U.S.’s first smartphone rail ticketing service headed for Boston

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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.

Ben Whitaker, CEO of Masabi told the Wall Street Journal that the the MBTA had been trying to build a payment system around its CharlieCards, but the system required a huge investment in hardware placed at every station. By going with Masabi, the MBTA can start migrating a lot of the work to smartphones. About 60 percent of commuters already own a smartphone. Whitaker said using near field communications via smartphones wasn’t an option because the technology wasn’t fully in place.

Going with Masabi is another reminder that while NFC is often touted as a solution for payments and ticketing, simpler barcode-based systems are ready now. We’ve seen the success of Starbuck’s payment system and more recently LevelUp has gotten a lot of momentum for its local loyalty program by creating its own barcode-based smartphone payment system. Ultimately, you just need a system that provides a simple and seamless mobile experience and barcodes are proving they’re up to the task.

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