Annals of almost greatness: commuter rail tickets by mobile

Thanks to the alert folks at Universahub, I found out yesterday that you can buy Mass Bay Commuter Rail tickets with a mobile app on your iPhone or Android thingus, at least for the North side lines for now.  Naturally, I had to try it.  After all, I’ve got $6.44 left in my transit FSA and it’s use it or lose it.  I downloaded the app and bought myself a shiny new one-way pass to zone 1a.

It’s a pretty good experience.  You download the app – it’s a nice app, with schedules and maps too – put in your credit card info and buy tickets or passes.  Receipts are e-mailed to you, but you get no physical ticket.  Instead, when you board the train, you’re supposed to “activate” your ticket.  When the conductor asks to see your ticket, you produce your smartphone and show the activated ticket on the screen.  Easy and/or peasy.

I once worked with a guy who liked to say, ”congratulations, you’ve solved a problem that didn’t exist.” I think this might be one of those.  I figure the typical commuter rail rider is a monthly pass holder for whom the on-the-spot convenience of mobile payment is of little concern.

For the T there are a few benefits, chief among them a nice crop of data since the app collects your stations and time of use, not only your choice of zone and time of purchase. There might be a small uptick in fare collection since those inclined to pay can do so a little more easily and there might be a little less congestion at the ticket machines, especially on the first of the month. Conductors might have to spend less time selling on-board tickets, but they save no time glancing at a phone screen compared to glancing at a paper ticker.  Mobile tickets, like the paper ones, are good for months from purchase. Collection efficiency is still an issue, and crooked conductors can still let their friends ride free. I’ll bet you a venti grande right now that nobody will activate a ticket a second sooner than the conductor says “tickets please” beyond their first time.

On the downside, there’s mainly disappointment it’s not integrated.  If you buy a regular commuter rail pass, it also works as a bus/subway pass – after all, how many commuters actually work right near North or South stations?  Your mobile monthly pass for the Commuter Rail does not include any bus/subway service, but costs $10 less than a regular pass.  That’s a lousy deal if you have to buy a $70 bus/subway pass, and a needless discount if you don’t.

If you’re a Charlie card user, you can’t use your Charlie card on the commuter rail. (even though a Zone 1a pass is the same price as a bus/subway pass, but that’s a story for another day)  Adding mobile ticketing like this makes the gaps more apparent and raises questions: Wouldn’t bus riders benefit even more from mobile tickets?  If you can use your Charlie card on a bus, why can’t that technology work on a Commuter Rail car?  Heck, the Commuter Rail cars all have wifi – why is the fare collecting conductor the only one on the train not connected to the network?

I get it, it’s the first version, maybe even a nice beta.  Improvements are on the way.  Mobile ticketing won’t connect North Station and South Station, it won’t cut or save conductor jobs, it won’t hasten the Green Line Extension, it won’t prop up collapsing tunnels, but it was a nice payday for some app developers, who by the way, are in England, not local boys like the developers of Catch The T, a fine MBTA data consuming app.

One final snark, in the app there’s a section for “offers” – I was offered $20 off my first Uber car service ride. What does that say about the Bay State of public transportation?

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