LIRR conductors are checking tickets before passengers board some Penn Station trains. Newsday transportation reporter Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Craig Ruttle; Newsday archive

"All tickets please" has long been a familiar phrase riding the Long Island Rail Road, but rush hour commuters at Penn Station as of late have been hearing that refrain before they even board a train.

Launched late last year for some trains departing soon after Madison Square Garden events let out, the fare "gating" operation has been expanded to regular rush hour trains in an attempt to collect more tickets from riders.

It’s one of several measures taken by the LIRR recently to combat the growing problem of fare evasion, which costs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the railroad’s parent organization — about $700 million a year. About $24 million in uncollected fares are lost each year at the LIRR, the MTA has estimated.

The gating operation is in Penn Station two to three days a week, but LIRR president Robert Free said he “could see it become a permanent practice,” and in place every weekday. The railroad is gathering and analyzing data while the program is still in its pilot stage.

“The customers don’t seem to mind. They understand what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get as much revenue as possible from this,” Free said in an interview at Penn Station on Thursday. “We felt this was the best way to combat fare evasion, and this is the path we took to address that.”

The LIRR began gating at Penn Station in November for MSG events, and started using it during some evening rush hours "shortly thereafter," Free said. The operation has been in place on 38 different days, and resulted in the collection of 234,000 tickets, Free said.

Free said the LIRR looked at data on fare collection throughout the system and determined that setting up a gating system at Penn would “bring the greatest value,” in part because the highest number of on-board transactions — including electronic ticket activations, paper ticket sales, and issued IOUs for unpaid fares — happen between Penn and Jamaica.

Monthly LIRR ticket holder Dawn Estapinian said she’s been through the gating operation a few times in recent months, and hasn’t minded it.

“For me, it moves quickly,” said Estapinian, of New Hyde Park. “I just show my pass and get on. It’s like showing your pass when you’re on the train. You’re just more prepared.”

In addition to keeping fare beaters off the train, Estapinian said checking tickets before boarding also deters those who walk through trains asking passengers for money.

The operation was on display during the Thursday evening rush hour at Penn, where more than a half-dozen LIRR workers, joined by three MTA Police officers, gathered around steel barricades at the top of the main stairway leading down to tracks 15 and 16.

LIRR officials have targeted those tracks, in particular, for “pre-boarding validation” of tickets, because the layout of the platform often results in passengers crowding into the front-most cars of the train — making it difficult for conductors to make their way through the crowd to check tickets.

A mounted sign instructed commuters to “please show us your ticket before boarding” — as did an LIRR employee with a reflective orange vest and a bullhorn. Hundreds of passengers flowed through the bottleneck of conductors and their handheld ticket-punching devices in a steady stream.

Some riders appeared caught off guard when directed to pull up and activate their electronic tickets, but none were observed complaining about the operation.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Justin Mendes, 33, of Farmingville, moments before making his way through the checkpoint Thursday to catch the 4:10 p.m. to Ronkonkoma. “A lot of the times you buy a ticket, you activate it, and they don’t check it. So . . . I was always thinking, ‘Why haven’t they done this sooner?”

When the last call for Mendez’ train was announced at 4:09 p.m., workers lifted the virtual “gates,” waving through the remaining riders in the cue without checking tickets. “The train’s leaving in one minute. Just go for it guys,” a police officer told riders.

Conductors on the train would check the remaining tickets, according to Free. "We always want to make sure everyone makes their train," he said.

The LIRR has long had gating operations at stations serving major sports and entertainment venues, including Citi Field and Forest Hills Stadium, and, more recently, the UBS Arena in Elmont.

A report published last year by a panel of fare evasion experts recommended that a “simpler, less staff-intensive version of gating should also occasionally be made part of the experience of everyday riders.”

Lisa Daglian, who sat on the panel, said, in addition to minimizing lost fare revenue, checking tickets before passengers board also minimizes fare disputes on trains that sometimes escalate to assaults against conductors.

"If there's any way to reduce friction and ensure a smoother ride for everybody . . . it's going to lead to a better day," said Daglian,  executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee. She supports gating "as long as it's not going to seriously disrupt traffic flow and have an effect on departure times."

Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR conductors' union, said that while gating makes sense for special events that can attract big crowds for certain trains, trying to make it a part of the regular rush hour "is not achievable and a waste of manpower for the high traffic" at Penn.

"Conductors can better serve the riders as well as provide for their safety by being onboard trains where they belong," Simon said.

LIRR conductors last year issued about 160,000 invoices to passengers who said they could not pay for their rides — up about 60% from the previous year, according to MTA data obtained by Newsday. The LIRR’s most persistent fare beater last year received 155 invoices within six months, totaling $2,154 in unpaid tickets.

Free confirmed Thursday that the LIRR recently enacted another policy aimed at addressing fare evasion. Since June 17, conductors only issue “IOU” invoices to riders who provide proper identification. Those who do not are removed from trains.

Under the previous policy, providing an ID was not necessary to be issued an invoice for an unpaid fare. Only about 5% of the invoices are ever paid, according to MTA data.

Free said, since enacting the new policy, the number of invoices issued to non-paying riders dropped by 27%.

"All tickets please" has long been a familiar phrase riding the Long Island Rail Road, but rush hour commuters at Penn Station as of late have been hearing that refrain before they even board a train.

Launched late last year for some trains departing soon after Madison Square Garden events let out, the fare "gating" operation has been expanded to regular rush hour trains in an attempt to collect more tickets from riders.

