The Metro transit authority is trying out new automated equipment for issuing transfers on five buses traveling a busy District of Columbia route in an attempt to cut costs and deter thefts of transfers.

Metro now spends $256,000 a year to provide 174.5 million transfers for bus riders. Transit officials estimate these costs might be reduced by 50 percent--to about $128,000 a year--if the new devices were installed on Metro's 1,700 buses.

In addition, Metro officials say the transit authority loses about $1 million annually from misuse and thefts of transfers. The new machines might help reduce these losses, officials say.

The equipment has been installed on Route 30 buses, which travel from Friendship Heights in Northwest along Wisconsin and Pennsylvania avenues to Southeast.

The dispensers, manufactured by Almex, a Swedish firm, are scheduled to be tested for six months before officials decide whether to buy them for the Metrobus fleet. They are estimated to cost $1,800 each.

Metro now prints transfers in advance and distributes them to each bus. Many of the transfers, which bear the current day's date, go unused and must be discarded. The new devices are expected to reduce such waste.

With the automatic dispensers, transfers are printed one at a time and only when passengers ask for them. To issue a transfer, a bus driver pushes a button.

The new transfers resemble cash register receipts. Since preprinted transfers are eliminated, people would no longer be able to steal them, officials say.

Daryl Pratt, an official for the Chicago-based Vapor Corp., a transit equipment firm that markets the Almex dispensers in the United States, said the devices are currently used by three U.S. bus systems, all in California. In addition, he said, the equipment has been widely employed in Europe, where the devices are used for issuing bus-fare receipts rather than transfers.

Metro now spends $1.39 to print 1,000 transfers. This cost is expected to be reduced to 62 cents for each 1,000 transfers printed by the automatic dispensers.

Metro officials say, however, that they have taken precautions to deal with possible breakdowns in the automated equipment during the six-month test. "Should a machine malfunction, bus operators will have regular transfers handy to issue until a street supervisor can unlock the case and replace the malfunctioning unit with a spare," the transit authority said.