If you ride the train to work in the morning, that passenger sitting next to you may actually be a Metra spy.
FOX Chicago News and the Better Government Association have learned Metra is cracking down on train conductors who fail to collect fares from passengers.
Nearly every metra passenger we talked to has a similar story: They get a free ride because the conductor never showed up in their train car to punch their ticket or collect their cash.
"I think it has happened a handful of times where under normal loads they haven't collected a fare,” one passenger said.
“The only time I've seen it happen was when the train was really really crowded,” another passenger said.
Facing a massive budget shortfall, Metra recently surveyed thousands of customers about the possibility of cutting service and raising fares.
They were surprised to hear this:
"One of the things we ought to do to reduce the impact of fare increases is to make sure we collect the fares that we're supposed to collect,” Metra CEO Alex Clifford said.
Clifford said the agency had known for some time that fares are being missed on some of its more crowded trains, especially after events like football games, races at Arlington Park and concerts at Ravinia.
But he said they're also failing to collect badly needed revenue because some conductors simply aren't doing their job.
"We recently had an incident where we went out and sent a trained observer out on that line and discovered a conductor not collecting fares,” Clifford said. “Instead that conductor was sitting in an area just reading a newspaper."
Metra has responded by boosting the number of undercover monitors posing as passengers - train spies, if you will - to keep an eye on conductors, and has sent a letter to the conductor's union warning they're being watched.
Conductors we talked to said the bigger problem is lack of manpower on busy lines. Sometimes only two conductors are on duty for a train carrying more than 1,000 passengers.
"The overwhelming numbers of conductors have done a great job. They treat fare collection as though it was their own money,” Clifford said. “It is my belief however we have a small number of folks that we have to go out and change behavior."
So just how much money is Metra failing to collect?
Nobody knows for sure. But it could be in the millions over the years.
The agency said they're not looking to punish conductors. But the one who was caught reading the paper while fares went unpaid is being disciplined.