About buying tickets — or proving you did

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. (I can’t tell you how many times my train has left the station as I’m punching in “one way…New Haven to Grand Central…off-peak…one adult…no, I don’t want a Metro Card…” and still more buttons after that.)

Those ticket vending machines cost the state $57,000 each, by the way. That includes their maintenance contracts. “They need to take a serious amount of abuse and keep working,” explained Kevin Nursick, a spokesman with the state Department of Transportation.

Can we do better? In some countries, commuters can buy tickets using their smartphones. Metro-North is in the very early stages of developing a system like that right now, though it’ll be a while.

But rail expert and University of Pennsylvania professor Vukan Vuchic thinks the real innovation we need isn’t in how you buy your ticket. It’s how you prove you bought your ticket.

Right now, conductors check every person’s ticket on the train -– in a system that’s largely unchanged from the 1920s.

“It’s very labor-intensive, and that’s by far the most important item in operating costs,” Vuchic says.

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.

In that system, a rail agency would need fewer conductors. So it could spend money on other things, like adding more trains. Those conductors need not lose their jobs, either Vuchic points out., Why not train them to be drivers, which we’ll need more of if we can provide more frequent service?


Some rail agencies are coming up with pretty cool ways for us to pay for our tickets – such as tapping a credit card onto a turnstile. More on that tomorrow.