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A brief history of Metrorail fare collection

WMATA has embarked on an ambitious program to revolutionize the way it collects fares from riders, allowing them to use a credit or debit card to pay their fare directly. This will increase convenience for riders, and lower the agency's costs for fare collection. But many riders wonder why they have not seen more changes in fare collection, and sooner.

Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

The answer lies in the history of fare collection on Metrorail. While the paper farecard may seem antiquated today, it was considered revolutionary when introduced in 1977.

When Metrorail opened in 1976, with service from Farragut North to Rhode Island Ave., a flat fare of 55¢ during peak hours and 45¢ off-peak was manually collected by station attendants.

When the second phase of Metrorail, the Blue Line from National Airport to Stadium-Armory, opened in July 1977, automatic fare collection was introduced. Then, only one other transit system in the US had introduced similar technology: BART, in San Francisco, which opened in September 1972.

At that time, other cities had begun to use magnetically encoded tickets (like the London Underground, in 1970), and many cities had long used simple mechanical turnstiles to collect tokens and coins. But only BART and Metrorail used a card which actually stored cash value, as well as faregates which computed a distance-based fare and deducted it from the value on the card as the rider passed through.

Since 1977, the technology has received incremental upgrades, but until now it hasn't gotten a complete overhaul. For example, farecard vending machines have been augmented with the ability to accept credit and debit cards and reload SmarTrip cards. However, at their core, the farecard vending machines, exitfare machines, and faregates are still the same technology that was introduced in 1977.

The age of the system makes it inflexible, compared to newer systems. For example, when peak-of-the-peak fares were introduced, they taxed the faregates' limited processing capacity, resulting in slightly slower farecard and SmarTrip processing. Features like online top-up and passes on SmarTrip have also taken longer for WMATA to implement.

As an early adopter, WMATA has not had the benefit of the decades of technological development which followed the introduction of the paper farecard on BART. When the New York City Transit Authority introduced the MetroCard in 1993, they were able to use a plastic card which is more resilient than the paper Metrorail farecard. The ticket vending machines used in New York City are more advanced, too, with an easy-to-use touchscreen interface. Neither of these were available to WMATA in 1977, and would have been costly to add as the system aged.

WMATA has also been criticized for its dependence on a single vendor for its fare collection system. This, too, is a factor of the system's age. Open standards for fare collection systems are relatively new. The introduction of automatic fare collection in 1977, and even the introduction of the SmarTrip card, predate these standards. In fact, when launched in 1999, SmarTrip was the nation's first contactless smart card for transit.

Since WMATA intends to replace its fare collection system, with phased implementation of the new system beginning in 2014, the current system will see only limited upgrades in the interim. Riders now have the ability to reload their cards online, and automatic reload is scheduled to arrive in the fall.

More substantial changes will likely have to wait until the implementation of the New Electronic Payments Program, WMATA's name for the next-generation system. As described in this presentation to the WMATA Board of Directors, a pilot program could begin in the summer of 2013. As the pilot expands, riders will gain the ability to pay their fares directly using credit and debit cards, certain mobile devices, and identification cards like those issued by universities and the federal government.

The New Electronic Payments Program will also make it easier for WMATA to sell new kinds of passes, like Smart Passes, as well as to operate loyalty programs or cross-promotions with area merchants.

In the future, we'll delve more deeply into the new fare program.

Kurt Raschke is an information technology professional and transit enthusiast interested in how technology can improve the usability of transit systems. A car-free resident of Silver Spring, he is a frequent user of Metrorail and Metrobus. He also blogs at Raschke on Transport. All views expressed here are his alone. 


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In the early 1980's, when the fare machines were first introduced, there was a wave of brazen robberies where criminals swept into the stations and broke into the fare machines exiting with the fares.

If you do not now how to farebeat (pre-SmarTrip) you are a newcomer to the metro.

by I was live birthed on red line. on Jul 8, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

PATCO in South Jersey had automated fare collection dating back to 1969. our magnetic cards were the first of their kind. replaced in 2007 with tap and go cards. look it up

by lou on Jul 8, 2011 12:43 pm • linkreport

When mentioning New York City, remember also that their card are part of the bus system as well.

by tour guide on Jul 8, 2011 12:46 pm • linkreport


There's a substantial distinction between early magnetic tickets which are merely read by the turnstile, and those that store cash value, such as BART and Metrorail farecards, where the faregate not only reads the contents of the card but computes the fare and writes the remaining value back to the card before returning it to the passenger.

