Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Minute Late, a Car Short and Riding for Free

Apparently I missed some "excitement" on the p508 yesterday morning. I had driven to work because I had an appointment afterwards, so I missed out on the delays due to mechanical issues. According to riders, the train never arrived to South Station until almost 9:30. Ugh! I am quite glad to have missed that commute.

This morning's commute on the p508 was back on track ... although we were a car short, so it was more crowded than usual. We arrived to South Station at 8:24, just a minute off of the scheduled arrival time.

I received an email about the annual program "Meet the MBCR Managers," whereby commuters are invited to meet with representatives from the commuter rail management team. I really wish Dan G. would be there so I could tell him what I think about his "give me revenue or you get nothing" threats. Frankly, I'm going to skip this meeting this year ... I went last year and spent over an hour talking to different managers and all of my comments about windows on the train (still a problem on the Worcester/Framingham line), lack of express service, parking rates, hardships with inserting dollar bills into the tiny slots, etc. Nothing really came of it as far as I can see.

But, if any of you are interested, or have suggestions or ideas you would like to share, the managers will be South Station on May 12th, North Station on May 14th and Back Bay on May 20th between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

WHDH (Channel 7) had an eye-opening report last night about free rides on the commuter rail, which has long been a bone of contention for me (as I get my monthly pass through my company). Their undercover reporters rode 23 times on a 12 ride ticket. I know that people play the system, banking on not getting their ticket checked, but really, for a cash strapped agency, you would think they would check every single person, all of the time. But, for those of us who ride the rails every day, this really isn't new information.

MBCR issued the following statement regarding Channel 7's story:

"Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad is committed to collecting every fare. While we were disappointed to learn of Channel 7's experience and plan to investigate this story, we believe it is not an objective portrait of the fare collection program. MBCR data shows that fare collection has improved. In 2008, commuter rail ridership was up 2% and on-board fare collection was up 5.5% over 2007. Complaints regarding fare collection have declined from 29 complaints in October of 2008 to just four complaints in March 2009. MBCR has employed a number of proactive steps to ensure every fare is collected.

Last summer, we implemented a "Buy Before You Board" campaign and have dispatched mystery shoppers on trains to evaluate our staff's efforts to collect fares. In January, MBCR launched a two-day customer service training program for all conductors that emphasizes keys to customer satisfaction, including fare collection. We continue to work hard to overcome the challenge of collecting every fare on a system without gates or turn-styles and look forward to working with the MBTA to implement the Charlie Card collection system on commuter rail . We encourage all of our customers to report uncollected fares to our customer service department at www.mbcr.net ."

Whether or not the "Buy Before You Board" program helped decrease the amount of fares not collected, I will say that the Worcester/Framingham conductors are quite diligent and consistent with fare collection.

There was a great article in the Globe yesterday about how all of the transit problems cause problems for businesses. I mean, that's a no-brainer, right? A workable, functioning transportation system is vital for Boston. Businesses and industries that want to expand in Massachusetts, such as life sciences and healthcare, will have trouble doing so if they can't transport products and employees quickly and efficiently.

A new study published by A Better City, a Boston-based business organization, found that congestion on Massachusetts roads cost businesses $1.8 billion a year in lost productivity and increased shipping costs, a nearly fourfold increase since 1990. And as we know, both the highway and transit services/agencies are under great financial strain. The study identified a number of revenue measures, such as higher gas taxes, tolls on the turnpike, and bus, subway and commuter fares, and concluded the gas tax is the most efficient. But it stopped short of advocating a large increase. But, as we've been advocating ... something has to be done and soon ...


AJ said...

I loved that as soon as WHDH contacted the MBTA, they said call MBCR. I was waiting for an MBCR response saying contact the MBTA to show all of New England what a ridiculous farce we go through with these companies.

I was wondering what their results would be for fares collected on the Worc. line, and their only gripe was riding from Yawkee to South Station after a Sox game. Seems that Haverhill line is in some real trouble with collections. I especially liked the line about the conductor who just winked at the girl and didn't collect her money.

Kyle said...

What a ridiculous statement by the MBCR/MBTA. It doesn't matter how bad a problem is, as long as you continue to say their isn't a problem, or only a small problem here and there, then their isn't a problem. Oh yeah, don't forget the random, distorted "fact" tidbits from some random study to confirm your lie.

I really see the MBTA/MBCR and service issues, customer complaints and revenue problems coming to a head here really, really soon.

Train Rider said...

I love it ... if MBCR tries to collect every single fare, how can they have a 5.5% increase in fare collection?

I also love how WHDH got the run around from MBTA/MBCR ... now they know what we have to deal with.

The sad thing is ... will anything really change from their expose? Probably not.

Scott Farmelant said...

As the MBCR statement stated, the commuter rail system is 'open.' This means there are no gates, turnstiles, or other ways to ensure collection of every fare/ticket.

As such, there is widespread recognition that collecting EVERY fare is a significant challenge for commuter rail staff. To Kyle's point, the challenge has long been acknowledged as a "problem," which explains ongoing efforts to address the issue.

Regarding the Channel 7 'story,' please note this was a typical segment for this particular station.

Please further note that the piece aired during 'sweeps' rating periods, which typically brings about heavily hyped stories focused on allegations of corruption and abuse (it was held for two weeks and heavily advertised to maximize ratings exposure.)

In light of Channel 7's presentation of the fare collection issue, ask yourself the following question. If you produced the story, would you refuse to provide MBCR and MBTA with the dates and trains #s of the alleged uncollected fares in question?

