09/02/2011 05:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2011

Metra Hires Incognito 'Observers' To Keep Tabs On Conductors' Fare Collections

Facing the prospect of either fare hikes, service cuts or a combination of both, Metra has opted to employ a somewhat unusual strategy to improve its finances: the agency is bringing on so-called "observers" to discreetly ride train lines and watch if conductors collecting fares are ensuring no one grabs a free ride.

As part of their crackdown on negligent conductors that began early last month, a Metra representative told the Chicago Sun-Times that those who get caught allowing some passengers to ride for free could be disciplined or even fired. The agency's budget concerns -- namely a deficit that's expected to balloon to $100 million by 2013 -- mandate it.

"Recently, the number of concerns and complaints about this problem has increased," Judy Pardonnet, Metra spokeswoman, told the Sun-Times. "It's being communicated to the crews and employees that [letting riders skate] is an unacceptable and dismissible offense."

As Metra chief executive officer Alex Clifford said to CBS Chicago last month of the growing complaints his agency was receiving concerning free riders, sometimes the crowdedness of a train can impact a conductor's ability to catch all riders -- this is apparently the only excuse Clifford considers to be at all viable.

"You can have a train that it so crowded that a conductor cannot just work his or her way through the train," Clifford told CBS Chicago. "In crowded situations where the conductor can move through the train, the conductors needs to do his or her job and collect those fares."

The incognito "observer" program is likely to be more popular with (paying) riders than other options the agency has to improve their financial outlook. According to the Daily Herald, a rider survey Metra recently conducted found that 34 percent of commuters said they would accepted a 20 percent fare hike as long as minimal service cuts accompanied it -- but 35 percent strongly opposed the same option. Three-quarters of respondents said maintaining the current levels of service was important to them.

Photo by pasa47 via Flickr.