Commuter rail tests out new technology to count passengers

By Nicole Dungca Globe Staff 

The MBTA is testing out new technology to more accurately count its commuter rail ridership and better estimate how many riders skip paying, Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said this week.

Pollack said the current contract between the T and its commuter rail contractor, Keolis, does not provide enough incentive for the company to regularly collect fares. But once the T is able to accurately count how many riders use the commuter rail, she suggested, the T could penalize Keolis for failing to collect a certain percentage of fares.


“It may be that when all is said and done, and we’ve figured out how big our fare-evasion problem is and what the solution is, we may need to renegotiate the contract to incentivize fare collection,” she said on Tuesday during a Suffolk University panel about the agency.

Keolis is conducting a 30-day trial with new motion sensor technology on Platform 5 at South Station, said Leslie Aun, a spokeswoman for the company. The technology comes from MThinx Integrated Technologies, a Dallas-based company, Aun said.

Michael Verseckes, a state transportation department spokesman, said the T and Keolis are testing the technology for free.

Customers on the commuter rail have long complained that conductors often fail to check their fares. The problem was exacerbated this winter, when conductors could not squeeze through overcrowded coaches to check whether every customer had paid.

Pollack said Keolis does “not get dinged one iota for not collecting fares.”


In fact, the company can be fined $500 every time a T inspector discovers a conductor has not checked whether a customer has paid.

But it has become clear that MBTA inspectors have not been able to catch many violators, even though customers say the problem is common. In February, the T did not fine Keolis once for neglecting to collect fares, even though 73 people complained to Keolis about fare collection that month.

Pollack made it clear Tuesday that she did not believe the current method of counting riders produced the most accurate results. Keolis conductors provide estimates for ridership, according to Aun. And the T uses several sources of data that can vary widely, according to Commonwealth Magazine.

Aun said that the T and Keolis did not introduce the new technology in response to inaccurate ridership counts. She said the company will also use the data to determine which trains are busy and need more coaches.

“It’s about collecting data to run the system more efficiently,” Aun said.

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