Free Rides

Since I’m living at home and working in NYC I use the Metro North Railroad New Haven line to commute. It’s a pretty decent train, usually on-time and convenient. The only complaints I can make against it are that the train cars are too old and that the train could probably go faster. But those are both really the same problem.

From riding the train so often my Computer Science mind couldn’t help but start to think its evil ways. And thus I will explain how simple it is to hack the train.

On my train the conductors do not check for tickets between each and every stop. If you were to take a train between two local stops it will likely be a free ride. Just be careful not to get on the train car with the conductor standing right there. But then again, they are so apathetic it might not matter.

The lazy and apathetic conductors are the easiest way to get free rides. Basically these people walk up and down the train making sure that everyone paid for their ride in some capacity. They also have to think about the running of the train in cooperation with the engineer. One time I pretended to have lost my ticket even though it was in my pocket. The conductor and people around me looked annoyed as expected, but I persisted. The conductor eventually got tired of waiting and moved on. I had the ticket ready in case he returned, but he never did.

Now the ticket I get is a weekly ticket because my situation prevents me from getting a monthly ticket yet. The weekly ticket allows unlimited rides between two stations for 7 days Saturday-Friday. Unless the conductor takes it and studies it the only thing he can see from afar is the expiration date. This ticket, unlike the one way, round-trip or 10-trip tickets does not get a hole-punch. The conductor just glances at it and moves on. To test I just saved a ticket from a previous week and only exposed to the conductor a portion of it without the expiration date. He saw it and moved on. So a weekly ticket is potentially a lifetime ticket. Also, if you bought one with a conveniently editable expiration date like 08/08 or something you could use white-out or sharpie to edit the expiration date carefully and get free rides.

There are two holy grails of free train rides. The first is ticket forgery. That is too boring to even get into. The real interesting hack is to manipulate the little slips the conductor uses to keep track of who has paid and who has not. On a long ride they have to make multiple passes through the train checking tickets. On a crowded train the conductor cannot possibly remember every face on the train. So they use this system of little cardboard tickets and a hole puncher to keep track of who they need a ticket from. They punch and place these tickets in little slots on all the rows of seating. If armed with a properly shaped hole puncher and some properly colored blank slips you could mark your seat to indicate to the conductor that he had already collected your ticket.

I have not reverse engineered this system entirely, but I do know quite a few things about it. First, the way in which the slip is tilted indicates something. Secondly, each conductor seems to have a different shaped hole puncher, so having multiple shapes, especially star and triangle is important. Most important is getting and sitting on the train as far away from the conductor’s starting position is important. You can’t very well make fake hole punches if the conductor is watching. Other passengers are too apathetic to say anything. So let’s say you want to get a free ride on the train. Get on before other people and find someone sitting alone in a two-seat row in the window seat. Examine their slip. Then find an empty two-seat row and sit in the window seat generating an identical slip for yourself. Then you must skillfully ignore the conductor as he comes through. The rely heavily on the fact that honest people who have not had their tickets collected will bustle around when they say “tickets please”. People who have already been ticketed don’t even move. The fact that you move signals that you have a ticket to show. If you just keep going about your business he will likely walk on by.

If you get caught, pay up. The railroad has a system whereby purchasing tickets before you get on the train is cheaper than buying them on the train. This is to discourage people from trying to get free rides. It also helps them make the trains more efficient because they can better track how many tickets where purchased if you don’t buy them from the conductor. However, if you are getting tons of free rides by hacking the system it will end up being cheaper for you to buy the occasional ticket at the higher on-train price.

And lastly I just want to say that I never actually have cheated the train out of anything. For every time I have taken the train I have legally purchased a ticket. The matter is that I simply can’t help but try to figure out ways to mess with the system. That is the nature of people like me.

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