New measures being taken by the LIRR to address the $20 million it says it loses each year in unpaid fares could cause inconvenience to some customers because they now have fewer ways to pay for a ride and more restrictions on electronic tickets, riders and officials said.
Responding to calls from MTA officials to address the problem of fare evasion, the Long Island Rail Road last week outlined several reforms in how it collects fares, including by instituting new time restrictions for electronic ticket users, using new credit card fraud-detecting technology, and limiting the use of personal checks for fare payment.
But the head of the railroad’s largest union said the new measures don’t go far enough in addressing the challenges faced by conductors trying to collect tickets on increasingly crowded trains.
The railroad’s new strategy focuses on two areas in which the agency loses fare dollars — through credit card fraud and through problems collecting or validating tickets on trains. To address the former, the railroad said, beginning in the second quarter of 2019, ticket vending machines will feature new “chip” readers for credit and debit cards that provide an extra layer of protection from credit card cloning.
The technology, which is expected to be in place at all machines by the end of the year, also will eliminate the LIRR’s financial liability during instances of credit card fraud — instead shifting “full responsibility for fraud … to credit card companies.” The railroad said its “charge-back rate” — the amount of fare purchases that are reversed by credit card companies and refunded to customers — is 0.77 percent.
Other changes could affect fare-paying customers. As of last month, the railroad no longer accepts checks for payment on new Mail & Ride monthly ticket purchasing accounts. The LIRR said less than 9 percent of Mail & Ride customers paid by check. The railroad is also shifting the on-sale date for monthly tickets from the 20th day of the previous month to the 25th in order to reduce the amount of time identity thieves who fraudulently buy monthly tickets have to sell those tickets to others.
And, as of Feb. 12, the amount of time customers have to refund an electronic ticket after purchasing it has been reduced from 5 minutes to 2. The change is meant to address incidents of customers looking to get their money back for electronic tickets because a conductor did not validate it. Customers now seeking electronic ticket refunds outside the two-minute window are hit with a $10 fee.
The new strategy to combat lost fares also spells out the railroad’s policy to charge the higher “onboard fare if a customer has not pre-purchased an e-Ticket.” The surcharge for onboard ticket purchases ranges from $5.75 to $6.50.
The new restrictions raised concerns in the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad's state-mandated commuter watchdog group.
"Limiting how somebody can pay for something doesn't really seem to go to fraud, but it's more inconvenience for riders," council chairman Mark Epstein said. "We want to help them fight fraud, but you just can't do it on the backs of riders who are legitimately trying to pay for a ticket to ride the railroad."
The new technological measures do not address the most persistent cause of lost fare revenue — uncollected tickets. The railroad said it has “strategically deployed train crews to increase its ability to collect fares onboard,” and has seen some improvement. Through February, the rate of uncollected fares this year was 6.1 percent — slightly better than last year’s annual rate of 6.9 percent, but above the railroad’s goal of 5 percent. It's also higher than the 4 percent rate of uncollected fares on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s other commuter railroad, Metro-North. The LIRR’s rate of “incorrect fares collected” is 10.8 percent so far this year.
The railroad is also planning a “more robust education campaign” for both customers and employees on fare payment policies.
At an MTA board meeting last week, acting MTA chairman Fernando Ferrer reiterated that the agency has to “instruct our conductors to do a much better job of lifting tickets.”
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, which represents LIRR conductors, said that while he understood that Ferrer “expects the best out of our workers … the challenges of inspecting tickets on overcrowded trains due to short cars and with all of the varying types and policies can be difficult without proper staffing.”
Simon said conductors, who have to balance operational and safety duties with collecting fares, are forced “to prioritize their workload.”
“Crews do a great job securing revenue and spotting fraud under very challenging and crowded conditions,” Simon said. “They need the resources and support for proper enforcement when requested.”
But 33-year commuter George Steiner of Seaford said crowding isn’t the only reason some tickets go uncollected. Steiner said he’s seen conductors bypass some riders because they were sleeping.
“The biggest joke is when tickets aren’t collected on weekend trains,” Steiner said. “A large part of a conductor’s job is collecting fares, so either they’re inept and should be disciplined, or fired.”
The LIRR’s plans are part of a broad initiative by the MTA to address the problem of fare evasion across all its agencies. Fare beaters cost the MTA’s subways and buses an estimated $225 million last year.
“The point is try to enforce the law,” Ferrer told reporters Wednesday. “We lose hundreds of millions of dollars. And you would rightly call us negligent if we did not try to recover that and try to bring those numbers way down.”