Mobile technology enhances LIRR commute
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Mobile technology is changing the Long Island Rail Road commuting experience more than any innovation since electrified tracks.
In just a few years, several touchstones of commuting -- finding spare newspapers on train seats, consulting printed schedules, playing cards with other passengers -- have noticeably decreased. In their place are smartphones or tablets, schedule apps and passengers communicating with each other through social media.
The developments aren't the first to change the way people commute and the railroad will adapt, as it has repeatedly during its 178-year history, said Joe Calderone, the LIRR's vice president of customer service.
"If you look way back over time, there used to be smoking cars. There used to be bar cars. The commuting experience has definitely changed," Calderone said. "Now, we see the inside of the cars are filled with almost everybody looking at their smartphones, their Kindles, their iPads, whatever . . . Things change with the times."
The transformation is apparent in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's statistics. The amount of recycled trash collected on New York's subways and at subway stations -- including newspapers -- fell 19 percent between 2007 and 2011. The amount of newspapers collected by the LIRR's sister railroad, Metro-North, at Grand Central Terminal fell by 54 percent between 2007 and 2011. The LIRR does not keep similar statistics, but officials and commuters say the decrease in newspaper-reading is noticeable.
Huntington-based mobile application developer CooCoo realized in 2009 the potential to use mobile technology to simplify the lives of the 80 million annual LIRR riders.
'Revolutionary' ideaCooCoo founder Ryan Thompson said the company began with a simple but "revolutionary" plan of sending train departure times to passengers by text message.
The company has grown into a national leader in transit-related applications and developed technology successfully tested by the LIRR in August to let riders download tickets to their phones.
"We thought that transit was the perfect target because a lot of people take the train every single day," Thompson said. "It really changes the way that people travel."
Overall, technological advances have created a "better commuting experience" on public transportation as passengers have more access to information during their trips, Calderone said.
But at the same time, larcenies have soared on the LIRR, MTA Police said, driven by thefts of expensive electronic devices. Robberies increased by 95 percent from 2010 to 2011, and grand larcenies jumped 22 percent.
The mobile boom has some other drawbacks for riders, LIRR president Helena Williams said.
"Customers are very distracted getting on and off trains," she said. "We have to be very careful in recognizing that customers need to pay attention" -- meaning, for example, that they need to watch the gap, not the smartphone screen.
And complaints about loud cellphone conversations and music led to the creation and expansion of a "quiet car" program.
Nonetheless, LIRR officials said they have embraced mobile technology for the opportunities it gives them to communicate with customers. The railroad first took advantage of those breakthroughs in 2008 when it equipped all conductors with cellphones to help keep them informed about service issues.
For years, the LIRR has been sending alerts to email subscribers, a list that has grown to more than 50,000. And over the last year, the railroad has increasingly used social media to pass along information to riders. The LIRR has more than 6,500 followers on Twitter (@LIRRScoop) and 3,600 "likes" on Facebook.
Calderone said using all those resources to get information to customers as quickly as possible is especially important because social media can also work against the LIRR's efforts.
"Unless we get accurate information out as fast as possible, we're up against inaccurate information that may be floating out there," Calderone said.
When Deanna Kugler, 22, of Massapequa, was stuck for an hour on a Port Washington-bound train that was stopped by the nor'easter-related service disruptions a week after superstorm Sandy, she relied on social media, rather than on her train's own conductors, for the most up-to-date and detailed information on what was going on.
"I think that's a huge problem with the railroad. They don't tell you why you're not moving," Kugler said. "They don't say, you know, the signal switches aren't working."
LIRR officials say they also use social media to hear from their customers. Calderone said he and other agency managers regularly check comments on Twitter and Facebook, respond as much as they can, and act on good suggestions or valid complaints.
Social media has become a "real-time comment card" for the LIRR, said Jamie Cohen, director of Web and digital media for the Hofstra University School of Communication.
"I think that's the empowering part for train riders," Cohen said. "It makes them feel like they're part of the experience."
Calderone acknowledged that the LIRR is "more scrutinized than ever" in the mobile age. "Everything that we do can wind up on YouTube instantaneously," he said.
LIRR customers also are under more scrutiny. Most mornings, commuters post candid photos on Twitter and other social media, showing passengers putting their feet up on seats, talking loudly on cellphones and committing other commuting taboos.
Third-party phone applications allow riders to map out their trips and check schedules. One app offers riders guided tours of MTA Arts for Transit installations. Online grocer Peapod just released an app that allows commuters to shop by scanning virtual supermarket products on billboards at train stations.
More services in the offingTo keep up with an increasingly tech-savvy commuter base, the LIRR now offers real-time information about specific trains' arrival times on its website and expects to install Wi-Fi on trains, which could lead to digital video displays on trains for service updates or advertising.
And following its successful test with CooCoo in August, the LIRR hopes to roll out mobile ticketing -- allowing customers to buy tickets on their phones and display them for conductors to scan -- on all its trains by the end of 2013.
"We want to be as tuned in and as plugged in as our customers are," Williams said.
But Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, an advocacy group, said the railroad has been "behind the curve" and said innovations such as Wi-Fi on trains and an official LIRR app should have been in place long ago.
"We have nowadays what we call the I-generation of commuters, and you have to service their needs," Epstein said. "They want to pick up their phone and have all their information at their fingertips."
Passengers also have shown that change has its limits.
An LIRR pilot project this year to test a fare payment system in which customers would tap their phones against small sensors at stations flopped.
LIRR officials said customers accustomed to handing a ticket to a conductor did not like changing that routine.
A sampling of recent Twitter posts about the Long Island Rail Road:
If this train sits still any longer I'm gonna need a change of address form #LIRR @KimHoward2010
Standing room only on a 1:30 train. Where is everyone going? @tmcantwell
Conductor just asked over the speaker, if someone onboard knows how to tie a bow tie? @blueelf217
The Quiet Car should also mean no loud clothing. @LIRRGuy
@MTAInsider when will ticket purchasing and scanning via mobile come out for #Lirr? Looking forward to it @MikeJSorrentino
Standing room only on #LIRR. One word people: SOAP. @LIRRGuy
Why hasn't the #LIRR invested in bullet train technology #YourGoingTooSlow #StepOnIt @QuVBond