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Free Commuter Rail Rides Frustrate Monthly Pass Holders

BOSTON (CBS) – Some people are getting free rides on the Commuter Rail, and not everybody is happy about it.

There are five ways you can pay for a train ride. Many commuters prepay for a monthly pass. But others use a 10-ride card you get punched on board, or they use a phone app. Those methods require a visit from the conductor.

Brittany Topham doesn't see many conductors these days when she rides the commuter train in from Woburn.

"They just kind of peek their head in or not at all and they're not checking everyone's passes," she says.

Indeed, with folks packed in like sardines on so many trains this last month due to the snow, conductors sometimes can't, or don't dare try to struggle through the crowd and make sure all passengers pay up.

"So the people with the 10-day pass or the smartphone app that they are paying with are kind of skating through for free," Topham says.

And those freebies frustrate riders who have already paid for their monthly passes.

"I'm not so lucky I'm paying regardless whether they see my pass or not," Topham says.

As a monthly pass holder herself, public policy watchdog Mary Connaughton understands that a return to normal service is the priority.

But she also gets the irritation -- and the inequity here.

"I pay $265 a month for this pass," Connaughton says. "I wind up subsidizing them, the state ends up subsidizing them, there is no such thing as a free lunch and someone has to pay for it."

When WBZ asked MBTA officials about their guidelines for turning a blind eye to freeloaders on crowded trains -- and the revenue lost -- they indicated that such things "will certainly be among the storm-related matters we closely examine in the aftermath of these unprecedented snow events."

"We don't know how much money is left on the table because apparently they're not tracking it," Connaughton says.

The trouble is public transit freebies were a problem when WBZ did stories back in 2009, 2011, and just last February -- with officials promising each time it was on their radar.

Ironically, this last month now has the agency pondering customer refunds.

"They're talking about reimbursement plans but I'm not going to hold my breath," Topham said.

The state transportation board is scheduled to debate the refund issue at its March 11th meeting.

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