John Blanding/Globe Staff
The MBTA is planning a “free fare day” next month to mollify riders disgruntled by this winter’s poor service, but commuter rail customers are complaining that some of their fellow passengers are already getting free rides.
The packed commuter trains have had another unfortunate side effect besides discomfort: Because conductors haven’t been able to move through the crush of people on some cars, they haven’t always collected fares.
Monthly pass holders, who pay between $75 and $362 a month, say they believe it’s unfair when conductors don’t check whether every rider has bought a ticket.
“The person next to me shouldn’t ride for free when I’ve spent $280 on my pass,” said Gary Robinson, a regular Franklin Line commuter.
Under the T’s contract with Keolis Commuter Services, which runs the commuter rail system, the company is supposed to be fined $500 every time an MBTA inspector discovers that a conductor has not checked whether passengers have a ticket to ride the train.
From October to December, Keolis was fined nine times over fare collection lapses, for a total of $4,500.
But in February — when the fewest trains were running and overflow crowds were often at their largest — the T did not fine Keolis once for failing to collect fares.
Joe Pesaturo, a T spokesman, offered no explanation, saying in an e-mail only that the transit agency takes fare collection “very seriously,” and that MBTA employees continued to perform random inspections through the winter to document fare collection.
Riders who said they have seen conductors give up on checking fares want the T to crack down on Keolis.
“The MBTA should go after them,” said Donna Clough, a Wilmington resident who uses the Haverhill Line for her daily commute. “We spend all this money every single month, so they should be fined.”
Leslie Aun, a spokeswoman for Keolis, acknowledged that conductors on crowded trains have sometimes failed to collect fares because of overcrowding, but defended the company’s employees.
“For the most part, our conductors are doing their jobs,” she said.
Keolis officials also said they are hearing fewer complaints as trains become less crowded. Aun said the company is vigilant about fare collection, and it has managers running checks to make sure conductors are too.
Rider complaints collected by Keolis show that concerns about fare collection rose as service plummeted. In December, 14 people contacted Keolis about the issue, the company said, while in February, after the onslaught of snowstorms began, the number was up to 73. As of Thursday, there had been more than 50 complaints this month.
Some of those customers are concerned that the T, whose leaders persistently push for greater investment, is losing much-needed money. Last month, the T saw a drop of about 3.9 percent in fare revenue compared with February 2014, though some of the dip could be attributed to disruption of service because of this winter’s severe weather.
Fare revenue covers about 30 percent of the MBTA’s budget, according to data for this fiscal year. And of that revenue, about 30 percent comes from commuter rail.
Monthly passes make up about 57 percent of commuter rail fares, with the balance coming from riders who buy tickets from vending machines, ticket windows, or conductors on the train, according to the T’s data from last year.
Dana Willis, of Haverhill, said he supports penalizing Keolis for failing to check customers’ tickets. He believes the crowded trains reflect the mismanagement of the company, which has not operated on its regular schedule for more than a month.
“Ultimately, it’s not the conductor’s fault,” Willis said. “It goes back to these guys who don’t put enough equipment out there.”
Peter Hartzel, a Dedham commuter who uses the Franklin Line, said fare collection was at its worst when the winter storms were hitting in late January and early February.
“When it’s extremely crowded, which was most of the time, only occasionally was it checked,” he said.
Hartzel said fare collection has gotten better in recent weeks, as Keolis has put more equipment into service and trains have gotten less crowded. Keolis on Thursday announced that it plans to operate at least 87 percent of its regularly scheduled trains next week.
Hartzel said he likes to pay his fare every day because he knows the transit system needs the revenue. However, he also understands why some people are happy to ride for free.
The T needs “the revenue and the ridership,” he said, “but at the same time, the quality of the service has gone to hell in a handbasket.”
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