North Station commuter rail gates show promise

mTicket activations up sharply on lines out of North Station

PASSENGERS SEEM to be adapting to new commuter rail fare gates at North Station, and early data indicate the tap-in, tap-out gates may be having a positive impact on fare collection.

Officials with Keolis Commuter Services, which operates the commuter rail system, said they are unable to draw a direct link between increasing fare revenues and the gates, but signs are positive.

Commuter rail passenger traffic has been rebounding strongly systemwide since Labor Day, with mTicket activations increasing 50 percent on the lines served by North Station and 33 percent on the lines served by South Station.

The higher activations on the north side of the commuter rail system could be an indication that more riders are purchasing tickets because they are needed to gain access to the trains. Without the gates, fare collection falls to conductors who must verify or collect fares personally,

In April 2019, officials estimated the T was losing $10 million to $20 million a year from commuter rail fare evasion, or about 4 to 8 percent of total revenue. They set a target of reducing fare evasion to the industry standard of 3 percent.

A fare gate at North Station. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Installing gates at North Station on October 1 was a first step, and gates are planned for South and Back Bay Stations. More than 80 percent of commuter rail riders either start or end their trips at one of the three stations, according to Keolis.

Passengers at North Station seem to be adapting fairly well, with most having no problem passing through the gates on the way to trains. Many had more difficulty tapping out after exiting a train, mostly because they were unfamiliar with the process.

As time goes on, the gates should yield a trove of information about passenger traffic. For example, Keolis says 539,000 tickets were scanned, tapped, or swiped at the fare gates at North Station between October 1 and November 20, information that was simply not available before.

Ridership on the commuter rail system, which plummeted in the wake of COVID, has been rebounding strongly in recent months. Fare revenue, which had been averaging $8.5 million a month between June and September, increased to $10.5 million in October.

Still, the commuter rail system is not back to anything resembling normal. Fare revenue totaled $82.5 million in fiscal 2022 (July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022), way down from pre-COVID levels of $275 million a year.

The push for fare gates at North, South, and Back Bay Stations comes at a time when the T is trying to address fare evasion after nearly two years of doing nothing about it.

The T’s fare evasion penalties lapsed two years ago after the Legislature changed the law. The MBTA board of directors in mid-November approved new regulationsfor what the T is billing as a non-punitive system that includes fines but no mechanism for requiring their payment.