The Honor System in Public Transit

1:30pm | I'd had no plans to ride the Metrolink without paying. But there I was, on board the #91 as the train pulled out of Union Station, heading to Fullerton without a ticket.


There's no honor in play when you board a bus. The door folds open, and there's the driver, perched right next to that little machine that takes money and reads passes. No fare, no go. But trains are a different animal. The train pulls into the station, people disembark, and then there are just these wide-open doors inviting you on board, with nary an authority figure in sight. 

And you don't even have the opportunity to pay your way once you've stepped inside. Rather, it's on you to have paid in advance. With the Blue/Red/etc. Lines — collectively known as the Metro Rail system — the vending machines are right out there on the platform. But for the Metrolink, well, we'll get to that.

If you've ridden the Metro Rail, you know that it's probably a coin flip whether any conductor-type person is going to ask you to produce a ticket. And that it's maybe another coin flip whether the dude or dudette is going to look closely enough at what you hold up to determine whether you bought it for the current leg of your journey or whether it's the same ticket you used last week for a completely different line. There are no permanent on-board conductor-types — what you get is a sort of MTA police who board en masse at a random station — so depending on the duration of your ride, you may find the odds very much in your favor if you feel like eschewing the $1.50 fee per line.  The Metrolink, on the other hand, is more like a "real" train, with a genuine conductor checking each and every ticket with his own two eyes and a handheld scanner. You get on a Metrolink train without a ticket, and you've got problems, buddy, including a fine of anywhere from $50 to $350. Or so I was told, because . . . Hold on, almost there.

I'd like to say that public transit in Southern California is a work-in-progress, but I'm not sure how much progress we're making. You probably already know that once upon a time SoCal had one of the most extensive rail systems on the planet, but that General Motors, et al., dismantled it in the name of fraternal twins Mammon and Myopia (hey, it's the American Way), and we more or less started from scratch in the mid 1980s. 

And where are we today? Well, a couple of weeks ago this boy wanted to go see his girl in Redlands. You can't get there from here,1 although you can make it to San Bernardino…if you don't mind spending $15 and over four-and-a-half hours to do so. I minded. Fortunately, an opportunity arose to hitch a ride with a car-owner friend. All I needed to do was get to Fullerton, the town of my childhood.

Now, Fullerton is a little2 Orange County berg not 30 miles from the LBC, but to get there by rail, you gots to take the Blue Line up to the Red Line to Union Station — as in Los Angeles, as in pretty much due north when you want to go pretty much due east — to catch the Metrolink down to my hometown. But despite taking two hours, it's still a full third faster than if you avail yourself of the LBT/OCTA bus combo that gets you there; and since I was having to make this trip ante meridiem and I'm usually hitting the hay three hours after midnight, and because three hours on buses is (to quote The Beatles) long, long, long and the drive was going to afford a nice opportunity to get some face time with a very dear and busy pal, I was willing to pony up the extra $6.75 the multi-part rail jaunt would cost me and go Metro.

One problem: I'm perpetually running five minutes late, and it doesn't take a Mussolini to make the trains run on time. So when at 10:24 a.m. I trotted up the 1st Street Transit Center platform, bought my ticket, and embarked the train that I thought was patiently waiting for me —what a coincidence! — it didn't take too many minutes of my sitting there to realize I had missed my train and was on the next one. 

Luckily, at some points Metro Rail trains run every 10 minutes, and so several nervous iPhone timetable checks confirmed that if I sprinted to the Red Line and then to the proper Union Station platform (presuming I could find it. My history with SoCal choo-choos is scant), I might just make my train to Fullerton. "Nervous" because "frequency" is not a word properly used where Metrolink trains are concerned. In short, if I missed my train I'd be up Union Station without a paddle.

I disembarked the Blue Line at Metro Center with a running start, and after a wrong turn I finally oriented myself to the Red Line platform and slipped into the train with literally 10 seconds to spare. Without a ticket.