The PATCO tickets, similar to the London Underground example I linked in the post, only encoded zone information. The turnstiles did not write back to the ticket after reading it.

by Kurt Raschke on Jul 8, 2011 12:48 pm • linkreport


To correct my earlier comment, it appears that the PATCO turnstiles did write back to the ticket particularly in the case of 10-trip tickets; still, that's not in the same class as BART and Metrorail, where the faregate performs a lookup to determine the correct fare between the origin and destination stations and then decrements the value on the card by that amount. That's considerably more complex (particularly for 1970s-era technology) than decrementing a counter of rides remaining from 10 to 9, and so on.

by Kurt Raschke on Jul 8, 2011 12:53 pm • linkreport

@Kurt - Interesting article.

To your last comment, how much more complex was the system in 1977 than the PATCO one described? Did Metro use distance based fares in 1977? Or was the sole function to deduct $.55 for rush hour trips and $.45 for trips during the rest of the day, regardless of the origination and termination point?

by Greg on Jul 8, 2011 1:24 pm • linkreport

Wven now, I can still recall the huge wooden planks on D street s.e. where we lived when I was a kid, and the monster rats that came up from the river thru the excavated subways tunnels. These rats were as large as a big cat or a small dog. A number of the old houses had settling damage from the construction operations, and a number of them had steel framing bolted to their facades to prevent more damage or outright collapse.Our landlord at the time got a payment from Metro to cover his renovation costs but I do not think that it was enough. Back then the entire central city was a hell of wooden planks and it was noisy as hell. When they finished the Blue line from the stadium across Capitol Hill I also remember on the 4th of July it was free to use the subway. They should do this again.

by w on Jul 8, 2011 1:27 pm • linkreport


As soon as automatic fare collection was launched in 1977, a distance-based fare was implemented on Metrorail. It's important to distinguish that from a zone-based fare; with a distance-based fare there is the potential for the fare to change for every individual origin-destination combination, because stations are not grouped into zones.

You can see the fare table from 1978 in Richard Layman's scan of the "Metro Ride Guide", a WMATA publication introducing riders to the then-new Metrorail system.

by Kurt Raschke on Jul 8, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

I recall several years when WMATA suspended the automatic fare collection, and the distance-based fares, on July 4 and instead put out barrels into which you were supposed to throw coins. The barrels had a grid-type thing so the coins could fall through while preventing people from stealing them. Only problem was, some people who didn't have coins threw in bills. I remember seeing people stealing bills off the top when people hadn't made sure the money fell through.

I seem to recall that the main reason for doing it that way was to avoid delays after the fireworks due to people being unfamiliar with the farecard system or not having bought roundtrip farecards. I might be mistaken.

by Rich on Jul 8, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport

BTW, thanks for using the cent symbol in this article. It seems like it's disappeared from American society. I even saw highway signs in Florida last week that said "Pay Toll .50" instead of using the cent symbol.

by Rich on Jul 8, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport

So they have had the ridiculous rush hour fares since the beginning of WMATA time.

We need a transit reset button.

by Redline SOS on Jul 8, 2011 3:26 pm • linkreport

When the new fare system comes, they should save millions (hundreds of millions?) in start up costs and millions more in maintenance by ditching the gates.

Move to a system which looks like this:

(Cheaters are caught with fare enforcement, which has the added benefit of requiring police to actually patrol the system, a novel idea, I know).

by JJJJJ on Jul 10, 2011 6:22 pm • linkreport

The NYC Metrocard is already outdated , many systems in the region are slowly switching to tap and go and NYC is still on the swipe which often breaks down or has other issues...

by Corey Best on Jul 11, 2011 5:44 am • linkreport

So once the system is changed, is this when WMATA will start clawing back the unused Federal Government worker commuter subsidies? I heard this would happen almost immediately.

by LuvDusty on Jul 12, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport


How exactly would something like that work with farecards and does those meet ADA requirements it doesnt look like a wheelchair would fit through there and how would a blind person use it since there is no gate how to they know if its alright to pass through

by kk on Jul 13, 2011 4:28 pm • linkreport

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