Rant & Rail: The Hassle of Train Tickets

Oct 24, 2012

As traffic on the highways gets worse, and gas prices rise, more people are shedding their cars. But using alternatives like trains and buses won’t always get you where you need to go.

In this second installment of a new series on WNPR and the Connecticut Mirror called “Rant & Rail,” reporter Neena Satija looks at how commuters buy their train tickets.  OK, so you’ve made it to the train station with two minutes to spare. That’s enough time, right? Not if you haven’t bought your ticket. First, you’ve got to bee-line over to those ticket vending machines.  "All right, one way, New Haven to Grand Central. I think it’s off-peak? Let’s try off-peak. One adult…go to next screen…no, I don’t want a Metro Card… " By the time that’s over, the train could be long gone. Isn’t there a better way? In many countries, commuters can buy tickets using their smartphones. Metro-North is in the very early stages of developing a system like that right now.  But rail expert and UPenn professor Vukan Vuchic says the real innovation we need isn’t in how you buy your ticket. It’s how you prove you bought your ticket. “We have that system from the 1920s when the conductor had to check every passenger.” If this sound is familiar to you, you’ve had your ticket checked on Metro-North before. It takes several conductors per train to make sure everyone’s bought a ticket – and that manpower is really expensive.  “It’s very labor-intensive, and that’s by far the most important item in operating costs.” Turnstiles, like the ones that exist at most subway stations, would solve the problem, but those are also expensive. Vuchic imagines a system where you can punch your own ticket using a machine when you get on-board. Conductors can come by every once in a while to make sure you’ve punched it, but they wouldn’t need to come as often. And they could impose heavy fines if you haven’t. Now, a rail agency would need less conductors. So it can spend money on other things, like adding more trains and drivers. But I’d be happy just if I could buy my ticket with my phone.  For more helpful hints about transit, check out Rant & Rail on ctmirror.org.