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February 28, 2005

“Yet Another Fare Hike ?”

The cost of riding Metro-North has gone up again. And while these higher costs, effective March 1st, are described as “fare policy changes” rather than fare hikes, the effect is the same… higher costs for riders.

But didn’t we just have a fare increase a few months ago? You’re right. Fares went up 5.5% on January 1, following a 15% fare hike in July of 2003. And there are probably more fare hikes to come before our new cars arrive in 2008 or so.

What’s most interesting about these latest hikes is the way they were approved. But first, the details on who is affected.

If you have friends or co-workers living in New York City who “reverse commute” out to Connecticut each weekday morning, they’ll now be facing “peak” fares for one-way or ten-trip tickets. Those fare hikes are as much as 57%.

For everybody: if you don’t buy your ticket before you get on the train, you’ll now be hit with a surcharge of up to $5.50, instead of $3. Even if there’s no ticket machine on your platform (heading eastbound from most stations, for example), you must cross to the other side and get a ticket… or pay up. Seniors and the handicapped are exempted.

The idea behind this “surcharge” is to encourage greater use of the expensive new ticket vending machines which are replacing human ticket sellers. Metro-North says on-board conductors shouldn’t be playing banker, but should be running the trains. So having folks get their tickets before boarding will save them time in fare collection.

Maybe so… but a $5.50 penalty, even on a local fare of as low as $2.50? Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging people to ride the trains, not penalizing them?

I’ve reviewed internal CDOT reports on this surcharge and they and Metro-North admit that only 10% of the daily on-board ticket buyers will likely be persuaded to change their lazy (evil?) ways. That means the railroad stands to gain $660,000 a year in added revenue from this new “fare policy change”, and that’s why I call this the hidden fare hike.

I love the new ticket machines (hint: tickets are even cheaper bought online). But I hardly see conductors as being over-worked. Most of the ride they’re sitting in their cubicle reading the newspaper.

How often have you been on a train and seen conductors fail to collect all tickets? On over-crowded trains with many standees, this means thousands of dollars in lost revenue per train. According to an MTA audit, $9 million a year is lost in revenue due to uncollected fares. It is especially a problem with out-bound trains where passengers board at Stamford, Norwalk or Bridgeport. Conductors walk the cars asking for “Stamford tickets” and an honest few offer them up. The rest enjoy a “free ride”… on the rest of us.

Metro-North regulations say that conductors should issue seat-checks when fares are collected. That way they know who’s paid and who hasn’t. If you don’t see that being done, or if you see people riding for free, challenge your conductor.

What’s most galling about these new fare hikes is that they were proposed by the MTA and were rubber-stamped by CDOT. Despite two public hearings where 56 people spoke out in unanimous opposition to the MTA / CDOT plan, CDOT Commissioner Korta approved them, with little fanfare, the same week that Governor Rell was announcing that Connecticut needs a seat and a vote on the MTA Board so we can protect the interest of our commuters.


JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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