California Commute: Add ticket machines to list of Metrolink problems

A group of Metrolink passengers crowd around a ticket vending machine at Patsaouras Transit Plaza in Union Station. According to rail officials, riders and complaints on social media, the devices have been breaking down with irritating frequency.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

It’s struggling to build ridership. Service has been cut on the San Bernardino line. Its passenger cars don’t have WiFi, and there have been recurring reports of late trains.

Now, Metrolink, the region’s commuter railroad, has another customer relations problem — its ticket vending machines.

According to rail officials, riders and complaints on social media, the devices have been breaking down with irritating frequency, resulting in missed trains, lines at stations, lost revenue and commuters worried about being cited for boarding without paying fares.


Metrolink receives about 500 reports a month of ticket machine problems, ranging from busted units to vandalism and user errors, said Jeff Lustgarten, a railroad spokesman. Eighteen machines were out of service recently due to break-ins, he added. One was ripped out and carted away by thieves.

Metrolink Diary, a social media page created by riders, has provided a running chronicle of the headaches. Postings indicate that on some days, ticket machines have been out of commission at up to 16 of the system’s 55 stations, including busy Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

Passengers have complained that it can take weeks for the units to be repaired. Occasionally, all of a station’s machines are broken, riders reported. That was recently the case for the two devices at the Claremont stop used by Anthony Kemp, an associate professor of English at USC.

“In recent weeks, I’ve racked my brains before each day’s travel: How can I possibly buy a ticket?” said Kemp, who has complained to Metrolink’s chief executive, Michael DePallo.

Sometimes Kemp has had drive to the Montclair station the night before to be certain he’d have a ticket for his morning commute to Los Angeles. He recalled that he encountered even more broken machines there.

Kemp, who has an interest in trains and mass transit, couldn’t help but think of England’s Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world’s first public railroad to use steam locomotives.


“When the Stockton Darlington opened in 1825, they were able to sell tickets,” he said, “an ability we have lost in the 21st century.”

A few days ago, one of Claremont’s two units was still out of service.

Bart Reed, director of the Transit Coalition, a local nonprofit organization that promotes public transportation, said the slow repair of vending machines and their lack of reliability are a major inconvenience for riders.

“I put my money in to buy a ticket at the Sylmar station a few weeks ago and nothing happened, just as the train was arriving,” Reed said. A conductor told him there had been a rash of vending machine breakdowns on the Antelope Valley line between Los Angeles and Lancaster.

In all, Metrolink, which serves six Southern California counties, has about 130 ticket machines. Many were installed 22 years ago, which, officials say, is the crux of the problem.

“The internal computer components need to be replaced, and there are lots of mechanical issues right now,” Lustgarten said. “The complaints are justified.”

A private contractor fixes the machines, and the time it takes depends on what needs to be done.

Metrolink officials recently stepped up repairs and have planned several short-term responses in the coming months, including installing $1 million worth of new computer components.

Longer term, officials hope to replace most, if not all, the machines. That would cost about $3 million a year if new equipment is leased, or $19 million to $25 million if purchased.

One advantage of the new units: They will be much faster and easier to use. Riders say it can take two minutes or more to get a ticket out of the current machines.

“I’ve used the old ones,” said Richard Katz, a former state legislator and longtime Metrolink board member. “They’re not customer-friendly. They even tax the most patient person. We need to replace them as fast as we can.”

Metrolink would like to give riders the option of buying electronic tickets on their cellphones and personal commuters, so-called mobile ticketing. A pilot project for the online sale of weekend passes will begin in February.

Ultimately, Metrolink expects mobile ticketing to reduce vending machine use 40% to 60% and dramatically cut complaints.

“That would be huge,” Lustgarten said.

Meanwhile, customers are being urged to buy their monthly passes earlier in the purchase period rather than later, when heavier use of the machines tends to cause breakdowns. Monthly passes are sold between the 25th of the month and the 5th of the following month.

Perhaps less appealing to harried commuters, Metrolink officials suggest that riders arrive at the station 20 minutes before their trains depart in case ticket machines are broken and lines have formed at operating machines.

If passengers aren’t able to buy a ticket, officials say, they should alert the conductor and arrange to pay fares at their final destinations. Hopefully, the vending machines there are working.

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