anthony Simon, who represents LIRR conductors, also questioned if eliminating cash transactions on trains ultimately will save the railroad money, especially given the railroad’s “flawed” system of dealing with customers who are unable to pay their fares. The railroad recoups only about 15% of fares from riders who are issued paper forms that they are supposed to send back with payment.
“Why cut a customer convenience and payment option, while risking revenue loss at a time where our fare evasion concerns have been categorized as a high priority?” Simon asked in a report sent to MTA Board members. “A decision to no longer accept cash onboard LIRR trains will be a historic and impactful choice. It is not a decision that should be made without responsible and mindful research.”
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council — a state-regulated customer advocacy group — agreed that more discussion is needed before the change is adopted.
“Maybe it shouldn’t be an automatic jump right to doing it, because there are people who still use cash. For instance, high school kids who don’t have credit cards. They go onto a train and buy their ticket with cash. I don’t know that you’d want to discourage them,” Epstein said. “It’s a discussion worth having. We would have liked to have had the discussion before it was proposed.”
Hicksville commuter Kristy Rody said she’s “all for” the move to a cashless system, but suggested the railroad consider ways to lessen the impact of the change on seniors and low-income riders.
“At the end of the day, however, everything will be cashless at one point,” said Rody, 32, an executive assistant in finance. “Look at airplanes. You cannot pay with cash on those. It also helps keep the transit employees somewhat safer.”
News of another change in the MTA's fare system came Thursday, when the authority announced its new OMNY system is coming to subway stations at two key LIRR hubs — Penn Station and Jamaica — next month.
The system allows users to pay for their ride by tapping their mobile phone or fare card to a sensor. The new system, which eventually will replace the aging MetroCard, will be accepted at all subway stations by the end of next year, and on the LIRR in early 2021.