The Most Valuable Train Ticket Ever?

Photo Credit: Hunter-Desportes via Compfight cc

A very good report on WNYC by Sarah Gonzalez about the homeless people who live in New Jersey train stations, and how they’re generally allowed to stay as long as they have a valid train ticket:

“I have a ticket, okay. This is what you need to have to stay in,” [John] Williams says. “If you doesn’t have that you’re going to have to go out in the cold.”

He doesn’t need to buy a train ticket every night in order to sleep on the benches.  

“No I don’t buy a ticket every night. I buy a ticket one time, as long as it’s not punched it’s good. As long as it doesn’t have a hole in it. I done had this for two months.”

Once you’re on a train, conductors, which cost taxpayers about $30 million a year, come by with a hole-puncher, manually punching two holes in every passenger’s ticket.

If you never get on a train to get your ticket punched, your ticket will never expire.

Some of the homeless people at Newark Penn Station have been there for years. One has been at the station for 19 years; another for 26 years.


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  1. Joel Upchurch says:

    The first thing that crossed my mind is having conductors actually punching tickets is a form of featherbedding. We don’t even need engineers to drive the trains anymore, but we haven’t managed to eliminate their jobs.

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    • Mike B says:

      Even Proof of Payment systems still need enforcement and do not always save money. For example LA recently had to install faregates due to widespread fare evasion. Presence of conductors also allows for on-board ticket purchase which tends to defeat the whole POP concept. Also at least one on board attendant is generally required by regulators on heavy rail commuter trains for safety purposes not to mention practical railroad related reasons such as making backup movements. The incremental cost of conductors on a heavily used heavy rail system is well worth the numerous benefits they provide.

      Second it is not possible to fully automate heavy rail systems without extensive infrastructure changes to support it and even then the maintenance costs of the fully automated system would likely exceed the savings generated by a non-automated system.

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      • BL1Y says:

        Real life ticket punchers also act as a sort of schoolmarm. I’ve never seen one actually have to enforce any rules, but I have noticed people on trains with ticket punchers tend to be better behaved, and I suspect knowing there is going to be an authority figure walking through at any minute creates an attitude where people behave themselves more.

        They can also do things like answer passenger questions, or direct them to open seats when the trains are crowded.

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      It’s hard to automate kicking someone off a train.*

      *The same applies to arresting them, identifying them for the purposes of fining them, or whatever the actual penalty is; it was just pithier picking one.

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  2. Mike B says:

    First this is why most train stations try to “close” overnight so the homeless can be removed. Places that are open 24/7 can be declared “public accommodations” which made it harder to kick people out. NJT shares stations with Amtrak which must be open 24/7 due to Amtrak’s expanded schedule. Metro-North and the LIRR shut down overnight and can kick people out.

    Second NJT’s generally relaxed ticket expiration policy is made up for in their complete lack of off-peak ticket pricing, which even before it was eliminated in budget cuts 3 years ago used bizarre rules and was difficult to take advantage of. Either NJT has excess demand at all times or is completely failing Econ 101 which says if you have high fixed costs and low marginal costs any additional revenue is better.

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  3. frankenduf says:

    i believe it was Rosseau who said “Let them buy train tickets!”

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  4. Impossibly Stupid says:

    How do we measure what is “valuable” in this case? The prospect of sleeping on a bench at a train station is of negative value to me. In fact, it is of negative value to me to simply know that *other* people are put into the position of having to do that.

    We’d all be paying if these same people were being sent off in the military to kill strangers. We’d be paying if they were breaking laws and had to be put in jail. I don’t understand why I’m supposed to be upset that they get a “free ride” if they don’t get on the train.

    That some people endure those conditions for years is amazing. Hell, I would hope they get free access to showers and the bathroom while they’re there! That they’re merely “allowed” to survive in third world conditions in a first world country is just wrong.

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    • James says:

      The question you should be asking is whether living like this for years is “allowed”, or whether it’s a lifestyle choice. Or rather, the consequence of choosing a lifestyle in which your goals are limited to panhandling enough change for that next bottle of Thunderbird.

