LIRR tests smartphone payment system

An LIRR employee taps her Nokia phone against

An LIRR employee taps her Nokia phone against a censor near the Jamaica LIRR station. The LIRR is testing a new fare payment system that would allow customers pay for rides using their cell phones. (Credit: Jeremy Bales)

All smartphones, please!

The Long Island Rail Road is testing a system that will allow customers to pay for their rides using their mobile phones.

LIRR officials say the "near field communication" technology used in the pilot project could lay groundwork for a seamless fare system throughout the Metropolitan Transportation Authority system, and include other transit agencies as well.

"I don't think we've begun to see even the beginning of telephone technology and telecommunication technology and what it can do for us," LIRR president Helena Williams said Monday. "The goal is to make it easier for customers."

The technology, while probably years from being rolled out, will allow customers to pay fares by tapping their near field communication-equipped phone against a "touch point" -- a small disc-shaped device -- at the station where they begin their trip, and tapping it again when they arrive at their destination. A customer's account will be billed for the fare.

Transit systems in Japan and Germany already have fare systems that use near field communication -- standards based on radio-frequency electromagnetic fields that allow wireless transfers of data for identification and tracking. The technology is used in the United States by some credit card companies and retailers.

Williams said she aims for the LIRR's use of the technology to put it "at the forefront" among the nation's commuter railroads.

Twenty LIRR employees began testing the system in December, tapping in at their home stations using specially provided Nokia smartphones and tapping out at Jamaica, where a "touch point" has been installed in the lobby of the LIRR's corporate offices. When the phones are within 1.6 inches of the device, they vibrate and a confirmation message appears on the phone screen. None of the touch points in place are easily accessible to regular customers.

About 100 LIRR riders along the Port Washington line will have the opportunity to take part in the pilot program in June. The customers, who will be recruited by a marketing company, will tap in at their home stations equipped with touch points, and tap out at Penn Station, where 15 of the touch points will be installed. On board a train, a conductor will touch his phone against a customer's to check that it was properly used.

In the test phase, customers will not actually pay fares through their phones. The LIRR plans to compensate participants with a free monthly ticket for future use and by letting them keep the Nokia phone. Nokia is covering most of the costs of the pilot program.

A future phase of testing may include actual fare transactions, LIRR officials said.

Metro-North Railroad, the LIRR's sister railroad in the MTA system, is testing a different technology, using bar codes and scanners.

LIRR officials said they have plenty of issues to figure out before rolling out the system, including whether monthly ticketholders would have to tap in each day they commute and whether someone traveling with a group would have to tap in once or for each person in his or her party.

One thing the LIRR says it is not worried about is lines of customers waiting to tap in at stations. If and when the system is rolled out, all stations will several touch points, officials said.

Williams noted that such a system, once in place, would not replace paper tickets immediately, but would be an option for those who have the technology.

The LIRR is moving ahead with other innovations in ticketing, Williams said. In May, the railroad will expand a pilot program to allow customers to pay onboard trains with credit cards.

The unions representing LIRR conductors, ticket clerks and agents are not enthusiastic about the fare-payment evolution.

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union, which represents conductors, said his group recognizes technology's advantages, but cautioned that riders' security must not be sacrificed.

"The customer service, security and safety element that train crews provide while they secure and validate fares is essential to a safe MTA operation," he said.

Arthur Maratea, general chairman of the Transportation Communications Union, said he hopes his members are involved in any innovations. Ticket clerks and agents now perform maintenance and repairs on ticket vending machines, he pointed out.

"We know we can't stop technology," Maratea said. "We just want to be a part of it."

Williams said LIRR employees don't have "any reason to be concerned" about an effect on jobs.

"They've always been great about adapting to technology," she said.

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