Guardians against farelessness

Link Light Rail's unintentionally funny new "Fare Enforcement Officers" should lose the Kevlar and Velcro and try instead to channel their inner old-school train conductor.
Crosscut archive image.

A light rail train in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel

Link Light Rail's unintentionally funny new "Fare Enforcement Officers" should lose the Kevlar and Velcro and try instead to channel their inner old-school train conductor.

Now that Sound Transit has deployed "Fare Enforcement Officers" on its sparkling Link Light Rail trains, be prepared to experience another version of that tiresome Nanny-State affliction: Concert Security Guard Syndrome.

You know it from both high school and Homeland Security. CSGS occurs when someone — usually someone paid less than they should be — is equipped with a shirt marked SECURITY in nine-inch letters, some credentials flapping on a lanyard, a truncheon flashlight, or even — cheggitout — a two-way radio! Juiced up on some meager dose of authority ("This way, folks") but also The Most Authority They Have Ever Had, they go bonkers and start channeling the last cop show they saw on cable. Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha' gonna do ... ?

That's the fare enforcement model Sound Transit has created for making sure we've paid our three bucks, and it is completely the wrong shtick. Not to mention being hilarious.

Look, the spiffy trains are a welcome addition, and I'm happy to wiggle my ORCA in front of the passive-aggressively hidden card scanners whenever I can find them. But my first encounter with a squadron of "Fare Enforcement Officers" aboard a train whizzing downtown had me choking back laughter.

A trio of officers (Really? For a midday train with maybe 20 people on it, tops?) stormed the train and spread out looking to take down some perp. These guardians against farelessness were decked out in that distinctive Blackwater/survivalist kit — all polyester Velcro pocket flaps, glinty wraparound shades and, wait a minute, did I actually see a pair of Army surplus combat boots?!?

Delta Squadron Leader (OK, I made that part up) began approaching startled riders demanding "proof of payment." When my number came up, my ORCA card was my force field, its effect kryptonic. "Oh, uh, ORCA card, cool, you're all right."

You're all right too, officer. (Hmm, did I even scan that thing when I got on?)

This is a case where ancient memos must have made the difference. Some staffer must have written such a memo years ago, way back on Cheney's watch, that bounced around getting bureaucrified until we ended up with bad sketch comedy on rails. If only that long-ago memo writer had used words like "conductor" and "service" instead of "enforcement" and "officer."

On a recent trip abroad I was reminded that when it comes to trains there are better ways to do this sort of thing. In the Netherlands, conductors aboard the prosaic but allegedly profitable Nederlandse Spoorwegen ("Dutch Railways") stroll calmly through each car checking tickets and passes, answering questions for tourists, saying good morning and chatting along the way. (They do this sort of thing on Amtrak and Sound Transit's own Sounder trains, too, by the way.) When necessary, they'll fine someone who hasn't paid or give a warning instead. It's their call.

They wear no Velcro, no Kevlar, no mirrored sunglasses. They are unfailingly polite — and firm. Their model is service first — with a little fiscal housekeeping thrown in for good measure. Everyone knows that you gotta get a ticket or else you're gonna get a ticket. You pay either way.

This friendlier conductor-service model would make better sense for Link Light Rail since we are, after all, both the customers and the financiers of the entire escapade. Mostly, though, it would just leave a nicer aftertaste.

If Sound Transit can't bear to go beyond the enforcer model, it should at least aim for Officer Friendly instead of what it's getting now: "Reno 911!." Failing that, I hear there's some amazing technology that could help us monetize this whole problem. Crazy gizmo called a turnstile.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.