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      • Impossibly Stupid says:

        True. My point wasn’t about why *they* are living that way (possible mental illness was mentioned in the article), it was about why *we* and/or the authorities should be either surprised or upset about the fact. That is to say, if we take it as a *given* that there are people out there who are living like this, the question should be whether or not they can be better accommodated so that there is less negative impact both to themselves and society around them. The alternative to “allowed” in this case is strongly implied to mean going to jail, but to me it seems that there is a vast middle ground to work with.

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      • Paul in VA says:

        If you “better accommodate” these people, the situation will get WORSE… not better. It needs to be a difficult choice to “drop out” and not have any contribution to society. The EASIER this choice is, the MORE people that will make it and the problem grows.

        At one time there was no subsidy for women who had a child without marrying the father for support. Society was sympathetic and wanted to help and decided to “better accommodate” these women and children. We now have an epidemic of fatherless children, whose mother’s receive more money for every child that they have. I don’t have to list the HUGE cost to society this “better accommodation” has brought us .

        Whatever you subsidize, accommodate, or make easier, the more you get of that thing. It is a clear lesson of history.

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      • James says:

        “…if we take it as a *given* that there are people out there who are living like this, the question should be whether or not they can be better accommodated so that there is less negative impact both to themselves and society around them.”

        The problem is that “better” tends to be subjective. There are existing ways in which these people could be better accomodated, from my perspective of better, and I suspect from yours. The problem is that THEY apparently don’t think those ways are better.

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      • Seminymous Coward says:

        Even conceding your entire argument, you’re left with a choice between a few babies starving to death or an “epidemic” of babies that aren’t starving but cost the government less than half a percent more*. I, for one, don’t think that question is all that hard to answer.

        * (TANF budget)/(Federal budget), about 73 F-35Cs

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      • Impossibly Stupid says:


        I’d essentially echo what Seminymous Coward said. All you’re doing is repeating the same nonsense that religious and political power brokers have been so selfishly misguided about for centuries. That strange argument, that people are all just *waiting* to lead immoral and dependent lifestyles, simply doesn’t stand up to examination. *I*, for one, am not just waiting for societal approval before I can rush out and do drugs, go gay, or sleep on a train station bench. Is that really what *you* are doing, Paul? I wager not, and I wager that the masses of humanity also think more about pushing to get ahead than sitting to fall behind. And the cost to society is far less if those sitters are *on* the vehicle rather than being *dragged* like an anchor. It’s a shame that you don’t see that; there is no poor bum that has ever cost you as much as wealthy bankers have.


        Of course it is subjective; again, that’s my point. These people are being offered things they don’t want, which helps nobody, so isn’t is about time we listened to what they *do* want? Why not run a scientific experiment to see what incentives will bring about real change? From their perspective, what makes a bench more comfortable to sleep on? From my perspective, a train station that doesn’t smell of urine is a good thing. Why is nobody starting there? I’m hard pressed to believe it would cost a lot more to offer free bathroom/showers/pants to people (ya know, treat them at least a little bit like they’re a fellow human being) than it costs to punish them for performing natural bodily functions without accommodations. Drug addicts get clean needles; why stop there?

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  5. Mr T says:

    An example of a system fulfilling the purpose for which it was designed (extracting payment for travel on the train), but failing to fulfill the purpose for which it was not designed (keeping the stations clear of the homeless) but for which people think it aught to.

    A number of questions.

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  6. Enter your name... says:

    The misuse of the system is easy enough to solve if you really wanted to: you just put an expiration date on the tickets. I believe it’s pretty common for subway systems to have tickets that are valid only for a couple of hours. Alternatively, you could have a ‘continuous presence’ rule (if you leave the station, you have to buy a new ticket) and end all concession sales, so that it’s impractical to stay in the station for months at a time due to a lack of food (or alcohol, for a number of homeless addicts).

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    • Enter your name... says:

      IMO the main advantage to having to buy a new ticket everyday is the increased revenue, which ought to cover the increased cost of cleaning the restrooms that these long-stay ‘customers’ are using.

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  7. Luka says:

    Looks like the found a loophole in the system. Kudos to them. They are not a detriment to society and they are warm. Looks like a Pareto improvement to me.

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  8. Rodger S. says:

    If the city of NJ wants to eliminate all of their homeless inhabitants, they should just simply create an expiration date on the metro cards. The only card that should be valid annually should be a subscription based payment which the homeless could rarely afford. Not saying that we shouldn’t give them a place to stay. I’m just stating an obvious solution for people living in the subway at night.

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