Chicago's Metra commuter trains provide a vital service to the public and are an asset to the entire area. However, their ability to handle high capacities leaves something to be desired.
When Chicago's Metra commuter trains are at capacity or over (during Ravinia concerts, Lollapalooza, Taste of Chicago, the recent Chicago Blackhawks celebration (429,000 people?), to name a few examples), the policy is to not charge the people that conductors cannot reach, which ends up being pretty much everyone. Those of you not familiar with the Metra system might not understand. If the average round-trip fare is $5, that's over $2.1 million for the Blackhawks event alone, if they collect all the fares. One Ravinia evening concert might overfill 8-10 trains round trip, at $5 per person, 200 people per train car, and 8 train cars, that's about $80,000, if they collect all the fares. There are Ravinia concerts all summer long.
A little background: Quaintly, in the Metra system, conductors still collect fares and hole-punch tickets by hand (no digital assistance, no automatic fare cards, etc.) while walking through the train trying to remember who they've charged, where they're getting on and off at, etc. You can board a train without a ticket and purchase one from the conductor when (if) he/she walks by and asks for your tickets. In some cases, this is your only option since there are no automated ticket purchasing machines, station houses have extremely limited hours, and many station houses are unmanned.
Metra's trains are bi-level, and have narrow aisles that make the task of ticket checking and collecting neither easy nor quick... fortunately, the assistant conductor doesn't have to go up to the 2nd level.
A recent example: My wife and I went to see Rodrigo y Gabriela at Ravinia on Saturday Aug. 28, 2010. The train we rode to Ravinia Park was packed (as were the 2 or 3 after us), and nobody was charged a dime. When we returned that night, the trains were even more packed, and they ran extra trains in order to meet the extraordinary demand (this happens regularly for Ravinia concerts, as the exact same thing happened to us 2 years ago when we went to see Feist on July 11, 2008). Once again, nobody was charged a dime in either direction. In fact, this doesn't just happen during special events. On Sunday Aug. 1, 2010 I took the train into the city. It wasn't particularly busy, but nobody in my train car was charged because the conductor never came by to check tickets.
Think about that.
When you take the CTA train or bus home after a Cubs game or after Lollapalooza, do they let you ride for free? No.
When you drive to the Taste of Chicago, and the Millennium Park garages are packed, do they just open the gates and let everyone park for free? No.
This is, in essence, what Metra is doing... whenever their trains are too full for the conductors to walk the aisle and collect fares.
Their system does not scale. It cannot handle high capacity. It's not the fault of the conductors, it's the system. The fare collection system must be updated, able to handle all capacities, especially at the high end. In a time when companies and families are tightening their belts and trying to run more efficiently, it is baffling why Metra would be allowed to continue to forego collecting fares during the very times when their revenue and profits would be highest. Back of the envelope calculations suggest that they are forgoing hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions... every year.
Metra needs to find a way to charge all of their customers, all of the time, ESPECIALLY during the times when the trains are the most packed. Private companies live and die by their highest volume days. However, by virtue of being a public entity, Metra doesn't seem to have to follow the same rules. But as a taxpayer, and a regular, avid Metra rider, I believe that this is unfair to the taxpayers of Illinois and unfair to other Metra riders who have to pay their fares.
Full disclosure: I love public transportation. I love trains. I love transit. I've been to Japan and South Korea. They charge all of their customers, all the time (unless the train is extremely, horribly late, in which case you can apply for a refund).