NEW YORK—In the age of apps and QR codes, Metro-North conductors are still manually hole punching tickets when passengers board a train. Why?
Metro-North, which runs between New York City and its northern suburbs, is the second largest suburban commuter railroad in the nation (Long Island Railroad is the largest). It has an annual ridership that exceeds 83 million.
Metro-North was planning to create a mobile ticketing app that would allow riders to purchase tickets from their smartphones or tablets and go paperless.
Tests for the app began in summer 2012, however, there is “no estimate” when the app will be available; in fact, the completion of the app is “a long way off,” according to Marjorie Anders, an MTA spokeswoman.
“We are eventually going to change the [ticketing system] … we don’t know what format yet,” Anders said. “At this point, there is no new fare medium for Metro North.”
That may not be a bad thing.
The current system is a curious one, a comprehensive one, and in many ways a practical one—even if the practice of railroad ticket punching began in the 1860s.
In fact, there are other rail lines such as NJ Transit and Long Island Railroad that still use this antiquated system as well.
There are 650 distinct hole puncher shapes for each Metro-North conductor. Such shapes include a spade, sword, moon, ghost, and fire hydrant. “Every shape you can imagine,” Anders said.
One practical reason for the unique hole punchers is that it can hold conductors accountable. Metro-North has a database that keeps a record of which shape is issued to which conductor. The shape of the hole on a punched ticket can identify conductors in case of employee misconduct.
The conductor can also tell if a passenger is trying to get a free ride, when their “punched” ticket has a different shape than the conductor’s trusty hole puncher.
That’s not to say there isn’t any room for upgrades.
“We’re a little behind everyone else, but progress helps,” said Steve Macchio, who has been a Metro-North conductor for 17 years.
In late February, Macchio began using a credit card reader connected to his iPhone to take card payments from passengers who wish to purchase on board.
In the past few months, more and more Metro-North conductors have begun to accept payments this way.
Metro-North riders on all three major lines—New Haven, Harlem, and Hudson—will be able to purchase tickets on board with credit and debit cards by mid-April, although higher on-board fare still applies.
“It works much, much better,” said Macchio, who currently operates on the New Haven line. “It’s not as cumbersome.”
But the hole punchers are here to stay despite Metro North’s recent technical upgrades. Conductors still need to do seat checks.
Macchio, whose hole punchers over the years have varied from a cross to batman, said he is glad to keep the hole punchers.
He likes being able to throw something inexpensive into the air and catching it with one hand, then punching small pictures on children’s tickets to make them smile.