Frustrated by the loss of tens of millions of dollars in uncollected fares, the MBTA will soon require passengers to show their tickets before boarding commuter rail trains at North Station.
The modest and decidedly low-tech approach will begin in a few weeks, and is the first of several fare-collection initiatives that will affect virtually all commuter rail, subway, and bus riders.
Commuter rail fares are currently collected by conductors during the trip. The MBTA estimates it loses as much as $30 million a year when collectors run out of time — or give up trying — to check tickets.
“We want to improve and modernize the infrastructure for checking tickets, to make it easier for conductors to do their jobs and to make it more clear to passengers that having a ticket is critical to boarding or riding the trains,” said David Mitrou, a vice president at Keolis Commuter Services, the French company that operates the commuter rail for the MBTA.
The new system will ensure those passengers who buy single-ride or multitrip electronic or paper passes will no longer get a free ride when conductors fail to collect on-board.
The ticket check at North Station will be performed by commuter rail employees, initially for outbound trains, and will be followed a few months later by similar measures at South Station and Back Bay, the city’s two other main transit hubs. And in about a year, passengers at all three stations will have to pass through fare gates similar to those on the subway.
The MBTA is planning other big changes over the next three years that will end cash fares on buses, eliminate the paper Charlie tickets, and introduce direct payments from credit cards and mobile phone systems such as Apple Pay.
The North Station ticket check is expected to begin “by the tail end of the summer,” Mitrou said. The company is planning to hire 25 ticket checkers for North Station, and more for South Station and Back Bay.
Keolis has not determined where it will position those checkers — at the doors leading out from the station, for example, or out on the platforms. But commuters used to buying single-ride tickets on board the train will now have to go to the ticket window.
Annette Hall, a Lowell resident, questioned whether the ticket-check will slow down boarding enough to make people miss their trains.
“It would be a challenge, because sometimes I run late for the train,” she said. “I can’t get there in time if they put a roadblock. It backs up.”
Keolis said it will hold focus groups with passengers next week to determine the best positioning for ticket checkers.
Eventually, passengers on all inbound and outbound rush-hour trains will pass through a ticket agent, but the policy will probably be in effect only on outbound afternoon trains to start, Mitrou said.
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents communities served by the MBTA, welcomed the new fare-checking system but warned it could be a huge challenge for the system.
“It’s been shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that the system works better when you get cash out of the equation,” he said. “But these things are usually harder than they appear. . . . What is that going to do to on-time performance? You can’t have a train leave when it’s your fault they can’t get on.”
Sarah Lane, who commutes to North Station from Beverly most weekdays, said she supports the idea, if the MBTA uses the increased revenue to improve train service.
“It’s a good idea for them to make sure everyone pays their fare,” she said. “More money for them means they can spend more money on the commuter rail.”
Once it has the new boarding procedures down for afternoon commutes, Keolis expects to extend the ticket-checking to the morning commute, by asking riders to show proof of payment when they disembark at any of the three stations in Boston. People without a ticket will be directed to a kiosk to pay. Keolis is considering adding more machines in the main stations where passengers can purchase tickets.
Keolis and the MBTA first hatched the idea more than a year ago, as a partial solution to recouping an estimated $30 million lost each year in missed fare collection on the commuter rail. Mitrou said conductors sometimes have too many things to do at once to be able to collect all fares during a trip.
“When the trains are crowded and you have tough weather, the conductors have multiple responsibilities,” he said. “It’s not just checking tickets, it’s opening doors, ensuring safety, providing information.”
Elsewhere in the system, the T has been preparing to revamp fare collection on all modes of transportation, modeling them largely off changes made to the London system a few years back. Those include:
■ Eliminating cash payments on buses, trolleys, and commuter trains. Customers would have to purchase additional rides on their Charlie Cards from vending machines or retail stores, or pay by tapping their cellphone or credit card at a fare gate. The T plans to increase the places where riders can top off their cards, such as at vending machines or convenience stores.
■ Allowing passengers to board buses at any door, which the T believes could speed bus travel by as much as 10 percent. The T would probably hire more fare inspectors to cut down on fare evasion.
Later this year, the T is expected to hire a new contractor to install and maintain the new electronic system. Cubic, the company that installed the London system, expects to bid for the MBTA contract, a spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile Keolis expects to install fare gates at North, South, and Back Bay stations within a year, replacing the human ticket checkers. Eventually those gates will be able to accept electronic “tap-in” payments from smartphones and credit cards.
And down the road, the MBTA expects to install electronic readers at outlying train stations so that passengers at every stop in the system will have to pay before boarding.
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.