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'Smart' technology to collect LIRR fares

A train arrives at the LIRR Jamaica Station

A train arrives at the LIRR Jamaica Station in Queens. (January 12, 2011) Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

The Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad each lose several million dollars a year in uncollected fares, but within five years new technology is expected to transform the process and dramatically reduce losses, railroad and MTA officials said.

The railroad this year will start testing handheld machines that conductors can use to accept payment by credit and debit cards to reduce time-consuming cash transactions and enable them to move through the train more quickly, LIRR president Helena Williams said Wednesday.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority already is testing "smart card" technology in some New York City subway stations. Similar technology could be implemented on the commuter railroads in about five years, MTA officials said.

By 2020, conductors might simply walk through trains and scan the chips in riders' smart phones, automatically billing them, similar to the way drivers pay E-ZPass tolls, Williams said.

The MTA said it does not know exactly how much revenue is lost each year on its commuter railroads when conductors don't reach all passengers.

Estimates for lost revenue in 2010 range from $6 million to $17 million on the LIRR -- 1 to 3 percent of total ticket revenue -- and even more on Metro-North. The numbers are imprecise in part because the MTA, midway through last year, changed the way it monitors LIRR ticket collection.

Commuter advocates on the cash-strapped railroads have called for years for better fare collection, arguing that if conductors collected more tickets, painful fare hikes and service cuts would be unnecessary.

MTA officials said the recent change shortening the time for which train tickets are valid should capture some of the lost revenue, and the LIRR said it is working to deploy conductors more efficiently, but the problem can't be fixed without overhauling the way riders pay.

"Every time I sit on the train and somebody punches my ticket, I think, 'I'm back in the '20s!' " said Mitchell Pally, an MTA board member who represents Suffolk County.

In ungated rail systems such as the LIRR and Metro-North, some revenue always will be lost, MTA officials said.

The head of the LIRR's conductors' union blamed the problem of uncollected fares on a shortage of fare collectors. The LIRR has 703 of them, down 60 positions since 2009.

Technology isn't the answer, said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union. "They're not going to change the amount of fares they lose by putting a machine in the conductors' hands."

Conductors on both railroads file daily reports tallying their cash receipts and estimating the number of passengers they do not reach.

In LIRR records from a two-week span last spring, obtained through the Freedom of Information Law by News 12 Long Island and shared with Newsday, conductors explained instances when fares went uncollected on crowded trains. They cited the Memorial Day holiday and Mets games.

For example, when service was disrupted June 3 because of a broken rail in an East River tunnel, a conductor on a train to Port Washington reported that 600 passengers were missed.

On Memorial Day, another conductor reported missing about 200 fares on a train from the Hamptons, writing that the "... train became completely packed. When doors opened people almost fell out."

Maureen Michaels, chairwoman of the LIRR Commuters Council, said the millions in lost fares could have prevented service cuts. "That's a lot of money when you're cutting out Greenport for less than a million dollars," Michaels said.

Last month, she said, conductors did not punch her ticket on four of 10 trips on the Port Jefferson branch.

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