Cash-free, Conductor-free Trains

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In 2012, the MBTA introduced the mTicket app that allows users to purchase train tickets through their mobile devices and display their ticket on their screen as conductors make their rounds. Pioneer recognized the app in its 2014 Better Government Awards for “putting to good use technological infrastructure that is already in place” to save “both the individual riders and the Commonwealth money.” The next step for the MBTA may be converting to purely electronic ticketing. Does this mean that conductors could be rendered obsolete?

If the MBTA wanted to downsize on conductors, it could follow the honor-code system tested in California, or it could try something new: requiring riders to purchase a mobile ticket or Charlie Card. Charlie Cards and mobile tickets could come in two forms: a pre-paid, monthly subscription and a pay-as-you-go edition. Each rider would be limited to one card, which would charge the rider through an online account.

Instead of showing their phone or card to a conductor, the riders would scan their card or mobile device to enter and exit the loading platform, as is already done with the subway system, so that the pay-as-you-go card would charge less for shorter trips. Train doors could be updated to function like subway doors that automatically open and close. While a few conductors per train would be retained to ensure safety on trains, two conductors per cab—the current requirement by the Federal Railroad Administration’s standards—would not be necessary.

The idea of scaling down the number of conductors is not new. In 2011, a reader commented on the “Human Transit” blog:

“In Boston on the MBTA … for many of the trains, there are 2 employees running the train.  On the Green line, trains are 2 cars long, with a driver in the first, and in the second an operator responsible for opening and closing doors and making sure no one gets on without paying.  For the other lines, the 2nd operator only has to open and close doors because you need to pay to get into the stations. To me, it seems like a waste to have to pay a second individual to open and close the doors.”

Yes, it seems a waste of both financial and human capital. Public policy research scientist David Stone reported at the 2006 Smart Card Alliance Conference about a contactless fare card system that reduced its aggregate operating costs by one-sixth by converting from cash- to electronic-based ticketing. Conductors were certainly necessary in the past, but now that programmers and engineers can develop technology that fulfills most of a traditional conductor’s functions and dramatically cuts costs, mandating the presence of two conductors per cab seems not only unnecessary, but also foolish.

While conductors may become superfluous, it does not mean that the workers themselves are. It is a shame to waste conductors’ time and energy doing busywork. Why not allow them to use their talents in a way that benefits the community they wish to serve?

There is far from a shortage of needs and a surplus of funds in the transportation department. MassDOT’s website lists hundreds of current and future design and construction projects, which will require administrative assistants, professional drivers, and construction workers. While some of these positions may not appeal to every conductor, it would be better to offer them the option to transfer departments rather than laying them off.

Why not simply keep them as conductors? The department cannot afford it. At the end of 2014, MassDOT’s debt was $7.5 billion in outstanding bonds and notes. While it may take time and thought to discern where previous conductors can best serve next, it would be worth it to help an entire community of individuals to employ their time and effort purposefully.

Jobs must evolve with technology. Luddites of the Industrial Revolution feared that technology would destroy the economy by pushing them out of their current jobs. Economics researcher Carlos Sabillon points out that “rapid change does cause some dislocations,” but “the apocalyptic visions of waves of unemployment” that spread during the Industrial Revolution “proved to be false.” He then points out that the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution that people initially feared were later lauded for doubling real income in the first half of the nineteenth century and making meat affordable for the working class. In other words, technological advances made the middle class possible.

Innovation is useless if fear of “lost jobs” prevents its installation. True innovation may render previous work unnecessary, but it will also call for a kind of work that may now be unimaginable. It was the creation of the train that created the need for conductors in the first place. While innovation may lead to some job “loss,” it ultimately encourages job creation.

Why, then, does the train require two conductors per cab when technological improvements render them unnecessary? Professional planning consultant Jarett Walker responds: “the second employee is usually a holdover from days when fare collection and monitoring of doors had to be done manually.  The job often survives because it’s coded into labor contracts and sometimes also into regulations.”

With contracts and union regulations, change is rendered an extremely difficult and often unpleasant affair. It is not fair to ask Boston taxpayers to pay public employees to carry out unnecessary work because the government does not want to deal with dissenters.

Researcher Gregory Garback states: “For one mass transit authority, the cost to run money trains that collect cash and coin, and to pay hundreds of people who manually collect, count, and process the payments, is approximately $2 million per day.” $2 million is a large price to pay for unnecessary work, especially when this money could be used to widen highways, add more travel lanes, and reduce congestion.

Technology is not a perfect solution. As electronic devices replace human hands, some damaging effects inevitably accompany economic benefits. When tollbooths went electronic on the Tobin Bridge, Julie Swiderski of Framingham mourned the loss of interactions with collectors: “I like those guys. They’re cool.”

Taxpayers, not tax collectors, should decide whether interaction with live conductors merits a cut in their paycheck. The MBTA’s job will then be to decide how to employ the newly available human capital to best serve its city.

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