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Long Island Rail Road places hold on plan to ban cash from trains

The MTA's cashless plan would have entailed the

The MTA's cashless plan would have entailed the closure of the Long Island Rail Road's ticket office in Port Jefferson. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

It turns out the LIRR will still accept your dollars and cents.

The Long Island Rail Road is putting on hold a plan to prohibit cash transactions onboard trains, the railroad’s president said Monday.

Just three weeks after proposing to go cashless on LIRR trains, Phillip Eng said at a Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR Committee that the plan would be “tabled” until the MTA’s new fare payment system, known as OMNY, is in place. MTA officials have predicted that will happen in early 2021.

Eng later said that the decision followed input from the public.

"We reviewed the comments received by the Board and after deliberation, opted to withdraw the proposal regarding LIRR onboard cash sales," Eng said in a statement.

The LIRR originally planned to ban cash on trains beginning in March, including for ticket purchases, "step-up" fees for customers traveling during peak periods with off-peak tickets, or for those looking to extend their trips.

The reversal follows opposition from some riders and LIRR labor leaders. The plan sought to achieve savings in part by eliminating the positions of several ticket agents charged with handling cash drop-offs by conductors at the end of train runs. The plan also would have entailed the closure of station ticket offices in Port Jefferson and Patchogue.

For now, the railroad will look elsewhere for savings, Eng added.

"The proposal will be reviewed for inclusion when OMNY is introduced to the commuter railroads," his statement said. "In order to still achieve the $1.1 million annual savings, the LIRR will identify non-payroll spending reductions that do not directly affect train service or customers."

Labor leaders had said eliminating cash transactions on trains — which account for about $8 million annually — amounted 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 are not charged an extra fee for paying their fares on a train — make up about half the onboard cash transactions, according to the Transportation Communication Union that represents LIRR ticket agents.

“We’re glad the MTA and the Long Island Rail Road have put this on hold for our seniors, disabled and all customers,” said TCU representative Nicholas Peluso, who believes the postponement “will give all parties involved time to discuss other options.”

Opponents of the plan also had questioned whether it could end up costing the railroad more than it would save. Eng had said passengers without the ability to pay their fare once the cashless ban was in place would be allowed to ride to their destination, potentially resulting in an increase in lost fare revenue. The LIRR estimates that it loses about $20 million annually in uncollected fares, and a recent New York State Comptroller's audit suggested that the amount could be as high as $33 million a year.

Anthony Simon, head of the LIRR conductors' union, agreed that nixing plan "was the right thing to do for our customers who still rely on the service."

"Onboard cash is fiscally responsible for the agency," said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

The proposal came as cash transactions on trains have dropped more than 40% over the last two years as the railroad has introduced new fare options for riders, including electronic ticket purchases on mobile devices and credit-card transactions on trains. LIRR officials have said onboard cash transactions account for just 1% of total ticket sales.

LIRR customers will have another option to pay for their ride when OMNY arrives at the railroad in February 2021. The new system, an acronym for One Metro New York, aims to allow commuters to pay for their LIRR, subway or bus ride with a tap of their mobile device or credit card.

Long Beach commuter Eileen Damore said she was “happy to hear” that cash would be sticking around on LIRR trains.

“As a public-serving organization, they have to be nimble and flexible to accept all forms of payments,” Damore said. “Using only cashless would be a limited form of payment.”

LIRR BUDGET

  • The about-face on the MTA's cashless plan was revealed as LIRR officials unveiled their final 2020 operating budget Monday. The railroad expects to spend about $1.8 billion next year on operating costs, an increase of about 15% over this year.
  • About $1.3 billion of those costs are labor expenses. The LIRR projects bringing in $817.5 million in 2020, including $781.4 million in fares. Board members are expected to vote on the budget as part of a broader MTA spending plan Wednesday.

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