It’s a common scene on Metra after events such as Lollapalooza and the Navy Pier fireworks: hoards of passengers pile into train cars, conductors can’t easily navigate through the crowded aisles to collect fares and hundreds if not thousands of passengers end up riding for free.
But facing a massive budget shortfall and the prospect of raising fares, the commuter rail agency is getting tough with its employees to make sure all riders pay their fare share, the Better Government Association has learned.
Not only have conductors been instructed to start collecting every dime, Metra is keeping a closer watch on them, assigning anonymous “observers” to ride train lines and see if the ticket collectors are reaching everyone, Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said.
What’s more, conductors are being told they could face discipline – perhaps termination – if caught giving freebies, even to off-duty Metra personnel, Pardonnet said.
“Recently, the number of concerns and complaints about this problem has increased,” she said. As a result, Alex Clifford, Metra’s new executive director, “is taking this very seriously because of budget concerns.”
“We’re putting forth a more concerted effort to put trained observers on board to monitor fare collections,” Pardonnet added. “It’s being communicated to the crews and employees that [letting riders skate] is an unacceptable and dismissible offense.”
The crackdown started in early August, shortly after the BGA began inquiring about fare-collection practices. But Pardonnet said that’s not what sparked the tough new approach.
Metra conducted an online consumer survey in August that garnered more than 7,000 responses. Some people indicated they wouldn’t support a fare hike because Metra does not collect existing fares from everybody, Pardonnet said.
Although Metra didn’t tally the complaints, there were enough to assign observers to monitor the situation, she said. (Observers aren’t new to the agency, but Metra ramped up their use after Metra’s Aug. 12 board meeting.)
Clifford has sent memos to Metra employees on the subject. So far no employees have been let go for violating the edict, although at least one worker is being disciplined. “The idea is not to single people out, but to alleviate the problem,” Pardonnet said. “Hopefully the warnings serve as a deterrent right then and there.”
Union officials had no immediate comment.
But conductors interviewed by the BGA said it can be difficult to get fares from all riders when a train is packed.
“The crazier and more crowded the trains are, the harder it is for us to collect everyone’s tickets,” said a conductor interviewed recently at Union Station in downtown Chicago. “It’s like a police officer trying to radar everyone that speeds. Sometimes it’s just impossible to catch everyone.”
Another conductor said a lack of manpower is another reason fares sometimes don’t get collected. He said there are supposed to be three conductors on his train, but it’s common for one to be transferred to another train to fill a vacancy, making it tough to get to all the riders.
Metra seems to lag in collection efforts during train delays, inclement weather, and big events such as music festivals (including shows at Ravinia in the north suburbs) and sports games (including horse races at Arlington Park), which cause trains to be packed and the crews to be sometimes unprepared. But passengers interviewed by the BGA said they’ve witnessed conductors neglect fare collection even when it wasn’t crowded.
“I recently took a late afternoon train from Lake Forest to Chicago,” said Davis Anderson, of Chicago. “Occasionally, a conductor would come through, and people would attempt payment, only to have the conductor say he would come back and get it. I am not sure how many people had a free ride, but in my car alone there were a lot.”
It’s hard to quantify how often fares actually go uncollected, and how much money is at stake; Metra apparently has not studied the issue in depth, although Metra officials have speculated that, over the years, the total is in the millions of dollars.
It’s worth noting that on the CTA, fare collection is done in rail stations, at turnstiles, and not on board.
“It seems like a lot of money is being missed out on,” said Jeffrey Durkes, of Chicago, who takes Metra to watch Northwestern University football games. “If you ride the CTA and know you’re going to get hit up 100 percent of the time, why not just go down to the Metra and get the possibility of a free ride?”
This story was written and reported by BGA Editor of Investigations Robert Herguth and BGA Investigative Intern Melanie Zanona. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.