Diverging Approach: If you see nothing, say something

Jim Derwinski, Metra’s CEO/Executive Director, may or may not have stepped in it when he talked to reporters (including the Chicago Tribune) following his speech to the City Club of Chicago:

He said Metra asks customers who see a fellow passenger not paying a fare to tell the conductor, though he acknowledges that this kind of voluntary tattling is a “big lift” for riders.

So the CEO/Executive Director of Metra is kindly requesting passengers to snitch on their fellow Metra riders instead of coming up with some method of getting better fare compliance on board. In Metra’s defense, peer enforcement is how quiet cars are enforced, and there’s no shortage of people willing to shush their fellow riders, so maybe peer fare enforcement would work (this time).

The Tribune article has plenty of gems though, so it’s worth the read. I particularly enjoyed the part about how Metra was totally overwhelmed by St. Patrick’s Day this year, considering St. Pat’s is always one of the busiest days of the year, and how the years when St. Patrick’s Day lands on a Saturday are always awful on Metra, and how we reserved group tickets for St. Pat’s and no one communicated that to the train crews anyway. (Can’t prove this, but our conspiracy theory is that when St. Pat’s lands on a Saturday, first off it’s usually slightly warmer than usual since it’s a week later, and secondly it’s the only time the South Side parade is a week before the downtown parade, so drinkers can more easily do both the downtown parade and the South Side parade.)

But the article is a great chance to discuss Metra’s antiquated fare structure. To be fair, Metra is currently looking at alternatives to the current fare structure, but at this point in the study the truly groundbreaking options have been removed from consideration and the agency is considering smaller tweaks to the system rather than a full-fledged restructuring of the fare system.

The Tribune article offers up platform turnstiles as a possible alternative to the current Metra fare structure, although given Metra’s commitment to a fare structure with more than ten zones (there are currently 13), a turnstile structure would not necessarily be effective for many of the lines, especially for intermediate zone trips. Furthermore, Metra already tried turnstiles on the Electric Lines, which resulted in abandonment of that system due to either the inefficiencies of the turnstiles themselves or the perceived slights on South Side riders from some no-name state senator. (Of course, the Electric Line absolutely should have kept its turnstiles provided that Metra offered service that was comparable to rapid transit — the line was built with rapid-transit frequencies, rapid-transit station spacing, and was considered rapid transit when Chicago first considered public ownership of transit assets which helps explain why the CTA rail network never expanded south of 95th Street or east of Stony Island Avenue.) That said, turnstile systems operate best in systems like the CTA’s ‘L’ network where all (well, most) of the stations are in a single fare zone. Otherwise, in the Electric Line’s case, a rider could theoretically pay a single-zone fare to pass through the turnstile and ride the train all the way downtown. This issue is addressed in then-Senator Obama’s letter linked above, where fare inspectors were still required with the turnstile system to make sure riders weren’t over-riding their tickets. If you’re investing in fare inspectors, there are better fare payment systems out there that don’t require the capital cost of turnstiles.

The most obvious structure — which was conspicuously absent from the Tribune’s article — is proof-of-payment (POP), which is a common method of fare payment for transit systems throughout the country. CalTrain in the San Francisco Bay area uses proof-of-payment for their commuter rail operations, and the system doesn’t operate too differently than Metra’s current system in more abstract terms. Proof-of-payment systems are the epitome of the trust-but-verify conservative mantra: a glorified honor system exists in jurisdictions with POP, where riders are expected to buy their own tickets on the honor system. In fact, you could argue that Metra effectively operates a proof-of-payment system, except riders get their tickets checked on a vast majority of trains and the penalty for non-payment is minimal. However, in true POP systems, fare inspection officers are occasionally present to check tickets and issue significant violations for riders without valid tickets. To put this in Metra terms, Metra currently charges a $5 penalty if you purchase a ticket onboard from a conductor from a station where an agent was on-duty to sell you a ticket. The POP system might raise that penalty to $50, but with a tenth of the conductors deployed. The math theoretically works out such that you may ride for free nine times, but the penalty issued for the tenth offense makes up the balance for the missed fares.

That’s an extremely basic example — the break-even math based on fare zones and everything else is much more complex than that. That complexity is one of the reasons Metra has not seriously considered a proof-of-payment system. First and foremost, POP systems are predicated on the ability to purchase tickets before boarding the train. While the Ventra app does provide that ability to smartphone users with credit cards, Title VI considerations prevent Metra from switching over to a system that revolves around technology and resources lower-income riders may not have access to, such as smartphones and credit cards. Furthermore, even with the Ventra app, POP enforcement would be a challenge — if I board an MD-W train in Itasca (Zone E) and the fare checkers board my MD-W train at Mont Clare (Zone B), there’d be nothing theoretically stopping me from using my Ventra app to buy a ticket saying I boarded at Franklin Park (Zone C) instead. A more robust proof-of-payment system for Metra would require a consolidated zone structure, which is problematic in and of itself. More on that later.

But then there’s the more practical aspects of a POP implementation. First and foremost, due to the aforementioned Title VI considerations, every Metra station would need some form of a ticket vending machine (TVM). Since Metra’s been retiring ticket agents whenever they can, the future would necessarily be built around TVMs. Of course, TVMs break, which means each station would need two TVMs for redundancy’s sake. Considering Metra has 242 stations, deploying nearly 500 brand-new machines throughout the Chicagoland area would have a significant price tag. (Not to mention the inevitable maintenance needed to fix broken machines and collect cash payments throughout the RTA’s six-county service area.) CalTrain can roll out POP using TVMs relatively easily since they basically operate a single line; Metra does not have that luxury, since the agency operates 11 different lines in six counties. However, an infusion of capital funding could very easily take care of this issue — and if the Metra board and other local politicians can effectively make the case that the system would save manpower costs in the long run by deploying a region-wide system of adequate TVMs (that the CTA may or may not have already figured out how to operate), there could be the political will to roll out a full POP system.