Unfortunately, that's exactly what Channel 7 did (stating "we don't want to get anybody in trouble ...")

Channel 7's response was particularly troubling given the fact that allegation of the 'wink' was reported by a college intern, not a reporter. Apparently, it was not substantiated by camera (as seen in the video, the Channel 7 crews rode with hidden cameras.)

Deliberate avoidance of fare collection is a serious charge deserving of corroboration. Unfortunately, none was forthcoming from Channel 7. As such, MBCR's ability to hold somebody accountable for wrongdoing is severely restricted.

As you think about this, you might also want to question Channel 7's reporting tactics. Channel 7 acknowledged jumping on trains and getting off one stop later, usually during rush hours.

In MBCR's view, this tactic was designed to increase the volume of "free" rides they experienced.

Regular customers of commuter rail know that trains are very crowded during rush hour. Crowded trains hamper the ability of conductors to collect fares during the first five to ten minutes of a trip.

It's also worth noting that the overwhelming majority of customers ride for more than one stop, which allows more time for conductors to check every ticket and pass. To my knowledge, there is no known pattern of riders who attempt to dodge fare collection by traveling for just one stop.

In closing, please note this: There is no more transparent system in the USA than commuter rail in Eastern MA. By providing the media and public with monthly On Time Performance stats (placed on viewing boards in all major stations); by holding semi-annual Meet the Manager events; by literally taking the heat for "hot cars" during summertime, and many other initiatives, the present operators of commuter rail have shown a proven commitment to being responsible and accountable to the riding public.

To my knowledge - and I have spent years looking - there is no other public transportation provider (agency or contractor) in the United States that is as transparent as MBCR.

Thank you for the opportunity to share this information.

p.s. - The offer for a meeting with the GM of MBCR has been made in the past to Train Rider and other participating bloggers on Train Stopping. The offer remains open.

If you are interested, my email is scottf@millsandcompany.biz.

Please contact me there if you are interested in learning other sides of the story.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

No offense, Scott, but I actually think the Channel 7 report was spot on. And I'm not a huge fan of Channel 7's tabloid style reporting.

They aired a report about what a lot of people have experienced and talk about. Read the posts and comments on this blog - people have been talking about the lack of fare collection for some period of time.

Obviously our state's Transportation system is a mess. Otherwise, why would you need the MBTA, MBCR, Mass Pike and all the shenanigans?

I used to ride the commuter rail, until I found a better job closer to my house. In the effort to be as transparent as possible, I would ride the Worcester/Framingham line. During my time on the train, I never purchased a monthly pass. Why? Well, because I could purchase a 12-ride pass and have that pass cover a vast majority of my commutes during a month. That made a lot more economic sense to me, plus a 12-ride book of tickets lasts for 180 days instead of a monthly pass. This was a gamble that paid off better than the best Vegas slot.

Do you even use the commuter rail? Because, if you did, you would know that the lack of fare collection is a constant issue. Other transit systems do a much better job of making sure they're checking passes, collecting tickets and generating income. Ride a rush hour train from Stamford, CT to NYC or anywhere in New Jersey - there are way more people, closer stops and yet, low and behold, the fares are collected.

If you think the MBCR is transparent, then you're a promo-man from the 1930s. Our state's transportation entities are about as untransparent as they can be.

I would love to know what your fees to schill for the MBCR are.

Train Rider said...

Mr. Farmelant,

I appreciate your comments regarding Channel 7’s report on the MBTA/MBCR and lack of fare collection on commuter trains.

Regardless of the sensationalistic nature of Channel 7’s reporting style, those of us who ride the commuter rail every day are all too familiar with the fact that consistent collection of fares is a problem. I would be happy to go back through emails sent to MBCR customer service not only from myself but also followers of my blog to detail multiple occasions when fares were not collected. The excuse of train crowding to avoid collecting fares is, to me, not an excuse. For an agency as cash strapped as the MBTA, every single fare is important. Although it might not be popular to do so on a crowded (or late) train, conductors should collect every fare.

Those of us who purchase a monthly pass often end up paying for those who ride on a 12-ride ticket, banking on the fact that they do not get checked, or don’t have to pay a fare at all. I have been a commuter rail rider for over six years and I never noticed the fare collection problem has been more evident since the silent work strike started in fall of 2007.

All you have to do to see passengers dodging fare collection by traveling only one stop is to ride the commuter rail on Red Sox game day. People get on at South Station or Back Bay and get off at Yawkey and rarely are they charged for the fare.

You have to understand the level of frustration that we experience as a commuter rail rider. Of course we’re going to lay blame at the agency responsible for maintaining the fleet when things go wrong, i.e. no heat, no air conditioning, windows out of which you can’t see, late trains, etc. I have been to multiple Meet the Manager meetings both at Back Bay and South Station. I filled out the forms, talked to the managers … problems that I have mentioned for over two years are still happening on my line. I have asked repeatedly for the on-time performance stats to be made public. And, to me, public does not mean on a poster hung near the ticket window at the back of South Station. It should be posted on the MBTA website. Based on all of this, I’m not really sure that the MBTA/MBCR feels that they are accountable.

I have actually never seen an invitation to meet with the GM of MBTA or MBCR. But at this point, I’m not sure they wouldn't tell me what I wanted to hear, with no real actionable items to get the commuter rail to where it should be.


Train Rider