This had not been by design. But once my misdirected self started up toward the street rather than my desired platform, I knew I couldn't spare the minute it would take to get a ticket. Could I have bought the ticket for the second leg in advance, I'd have done so in Long Beach.3 Could I have bought the ticket on the Red Line train itself, I'd have done that. But these are not options in SoCal. So I chanced the four stops sans ticket, and before I knew it…

Union Station is big, and I don't know my way around. It was all I could do to keep moving briskly through the cavernous, spice-orange-tinged space toward where directional signs promised I'd find all things Metrolink.

But exactly where I could acquire a ticket was unclear. And according to every clock I passed, time for a thorough investigation was something I simply did not have. I saw several machines vending Metro Rail tickets, but in a stroke of mass-transit myopia that must make GM proud, Metro Rail and Metrolink are two rail systems without linkage. You want a Metrolink ticket, you ain't gonna get it via Metro Rail. 

An information agent I found as I foundered forward with my three increasingly-heavy bags told me with alacrity that it was Platform 8A I wanted. Maybe it's like the Metro Rail and I can buy a ticket there?

No dice, and my train was idling in its last moments before heading southeast. Maybe I can buy a ticket on board? A sign posted directly adjacent to the vestibule door disabused me of that notion. But we were about to set sail train-style, and there was little I could do.

I had ridden a Metrolink train thrice in my life (twice as parts of a single roundtrip), most recently eight or nine years ago, and my memory harbored no data concerning the conductor-practices on this brand of heavy rail. But since I fully intended to buy a ticket in the first place, I figured the best defense was a good offense, and I set about finding somebody resembling an authority figure. We were barely underway when I succeeded on this score. I fibbed that my it was my initial train and not me that had set me back, and truly said that I wanted to buy a ticket but that in my haste to meet my train etc. She told me I'd have to talk to the conductor — who just went thataway. 

"Sir," I said inquisitively, "sir?" He turned around; I sketched my situation. "Meet me in the back car," he said, then went about his business dealing with the properly-ticketed riders.

Finally, there we were, just the two of us. No, I couldn't buy a ticket on board, he said. Did I know that for riding a Metrolink train without a ticket the fine could be [etc.], that I could be put off the train in Norwalk (presumably a reference to that city's being the next station and not an intimation that Norwalk is purgatorial)? "Do you know how many stories I hear every day from people who haven't paid?" he asked rhetorically, then sighed. "Let me see your Red Line ticket." 

My goose smelled cooked. I felt just about certain he was not going to buy my story  (its veracity notwithstanding) about not having bought that ticket due to my hurry, so I went through the motions of fumbling through my wallet and numerous pockets. "No, that's my Blue Line ticket," I said for his benefit after pulling it out. "I was in such a hurry I don't even know where I…." 

He asked of my destination and for details of my departure; I repeated the untruth about the Blue Line's late start. He asked for that ticket, which I re-produced. He considered it for a few beats, then handed it back. "Buy a ticket when you get to Fullerton," he said, looking me dead in the eye. "It's an honor-system thing."


I sought him out as I de-trained, shaking his hand and thanking him for understanding, then proceeded to do exactly as I had been instructed. 

Public transit in Southern California is lacking in many ways. But it's not devoid of humanity. Most all of us have experienced, probably more times than we care to remember, persons in positions of power over us who wielded it by the bureaucratic book, rather than showing us empathy, exercising discretion, regarding us as individuals to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. 

But I was lucky enough to be conducted by someone willing to honor the personhood of the ticketless traveler in front of him. And I'd have been damned before I would dishonor such an exchange.

1 By rail, anyway. If you don't mind a bus/rail combo that requires making like eight transfers and in toto takes at least as long, hey, no problemo.

2 Well, it's got a population of well over 100,000, so….

3 I could have purchased a $5 day pass, but I knew I'd be traveling only two legs — $3 total — and I expected I'd have plenty of time to get my second ticket.

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