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Massachusetts rail commuters can now use smartphones instead of tickets to ride

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MBTA mTicket for iPhone
MBTA mTicket for iPhone

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) just announced that passengers on some of its commuter rail trains can now purchase digital tickets straight from their Android and iOS smartphones, a new initiative that should greatly speed up the ticket-buying and ticket-checking process. The new MBTA mTicket app lets users buy a ticket that can display a digital bar code for conductors to scan once on-board —the agency says that it is the first public transit agency to move any of its system over to smartphone ticketing, though Amtrak has offered iPhone ticketing for a few months now. The New York Waterway ferry system also rolled out smartphone ticketing at the beginning of the year.

The MBTA claims that over half of its 140 commuter rail stations do not have ticketing booths or machines, so this new system should prove especially useful to commuters at those locations. Instead of slowing down the ticketing process by paying with cash on-board (and paying an associated surcharge for not having purchased tickets in advance), these users can just use the MBTA's app instead. According to The Boston Globe, the MBTA is rolling this system out following a "successful" test among some riders of the agency's South Shore line.

Paper tickets will soon be a thing of the past for some commuter rail riders

The system hasn't fully rolled out across the MBTA yet — as of today, all commuter rail trips out of Boston's North Station can be paid for with the new app. The second phase of the roll-out later this month will open the app up to riders heading south of Boston as well as those who ride the city's commuter ferries. It's worth noting that this program is aimed only at those riding the MBTA's commuter trains in and out of Boston to the suburbs — the city's traditional subway and bus system will continue to rely on refillable "Charlie Card" tickets. While there aren't any publicly announced plans to move this technology to other parts of the MBTA, it's pretty clear smartphones are the future of ticketing, so it wouldn't surprise us to hear about such a move at some point in the coming years.

Update: We just spoke with the MBTA's director of innovation Joshua Robin, who told us the agency was indeed considering rolling the smartphone-based system out to other parts of the agency, though it's not something coming any time soon. "If our customers like it, we'll roll it out to other areas in the future," Robin said. He also clarified that initial ticket-checking will be done by visual inspection, just as the agency does with paper tickets, but eventually conductors will be equipped with smartphones for scanning digital tickets. Unfortunately, Passbook integration for iPhone users isn't on the menu, at least for the moment.

Ticket-checking was a secondary concern to ticket-purchasing, however — Robin said that "purchasing convenience is the key" to the new system. Robin said that only 20 percent of stations have on-platform ticketing, so making it easier for customers to buy tickets was the biggest concern. While the program is far from finalized, the MBTA is clearly excited to be rolling this initiative out finally — Robin called the system "a real revolution," and said that it would bring the MBTA "into the 21st century."