The mad dash to catch a rush-hour commuter train is about to get more complicated for tens of thousands of riders, as the MBTA prepares to install fare gates similar to those in the subways at its three busiest stations in order to improve fare collections.
They’re probably coming to North Station first, sometime in the first half of 2020, before rolling into the Back Bay and South Station later in the year, according to rail operator Keolis Commuter Services, which will install the gates for the MBTA.
Where exactly, though, is not completely settled for all three stations. At North Station, for example, Keolis has all but finalized plans to put gates along the perimeter of the main waiting area, where passengers congregate to learn at which platforms their trains will arrive.
At Back Bay Station, they would probably be similarly situated outside of the side lobbies for the commuter rail, in the station’s general concourse, according to Keolis. And at South Station, Keolis is eyeing a system that would put the fare gates at the edge of the lobby, so that passengers would pass through them before heading outdoors to the platforms.
A spokesman said Keolis is designing the layout to manage crowds. The gates, he said, may even cut down on crowding in station lobbies by distributing passengers in different directions rather than funneling them toward one place.
“People will have to slightly adjust their behavior,” Keolis spokesman Justin Thompson said. “It certainly is a change, and we’re confident passengers will adapt. We hear from passengers all the time that fare collection is important to them.”
The goal is to boost fare collection at those hubs — where about 90 percent of all commuter rail trips start or end — by ensuring riders have paid before boarding. But the gates will mark a significant change for riders who normally deal with ticketing after they board their trains. And at peak periods, with riders sprinting to make it home, the gates will be a last-second obstacle.
Valerie Varner, who rides the commuter rail from Kingston, likes the idea of gates as a way to boost ticket collection, but she has a hard time believing they will be practical during busy periods.
“I can’t visualize how they’re going to be able to manage this. Because at 5 p.m. on a weeknight, there just isn’t enough room,” Varner said.
The gates will be able to process various types of tickets — including paper tickets, monthly passes held on plastic CharlieCards, and the T’s mobile ticketing app. They will also read Amtrak tickets.
Today, passengers verify that they have paid onboard the trains by showing tickets or passes to Keolis workers, or they can purchase tickets directly from conductors. But riders with prepaid monthly passes, which can cost more than $400, often complain that conductors aren’t checking — usually, but not always, because the cars are so crowded they can’t make their way down the aisles.
Even with fare gates, conductors would be expected to double-check tickets during the trip to ensure riders have paid the appropriate fares and to account for the small number of passengers who don’t board at any of the three main stations.
Some riders dismiss the use of gates outright, calling it a waste of resources to solve the ticket-collection problem. Lynn Muster, of Salem, said gates wouldn’t solve the problem for inbound trains, on which conductors seem less likely to check tickets.
“You know what would really work without all this money? If the people on this train actually did their job,” she said.
Keolis said it expects to eventually require inbound passengers to verify they have paid as they exit the stations. But that would require departing passengers to “tap-out” their tickets or electronic passes as they move through the fare gates and is not likely for a few more years, once the T’s plan to upgrade fare collections on the entire transit system is complete.
It would add another layer to ticketing beyond the subways, on which riders use their passes only as they enter stations. Some transit systems with distance-based fares, such as in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C., require passengers to verify tickets when entering and exiting.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been considering commuter rail gates for years, once expecting them as early as 2018. The plan was paused as the T sought to integrate gates into a broader plan to replace fare-collection technology with all-electronic payments on the entire transit system. But when that project ran into major delays, the T decided to move forward only with commuter-rail gates in the short term.
In the interim, Keolis has had its personnel conduct spot ticket checks for select trains, to encourage cash-paying riders to buy tickets before boarding. The commuter rail exceeded its revenue targets in each of the last two fiscal years, which Keolis attributed to such initiatives, as well as to increased ridership.
Ben Fried, a spokesman for the New York-based advocacy group Transit Center, questioned putting the gates at just some stations. He said the T should either choose a fully “closed system,” with gates at every station and no conductor inspections, or an “open system” with conductors and no gates — not a mix.
“The benefit of doing the open system is that it’s frictionless for riders,” he said. “The benefit of a closed system is you don’t have to rely on fare inspectors onboard. Generally you’d want to get all the benefits of having one type of system or the other.”
Most commuter rail riders buy monthly passes, but missed checks do cost the T some revenue when riders pay by the trip. Recent MBTA estimates put that annual figure at $10 million to $20 million.
The cost of installing the gates is not clear, as Keolis has not finalized a contract for them. An agreement with the MBTA from a couple of years back estimated the cost at up to $10 million.
Commuter rail revenue is crucial to the MBTA. While the number of bus and subway riders dwarfs the number on commuter rail, which accounts for just 10 percent of all MBTA trips, commuter rail currently generates about $255 million, or more than one-third of the MBTA’s fare collections. That’s because of the higher fares.
Boston will follow Philadelphia, which recently installed turnstiles at its busiest downtown commuter stations. It was no big deal, activists say.
“People seemed to just accept it,” said Tony DeSantis, president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, an advocacy group. “A lot of people have adjusted to it and gotten used to it.”
Keolis will pay to install the gates but can recoup some of the costs through a revenue-sharing agreement with the MBTA. The equipment will be supplied by the same German company that installed the T’s subway gates. Keolis must still finalize contracts for installation and secure public safety permits.
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at email@example.com.