While we’re discussing Ventra, however, it’s worth bringing up the tap-in-tap-out (TITO) system used by some other transit systems. Washington (D.C.)’s WMATA uses TITO for their subway system, as well as other networks throughout the country. The concept is simple enough: tap a farecard when you get to your station (or onboard the train), then tap your farecard when you get off the train and the computerized system calculates your fare and automatically deducts it from whatever fare media you have. On the surface, it sounds pretty straightforward and easy to implement. However, TITO still would still require occasional fare enforcement, may still run into Title VI issues (how do you tap in when you only have cash?), and would very quickly run into bottleneck issues (Union Station commuters, can you imagine trying to tap into a terminal when you’re trying to leave, or, worse, trying to tap into a terminal before heading to your train home?).

I didn’t create this blog to defend Metra — as many of you have probably noticed by now — but as long as Metra is committed to their current distance-based fare structure (or something close to it), the current antiquated hodge-podge of paper tickets and smartphone Ventra app verification may be the agency’s best bet moving forward. Of course, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit Metra can still try to pick to improve their off-peak fare collection issues. First and foremost, from my experience, Metra conductors will not add the $5 surcharge to riders paying cash on weekend trains who are purchasing Weekend Passes, even when departing from a downtown terminal where station agents are available. That’s fine from the unstaffed outlying stations, but there’s no reason not to enforce that rule when leaving the downtown terminals, especially when the conductors are willing to show riders how to buy tickets using the Ventra app to avoid the surcharge. Here at The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago we do our best to advocate for leisure and infrequent weekend riders, but there’s still no reason to give riders leaving downtown a pass on the surcharge when Metra continuously cries poor while failing to collect tickets on crowded trains. We’re going to stop short of recommending our riders narc on their fellow riders, but it’s not unfair to just bite the bullet on a $10 Weekend Pass regardless of where you’re going or where you’re coming from. Also, it seems obvious, but always bears repeating: if the train is too crowded for fare collection, run more trains. Only Metra can find a way to complain about too many people using their service.

In the long run, Metra needs a complete rethinking of their fare structure, which unfortunately the current Fare Structure Study will not address. Personally, this blog recommends a simplified fare structure that (1) includes the cost of feeder bus routes to decrease the burdens of local municipalities to provide park-and-ride facilities near their stations — which typically are in the hearts of their respective downtowns — and (2) better corresponds to physical barriers throughout the region. For instance, we live in the Midwest: as many of you have noticed, topographic restrictions aren’t exactly common in our area. However, we do have an established system of belt highways/expressways/tollways through the region. These man-made facilities form natural barriers that would be better suited to Metra fare zones than the existing system of five-track-mile bands that surround the downtown core. As a case in point, this blog post is coming to you live (well, not “live”, but this is where I am with my laptop) from Itasca, which is in Metra’s fare Zone E. Just west of me is Interstate 290/Illinois 53, which forms a significant rift in suburban geography here in northern DuPage County. However, west of I-290/IL 53 are the Medinah and Roselle MD-W stations, which are also in Metra’s Zone E. It would make more sense – and probably be more intuitive for riders – if the fare zones were bounded by those geographic features. (Plus, since they generally form significant disruptions in the suburban landscape with fewer crossings, “fare jumpers” who drive further to board at a lower fare Zone would be less incentivized to do so.) These belt highways and other physical barriers form pretty straightforward fare zones throughout the region, using the western suburbs as an example: I-294 and/or the Des Plaines River form inner belts; followed by I-290/I-355/IL 53; and then either IL 59, the CN/EJ&E railroad, or the Fox River; and finally the Randall/Orchard Road corridor out in the hinterlands.

In other words: it’s great that Metra’s looking at tweaking their fare structure, but the current fare structure study seems to be resigned to reinforce the existing fare structure with some minor tweaks. If Metra is serious about updating and upgrading their fare structure, bolder approaches to fare collection are needed. In the long run, Metra should pursue a POP system, even though the initial capital costs are not insignificant. Even then, the fare zone system should be more closely related to travel alternatives (namely driving) than straight track miles.

In the meantime, we encourage riders reading these blogs to pay their fair share — transportation operations and infrastructure as a whole need a financial boost — but don’t narc out on our fellow travelers. The one promising thing from Mr. Derwinski’s City Club speech is that Metra is finally aware of the gaps in fare collection during busy events downtown. The current fare system is by no means perfect, but we support riders paying their fair share to make the suburban transit network stronger.

(And if this article makes its way into Metra’s news clips for senior-level staff: The Yard Social Club and Star:Line Chicago is here to help you and to be a partner in making Metra a stronger, more sustainable, more robust transportation option for suburban residents. We’ve seen plenty of weekend riders who are willing to buy a Weekend Pass but never see a conductor and end up buying a one-way ticket at the end of the evening. We promote the sale of Weekend Passes. We want to help. We’re here to help. And we want to get more people onboard your off-peak trains.)

2 thoughts on “Diverging Approach: If you see nothing, say something

  1. “and would very quickly run into bottleneck issues (Union Station commuters, can you imagine trying to tap into a terminal when you’re trying to leave, or, worse, trying to tap into a terminal before heading to your train home?”

    This wouldn’t be an issue. There are trains in the Netherlands that are just as busy and fare readers on stanchions are placed in dozens of locations on the platform. (Although, the Netherlands is also adding dozens of turnstiles at its largest stations in addition to frequent fare inspections.)


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