LIRR rolling out onboard ticket machines
A new wireless, handheld device will be tested on some Long Island Rail Road trains beginning Tuesday, allowing riders for the first time to buy tickets onboard with credit cards.
A few specially trained LIRR conductors will use the machines -- nicknamed TIM, for Ticket Issuance Machine -- on all trains between Ronkonkoma and Greenport in a pilot program through October. Later this month, the LIRR will begin using the machines on some weekend Montauk trains.
Railroad officials said they will consider rolling out the devices systemwide based on the pilot project, which will evaluate the speed and efficiency of transactions and customer feedback.
The same rules will apply to credit card transactions as cash. Usually, riders are charged a penalty for buying a ticket onboard a train if they had the option to purchase one at their boarding station. Because most East End stations do not have vending machines, penalties often are not charged.
TIM is a first step in a wave of new technology expected to transform ticket collections over the next several years, curbing losses from uncollected fares and reducing time-consuming cash transactions, LIRR officials have said.
"Smart card" technology being tested in some New York City subway stations could be adopted by the LIRR and Metro-North in about five years. By 2020, conductors might simply walk through trains and scan the chips in riders' smartphones, LIRR president Helena Williams has said.
Onboard sales accounted for 2.6 percent of ticket revenue in 2010, said LIRR spokesman Sam Zambuto. Of 25 million one-way tickets bought in 2010, 1.1 million were sold on trains.
The LIRR spent about six months developing TIM, which uses an Apple iPhone, a special cradle with a built-in credit-card swiper and printer, and a program designed by LIRR software developers. The LIRR has purchased 37 devices, each costing more than $1,200.
Williams said she began pursuing a way to accept credit cards on trains after several instances last year of riders -- particularly young people visiting the Hamptons -- not carrying cash to buy tickets onboard.
In some cases, those customers would get off the train to buy a ticket at Amagansett -- one of the few East End stations with a ticket vending machine -- and then return to their seats, holding up the train.
"We were like, 'We can't have this,' " Williams said.
"I've been a very big proponent of fare collection technology," she added. "And I said, 'Let's get the credit cards.' "
Technological limits had long held back the LIRR from accepting card transactions onboard, Williams said. But innovations in the last six months made it a realistic option.
The machines will allow LIRR conductors to carry out any transaction on a train and will replace the stack of so-called "duplex" long-form tickets they carry on their belts.
Through a few taps on the screen, a conductor will select a passenger's origin and destination, the quantity of tickets and whether the travel time is peak or off-peak.
Riders will hand over a Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Discover card to be swiped and receive a printed receipt that doubles as their ticket, which can be "punched" if they transfer to another train.
"It's pretty seamless," said Jonathan Ferdinand, an LIRR conductor trained to use the TIM. "It's very user-friendly. It's not complicated at all."
Railroad officials said other benefits from the new system include reduced paperwork. The machine will dispense a printed report of all tickets sold and revenue collected -- now a time-consuming task that conductors carry out using paper and pen.
The LIRR plans to equip concession vendors on Penn Station platforms and those on LIRR bar cars with the machines so that they, too, can accept credit cards.
Metro-North gave conductors similar handheld ticket-issuing machines in 2008, but they don't accept credit cards.
With Jennifer Maloney