Electronic LIRR tickets are becoming more popular, but several riders have complained about receiving what they say are harsh emails from the railroad because they didn’t promptly activate their tickets.
While electronic ticket holders are supposed to activate the tickets on their mobile device before boarding a train, some passengers often wait to do so until they're onboard and a Long Island Rail Road collector comes around. Those commuters have gotten emails notifying them that their accounts were identified as being "in violation of our terms & conditions."
What to know
The LIRR's "eTix" electronic tickets, which were introduced in 2016, have been outselling paper tickets.
The rise of electronic tickets has come with growing complaints from riders about email messages from the LIRR chiding them for not activating the tickets before boarding a train, and threatening to block their accounts for future violations.
LIRR and union officials said the timely activation of tickets allows for conductors to carry out their various responsibilities. But some riders said the LIRR shouldn't concern itself with when tickets are activated, as long as they are purchased.
"You are activating onboard and not prior to boarding as required," the message said. "Future violations of this policy may result in your account being blocked, so please ensure you activate before boarding as required for use of the app."
LIRR spokesman David Steckel said train conductors have several responsibilities in addition to ticket collection, including ensuring the safety of passengers, and that losing time waiting for customers to activate tickets can get in the way of those responsibilities.
E-tickets, which can be purchased on mobile phones, are outselling paper tickets, the railroad said. The LIRR introduced its "eTix" concept five years ago.
Through the end of October, e-tickets had constituted 49.8% of LIRR ticket sales this year. Paper tickets bought in advance of boarding made up 48.7% of ticket sales, and onboard purchases made up the remaining 1.5%, according to the railroad.
On social media, several passengers have said they were taken aback, and annoyed, by the messages about their e-ticket activity. Some have questioned whether the LIRR tracks their whereabouts through the mobile app.
LIRR officials said they don’t track customers’ locations but can tell that a rider did not activate a ticket promptly by the time interval between when a ticket is activated and validated by a conductor.
Long Beach rider Tony Arroyo said he received an email about 10 months ago.
"I was surprised and angry when I got the email," said Arroyo, who stopped using LIRR e-tickets after receiving the warning. Arroyo said he’s used e-tickets on other railroads and "was never castigated for activating it late."
Steckel said, in response to customer complaints, the LIRR recently softened the language in its emails, which now begin with: "This is a friendly reminder that you need to activate your ticket before boarding the train."
The newly worded message still tells customers that their accounts could be blocked for future violations, but adds "we welcome having you as an eTix customer, and hope that you are enjoying the ease and convenience of mobile ticketing."
Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR conductors’ union, said commuters should follow the rules.
"The rules are clear that these tickets must simply be activated prior to boarding so our train crews can quickly validate them and move on to their tasks of both fare collection and safe train movement," said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.
Commuter: Focus on enforcing masking
Commuter Susan Kelly, of Franklin Square, said the issue speaks to misdirected priorities of the LIRR and its conductors, who she believes should expend more energy enforcing other policies, including wearing face masks on trains, during this COVID-19 pandemic.
"If someone activates their ticket, who cares when? The money has been spent and the ride has been paid for," Kelly said. "Instead of worrying about money, worry about the health of riders."
West Hempstead commuter J.B. Stulberger only recently began using e-tickets, which he doesn’t typically activate until he’s in his seat and the train is moving. He prefers not to activate before boarding, in part because of concerns over his train being delayed.
Once activated, e-tickets "expire after a predetermined length of time for the trip selected," according to the LIRR’s policy.
"What happens if your ticket expires in the middle of transferring or if there’s delays?" asked Stulberger, who said the railroad needs to better communicate with customers about using e-tickets. "Their expectations need to be clarified."
One potential reason for not activating e-tickets ahead of time is that sometimes conductors don’t check them — giving riders a free ticket for future use. LIRR president Phillip Eng said that strategy does a disservice to the railroad, and to fare-paying passengers.
"That ultimately hurts our revenue, and the expenses that are eventually shared by the public," Eng said in an interview. "Obviously, the riders are getting the benefit of the trip. And we do expect that they all pay their fares."
The LIRR, which reported losing $20 million annually in unpaid fares before the pandemic started in March 2020, has taken measures to minimize free rides, including by charging a $10 fee for any e-ticket refund request made after two minutes of when it was purchased.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear when the next evolution of electronic fare payment — the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new OMNY contactless payment system — will come to the LIRR. An acronym for "One Metro New York," OMNY is already available at all subway stations and is intended to eventually replace the MetroCard.
MTA officials have said OMNY "will eventually replace eTix" on the LIRR, but the system’s rollout on the LIRR — originally scheduled for February of this year — has been pushed to some time next year.