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iPhone, barcodes enlisted in public transport ticketing scheme

Simple solution makes a mockery of complex, dedicated ticketing schemes.

An American train operator is training old-school train conductors to give up their hole punchers and try something more modern: the iPhone.

Amtrak, the US government-owned corporation that oversees passenger train services, has been training conductors since November to use the Apple handset as an electronic ticket scanner on a few routes, including from Boston to Portland, Maine and San Jose, California, to Sacramento.

By late northern summer, 1700 conductors will be using the devices on Amtrak trains across the country, the company said.

With the system, passengers will be able to print tickets or load a special bar code on their smartphone screens for conductors to scan, and conductors will be able to keep track of passengers on board, Amtrak said.

''You don't even need to print the document and bring it with you,'' said Matt Hardison, chief of sales distribution at Amtrak, who helped plan the iPhone program.

''We've made a number of important improvements for both our customers and Amtrak, all in one fell swoop.''

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Amtrak joins a growing number of businesses that are using mobile devices to improve operations. Some pilots are using iPads to replace flight manuals in the cockpit, a few US police departments are experimenting with using iPhones to identify suspects, and doctors are using iPads to access patient records and X-ray charts.

A digitised check-in process for trains seems long overdue in a world of online concert tickets and flight reservations, but the industry faces a particular challenge in that passengers hop on and off at different platforms at different times, unlike at an airport, where people check in at one gateway to board a flight and then stay there until the flight arrives.

Amtrak's old manual ticketing process — punching a hole in the ticket, putting it in a pouch and then sending it to a central location, where it is eventually scanned and entered into a database — was not very good at tracking passengers on board because of the delay between when the ticket was checked and when it was processed.With the iPhone-powered system, conductors can monitor passenger check-ins in real time.

That will help them manage seating: If there are passengers who don't show up, for example, it will be easier to fill empty seats with other passengers.

''When it was all a manual system there was a lot of guesswork involved,'' said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which contracts with Amtrak to operate the train service from Boston to Portland.

Each conductor's iPhone is equipped with a case containing an extra battery and a barcode scanner, and has a special app to scan tickets but also to do much more. For example, with the app, conductors can indicate to the engineer if a disabled person is getting on at a particular stop. The app also allows conductors to report equipment failures, like broken toilet fixtures, to mechanics.

For passengers, the system means it will be easier to book or modify reservations. For example, if a rider discovered at the last minute that they had to take a train at a different time, they could make the change online or in Amtrak's iPhone app, whereas previously they would have had to refund a ticket and buy a new one at a machine or through an agent.

The iPhone system is costing Amtrak $US7.5 million — $US5.5 million for the software development and $US2 million for the hardware, the company said.

Amtrak's smartphone app for passengers is available only for iPhones, but the corporation said it was working on a version for Android devices, due for release later in the year. Users of other types of smartphones can still load their tickets through Amtrak's mobile website.

The New York Times

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