Friday, June 26, 2015

SNCF Ticket Checking or How to Travel for Free

*executive summary
"the SNCF likes to let me ride for free.
How come?
Just a trick, but an honest one.
I was late both times, so I didn't have time to buy a ticket.
But you can buy a ticket from the controlleur for an extra charge if you notify them right away.
So I did, and they knew where I was sitting, but never came to check tickets or make me pay"
Reflections on why this happened.

For those of you who don't know, the SNCF is the French railway company. It's widely used for travel in France and to neighboring countries.

I recently took the train on the SNCF from Geneva to Lyon and back (small getaway trip after my last exam). The transportation ended up costing me nothing.

There's a particular system with the SNCF, whereby, if you arrive too late to the station to buy your ticket, you can still hop on the train without one, so long as you immediately seek out the "controlleur" (employee who checks tickets) and tell them what happened. Then they make you pay for the ticket, and, depending on their mood, your persuasion, and/or the circumstances (for example, the ticket booth might of been closed or the vending machines broken), you will also have to pay a 10 euro fine (4 euros on trips less than 100 km).

So both times, I made and effort to get there on time to buy a ticket. On the trip from Geneva, I could have made more of an effort to get there sooner; I tried to buy a ticket at the machine but it was confusing and the traditional line was too long. On the way back from Lyon, I arrived at the station early and waited in line for twenty minutes. I ended up having to leave the queue 3 minutes before departure because the line was too long/slow; they were understaffed or something.

Both times, I promptly found the controlleur and told them what happened and that I wanted to buy a ticket.
Both times they told me to sit down and that they would come find me.
Both times they didn't.
I don't think they checked the tickets of any other passenger either. Both trains were slightly more than half full, so it seemed like it would be easy and worthwhile to check tickets, i.e., some behavioral priming on passengers who did indeed follow the rules, and some punishment/future deterrence for those who didn't.

And because I was reading "When to Rob a Bank" by the authors of "Freakonomics" I got to thinking about the reasons why they didn't check our tickets/make me pay specifically. After all, I was willing to do so, as I had sought them out at the beginning of the ride. Each time the fare was 29 euros. Easy money, no? Hell, they probably could have just pocketed the money for themselves. Either way, the marginal effort of doing a little extra work (or the work they are supposed to do) apparently was greater than the marginal return of 29 euros. I guess the current marginal cost of catching a few free-riders outweighs the marginal return, but still I find that surprising.
Perhaps, they don't really care about the money that the SNCF makes. To me, this makes them poor employees, or speaks poorly about the ticket system in place. Perhaps incentive alignment is in order, no? Perhaps, controlleurs could get a small percentage of the money they check. Or maybe the controlleurs felt bad taking money from me after I showed a facade of honesty.

So, the result is: I traveled for free.

I certainly would not buy stock in SNCF if it was available.

Also, I think there's a note to be said about (blablacar, carsharing). Covoiturage is a competing transportation carsharing service, where you get into a  pre-screened stranger's car and pre-pay them by credit card (through ). This is generally 1/3 rd of the price of train tickets (but not as cheap as free train rides) and faster when trafic obliges. Problem though: it's perhaps less reliable, less convenient, and often times it's hard to find a seat for the right time and location. Covoiturage is owned by SNCF though. And you'd think that, because there are close to zero free-riders on covoiturage, the SNCF would learn from that. Or is this just a nice form of price-discrimination to which I've found a loophole?

Still, if the SNCF reduced the price of their full-fare tickets, and had systematic checks on every ride, I think they could make more money. Why do they let this freeriding happen so easily? Perhaps their monopoly position reduces their incentive to compete and collect money from customers. Or is SNCF (or the controlleurs, at their own discretion) imformally providing a social service, a public good?

Worse yet, look at me now. I've turned to directing my thoughts and efforts towards cheating the system. It will be interesting to see how often I can get away with this. Perhaps paying the 10 euro fine is a worthwhile risk. In the future though, I will continue to covet covoiturage spots first (need to make sure I have money on my debit card), and then deal with the SNCF loopholes.