End of the line for ticket agents at Fairfield rail station

In this digital era where personal connections give way to online forums like Facebook, the manned ticket counter at local train stations has been a link to a simpler time.

For Fairfield residents, however, there is no such link anymore.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) -- reportedly without informing Fairfield officials -- eliminated the ticket agent position at the Fairfield Metro-North station as of July 7.

Cindy Placko, manager of the Fairfield Parking Authority, said she heard a rumor weeks back that the ticket office would be closed, and when she contacted a DOT official, she was told something was published in the paper.

First Selectman Kenneth Flatto said he found out about elimination of the staffing two days after the ticket agent's last day on the job.

"One would have hoped that we would have been contacted, at least to get input," said Flatto, who noted the Fairfield Center station is the second busiest station along the New Haven line, after the Stamford station.

While that may be the case, members of the Parking Authority were informed by DOT officials that ticket offices closures will happen everywhere along the New Haven line, with the exception of Bridgeport, Stamford and New Haven. Ticket agent positions at those stations will remain in place because other rail lines make connections at those stations.

The DOT did not return calls for comment as of press time.

Fairfield resident Nina Riccio stopped by the train station Friday afternoon, planning to meet with a ticket agent and exchange two-round trip tickets for two one-way tickets. All she found was a sign that read: "Ticket Office Closed." The automated ticket machines on the platform couldn't help her make a ticket exchange.

Riccio recalled an instance when a having a ticket agent at the station proved invaluable: She had gotten to the station only seven or eight minutes before her train's arrival. There were long lines for the ticket machines on the platform, where passengers were having a problem with credit-card transactions. Instead, Riccio went to the ticket office, got warm, bought a ticket and made her train with time to spare.

"The atmosphere in there [was] always friendly," she said.

The Board of Selectmen, at a recent meeting, made a motion to urge the DOT to appeal the cost-cutting measure. A letter is in the works to find out what happened, Flatto said.

"We want them to revisit, reconsider and reinstate the position," he said.

"I think for the second busiest on the New Haven line, it is critical to have a human presence at the station, not only for information, but also to give a sense of security and safety for commuters and people using the station."

While there will be no more ticket agent at the station, the building will remain open from early morning to somewhere between 11 a.m. or noon. That period covers the time when a vendor sells newspapers. When the station had a ticket agent, it stayed open until 12:30 or 1 p.m., according to Placko.

She said it would have been helpful if the DOT had supplied her with statistics on how much ticket window sales account for total sales at the Fairfield station.

Metro-North spokesman Dan Brucker said that the majority of tickets are purchased on the platform. The breakdown of tickets sold from the platform machines compared to ticket window sales was not immediately available. However, the fact remains, he said, that ticket window sales have not been strong enough at many stations to justify keeping the windows staffed.

"Overwhelmingly, the number of people who go to our stations, even if there is a ticket agent, will buy the tickets at the ticket-vending machines," Brucker said.

He said the scenes depicted in old movies -- rail travelers having nice chats with ticket agents about where they're going, how their family is doing -- are things of the past "It just doesn't occur anymore," he said.

Even if it's just handful of people who purchase tickets inside, Placko said, a ticket agent provides a "personal touch" that a vending machine simply does not. People who regularly ride the trains, she said, are comfortable using the machines on the platform, but a ticket agent comes in handy for older people and others from out of town not as familiar with the machines and looking for information about traveling to various locales.

Also, the ticket agent could adjust prices for a commuting student, whereas a machine, right now, cannot verify if someone's a student.

Sixteen-year-old Justin Hill, a senior at Fairfield College Preparatory School, said buying a ticket on a rainy day, inside the building at the ticket window, is much more pleasant than buying a ticket on the platform, with little or no roof to protect travelers from the elements.

Flatto, who rides the rails about once a month, said he regularly saw people waiting in line at the widow. That, he said, demonstrates a need. He also pointed out that Fairfield has more commuters in the morning and afternoon rush hours than Bridgeport, which will retain its ticket agent.

But Flatto said he's not surprised by the DOT's lack of consultation with Fairfield official.

"I found it's not uncommon for the staff of the state DOT to start making decisions without any notice," he said. For example, he said, a few years ago the DOT cut down trees along the Merritt Parkway without providing any notice.

"The bureaucracy of the department, I think, needs major improvement," he said.