It’s one of several measures taken by the LIRR recently to combat the growing problem of fare evasion, which costs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the railroad’s parent organization — about $700 million a year. About $24 million in uncollected fares are lost each year at the LIRR, the MTA has estimated.

The gating operation is in Penn Station two to three days a week, but LIRR president Robert Free said he “could see it become a permanent practice,” and in place every weekday. The railroad is gathering and analyzing data while the program is still in its pilot stage.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island Rail Road conductors are now regularly checking passengers' tickets before they board trains at Penn Station. The pilot program began late last year for trains departing after Madison Square Garden events, but has more recently been extended to the evening rush hour.
  • The fare "gating" operation aims to address the growing problem of fare evasion, which costs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority about $700 million a year.
  • LIRR officials, and some commuters, said the operation has been orderly and does not inconvenience riders, who flow through a barricaded ticket checkpoint at the top of the stairs leading down a platform at Penn.

“The customers don’t seem to mind. They understand what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get as much revenue as possible from this,” Free said in an interview at Penn Station on Thursday. “We felt this was the best way to combat fare evasion, and this is the path we took to address that.”

LIRR President Robert Free addresses the pre-checking tickets on Thursday...

LIRR President Robert Free addresses the pre-checking tickets on Thursday at Penn Station. Credit: Craig Ruttle

The LIRR began gating at Penn Station in November for MSG events, and started using it during some evening rush hours "shortly thereafter," Free said. The operation has been in place on 38 different days, and resulted in the collection of 234,000 tickets, Free said.

Free said the LIRR looked at data on fare collection throughout the system and determined that setting up a gating system at Penn would “bring the greatest value,” in part because the highest number of on-board transactions — including electronic ticket activations, paper ticket sales, and issued IOUs for unpaid fares — happen between Penn and Jamaica.

Monthly LIRR ticket holder Dawn Estapinian said she’s been through the gating operation a few times in recent months, and hasn’t minded it.

“For me, it moves quickly,” said Estapinian, of New Hyde Park. “I just show my pass and get on. It’s like showing your pass when you’re on the train. You’re just more prepared.”

In addition to keeping fare beaters off the train, Estapinian said checking tickets before boarding also deters those who walk through trains asking passengers for money.

Sign and bullhorn informs riders

The operation was on display during the Thursday evening rush hour at Penn, where more than a half-dozen LIRR workers, joined by three MTA Police officers, gathered around steel barricades at the top of the main stairway leading down to tracks 15 and 16.

LIRR officials have targeted those tracks, in particular, for “pre-boarding validation” of tickets, because the layout of the platform often results in passengers crowding into the front-most cars of the train — making it difficult for conductors to make their way through the crowd to check tickets.

A mounted sign instructed commuters to “please show us your ticket before boarding” — as did an LIRR employee with a reflective orange vest and a bullhorn. Hundreds of passengers flowed through the bottleneck of conductors and their handheld ticket-punching devices in a steady stream.

Some riders appeared caught off guard when directed to pull up and activate their electronic tickets, but none were observed complaining about the operation.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Justin Mendes, 33, of Farmingville, moments before making his way through the checkpoint Thursday to catch the 4:10 p.m. to Ronkonkoma. “A lot of the times you buy a ticket, you activate it, and they don’t check it. So . . . I was always thinking, ‘Why haven’t they done this sooner?”

When the last call for Mendez’ train was announced at 4:09 p.m., workers lifted the virtual “gates,” waving through the remaining riders in the cue without checking tickets. “The train’s leaving in one minute. Just go for it guys,” a police officer told riders.

Conductors on the train would check the remaining tickets, according to Free. "We always want to make sure everyone makes their train," he said.

The LIRR has long had gating operations at stations serving major sports and entertainment venues, including Citi Field and Forest Hills Stadium, and, more recently, the UBS Arena in Elmont.

A report published last year by a panel of fare evasion experts recommended that a “simpler, less staff-intensive version of gating should also occasionally be made part of the experience of everyday riders.”

Lisa Daglian, who sat on the panel, said, in addition to minimizing lost fare revenue, checking tickets before passengers board also minimizes fare disputes on trains that sometimes escalate to assaults against conductors.

"If there's any way to reduce friction and ensure a smoother ride for everybody . . . it's going to lead to a better day," said Daglian,  executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee. She supports gating "as long as it's not going to seriously disrupt traffic flow and have an effect on departure times."

Opposition by conductors union

Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR conductors' union, said that while gating makes sense for special events that can attract big crowds for certain trains, trying to make it a part of the regular rush hour "is not achievable and a waste of manpower for the high traffic" at Penn.

"Conductors can better serve the riders as well as provide for their safety by being onboard trains where they belong," Simon said.

LIRR conductors last year issued about 160,000 invoices to passengers who said they could not pay for their rides — up about 60% from the previous year, according to MTA data obtained by Newsday. The LIRR’s most persistent fare beater last year received 155 invoices within six months, totaling $2,154 in unpaid tickets.

Free confirmed Thursday that the LIRR recently enacted another policy aimed at addressing fare evasion. Since June 17, conductors only issue “IOU” invoices to riders who provide proper identification. Those who do not are removed from trains.

Under the previous policy, providing an ID was not necessary to be issued an invoice for an unpaid fare. Only about 5% of the invoices are ever paid, according to MTA data.

Free said, since enacting the new policy, the number of invoices issued to non-paying riders dropped by 27%.

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