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Summary:

Our nation’s rail system is about to take a big step forward: by placing less emphasis on paper tickets and introducing the iPhone as an important tool for conductors. This will streamline boarding for Amtrak, but it will also make life easier for smartphone-toting rail commuters.

This is not a ticket -- yet.

This is not a ticket — yet.

Our nation’s rail system is about to take a big step forward by placing less emphasis on paper tickets and introducing the iPhone as an important tool for conductors.

The New York Times has a story on Monday about the ongoing trials in which Amtrak is using the iPhone as a ticket scanner and a more efficient way of boarding passengers and filling in empty seats. The report says Amtrak has been training conductors since November 2011 to scan tickets with the iPhone. It’s only been active on a few routes — between Boston and Portland, Me., and from Sacramento to San Jose, Calif. — but they’re planning to expand.

This might sound simple and not totally novel; there are local metro systems like Boston’s MBTA that are about to start using smartphones as tickets. But as I’ve recently learned, this is a welcome improvement for the tens of thousands of people that commute daily or often travel by rail.

Amtrak isn’t a factor in people’s daily lives in places I’ve lived like San Francisco or Los Angeles to the same degree it seems to be in the Northeastern Corridor. Since moving east I’ve become acquainted with Amtrak commuting between Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C. What has most surprised me about rail travel has been how truly old-school it still is. Yes, it’s a transportation technology first invented almost 200 years ago, but it seems little progress has been made in terms of administration and passenger logistics.

Retraining conductors and passengers

I can buy an Amtrak ticket online, sure. But when I get a ticket confirmation email with a bar code, I can’t just walk up to a kiosk at the train station and scan the code from my iPhone’s screen — I either have to print the bar code or swipe a credit card. But the thing that needs the most improvement is what happens once on board: conductors still physically punch your ticket once you’re seated. He or she then pockets your ticket stub before you get off the train and sends them to a central location.

As you might imagine, passenger information and seating charts might be something useful to have in real time, especially when people change what stop they get off at or take an alternate train at the last minute. The NYT report includes how iPhone-scanning and real-time info will be a change from the current process:

With the new 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.

This is great news for Amtrak — though it will cost the agency $7.5 million for the hardware and software to institute the new process. But it should also make life easier for passengers, which is why I’m so eager for late summer: that’s when Amtrak says the devices will be rolled out across the country, to more than 1,700 conductors.

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  1. What will really modernize Amtrak is if they ever get their trains up to 200 MPH.

    1. I am also looking forward to that … someday.

  2. magnacartahg Monday, May 7, 2012

    Curious, when people say iPhone do they mean iPhone or iPod touch? I’ve seen both. It seems like it’d be waste to use iPhones in these kind of situations unless trains don’t have Wifi.

  3. ChooChoo Charlie Monday, May 7, 2012

    Speed won’t help. Acelca can almost reach 170mph, and it still takes 3 hrs to go from Boston to NYC.

    A new rail line not shared with freight and CT and NY commuter tails is what it will take.

    1. Acela only reaches 150 MPH over a short part of the run. Speed *will* help if they can sustain it over most of the distance from Boston to NYC, and don’t make a lot of stops along the way.

      I agree with you that they need a new line that isn’t shared. As it is now they’re dealing with ancient practices and trackage.

  4. I have never traveled on Amtrak. So, I don’t know how the boarding process works. In India, which has the largest train network in the world, transporting millions of people daily, all you need to do is show the booking confirmation email or sms on your phone, along with one form of government issued ID (driver’s license, passport, etc). The email/sms has a confirmation number called PNR number. That’s all they need.

  5. Jason Potter Monday, May 7, 2012

    Amtrak is using this on the Hiawatha route (Chicago to Milwaukee) from time to time. I ride a couple of times a week and they have started using it over the last couple of weeks on the afternoon routes.

  6. icesnakefrostfyre Monday, May 7, 2012

    I’d be more interested (1) if it were for all smartphones, not merely the overpriced Apple MP3 players with unreliable phone function, and (2) if riding AmTrak to Eugene and back from Portland, Oregon, for 2 adults, didn’t cost 4 times as much as driving. Seriously, when will the USA get affordable rail transport?

    1. When will the US get affordable train service? When we start riding more. We are tied to our vehicles and that is the issue. there are times when trains make sense and cars do not. It is expensive, but I try to ride at least somewhere on a train. Vacation for instance… take the train to Miami for a start, then a cruise and then back on train home. No hotels, a roomette for sleeping (which includes all meals), and I relax down and back from a vacation. Not bad. That may be all it takes. Use it more.

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