Tuesday, April 24, 2012

MBTA rolling out smartphone ticketing

Rolling out this fall:

Boston rail commuters will soon have a mobile alternative to traditional paper tickets, allowing them to use their smartphones to buy and display their train tickets. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which serves 1.3 million people a day, will launch the U.S.’s first smartphone rail ticketing system this fall through a partnership with Masabi, a London company which has been rolling out mobile ticketing services in the UK.
Users will be able to buy their tickets and passes via their smartphone instead of lining up at vending machines. When it comes time to show their proof of purchase, the smartphone application will display an animated watermark with a background color that changes according to the day. The app, which will work on iPhone, Android and BlackBerry devices, also produces a bar code that can be scanned for closer inspection. Smartphone-equipped train conductors will be able to do quick visual inspections of the tickets or scan the tickets to be sure.
The system will be tested this summer with a pilot group before a full launch this fall. It can also work in conjunction with the MBTA’s contactless CharlieCard, allowing monthly pass holders to link their cards to their account and charge them up through their smartphone. The move to mobile ticketing should speed up the ticketing process commuters, many of whom are forced to buy tickets on the trains because there are no vending machines at their stations. It also allows the MBTA to not have to buy or maintain additional vending machines and lowers the cost of handling cash.

Of course, as those who have been following this would know, the article is wrong when it refers to MBTA being the first to have a smartphone rail ticketing system this fall; Amtrak has been rolling it out this year with the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins recently switching over to e-ticketing and use of smartphones. They would, however, be the first commuter rail system to do so. I am astounded, however, that the initial press release mentioned that less than half of MBTA's stations possess ticket vending machines. Sure, putting a pair in any individual station would cost about a hundred thousand dollars, but that's still capping out at about ten million dollars systemwide to emplace them. By removing the need for conductors to ever sell tickets, MBTA could reduce to a single conductor per train, with the reduced operating costs easily paying for the capital expense (this may require some platform reconstruction at certain stations as well).


  1. While I am happy to see them finally do something about this, I'm a bit skeptical of introducing yet-another-system into the mix. Handheld CharlieCard readers have existed since day 1, and it would be easy to hand them out to conductors to verify passes and collect ride fares.

    I'm puzzled by why "monthly pass holders" would link their cards in order to "charge them." Aren't they unlimited ride? Ideally it would work out so that a Zone 1A monthly pass holder (local bus and subway) can use their CharlieCard on the commuter rail. Currently, you must purchase a Zone 1A paper CharlieTicket in order to ride unlimited to urban stations.

    A note on the excess conductors: I don't believe they could get rid of them by installing ticket machines. The overstaffing is part of contracts, and also the antique equipment needs manual high/low door opening.

  2. While part of the contract, by going to ticket vending machines and proof of purchase rather than selling tickets, that's additional leverage to change the contract when they get the other elements in place.

    And I truthfully don't know how the CharlieCard stuff works, I've never been up to Boston myself, though I've some family there now. I suspect what they mean is using the phone to get the card to recognize such a purchase and enable its use on fare gates rather than having to pull out the phone and have it verified if someone is checking gates.

  3. I wish they'd spent the money on working ticket machines at stations. In Providence the only way to buy a ticket is at a cafe that closes early; there are Amtrak windows and Amtrak machines but they do not sell MBTA tickets. (Why should they? Different gangs, different turfs.)


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