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LIRR mobile ticketing on track after clearing union

The Long Island Rail Road could introduce mobile

The Long Island Rail Road could introduce mobile ticketing later this year after it announced in March 2016 that the conductors union now supports it. This train stops at the Merillon Avenue station in Garden City on Jan. 5, 2016. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Long Island Rail Road has cleared a major hurdle in its plan to introduce mobile ticketing this year, having won support for the plan from union leadership.

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, which represents the LIRR’s 1,200 train conductors, said the union is now on board with the LIRR’s plan to roll out the new fare pay technology, which will allow riders to buy and present their tickets using their smartphones.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been exploring the idea of allowing riders to pay for trips using mobile devices for years, and in 2014 hired London-based mobile tech firm Masabi to develop a fare app for the LIRR and Metro-North.

But, last fall, LIRR officials said that the project had been stalled because of the railroad’s inability to reach an agreement with workers, who were concerned about how the new technology could affect employees, including fare-collecting conductors.

Having received assurances that mobile ticketing will not result in any downsizing of train crews, Simon said, “Let’s do it.”

“We’re saying, ‘We’re in,’ ’” Simon said earlier this month. “We believe in the technology, we believe in the fact that the technology is here, and we want to make it easier for the commuters.”

Although an LIRR-specific app is still being developed, Masabi’s mobile fare-payment technology allows customers to buy tickets directly on their mobile devices using a credit or debit card, then present them on their device for validation — eliminating long lines at ticket windows and vending machines. Masabi said its technology already is in place in about two dozen transit systems around the world, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE Bus.

In May 2014, Masabi CEO Ben Whitaker said the company was excited to work with the LIRR “to bring our award-winning technology to New York’s commuters.”

“Mobile ticketing is all about making life easier for transit riders. By transforming smartphones into vending machines, we are making waiting in line a thing of the past,” Whitaker said.

The agreement with the unions comes at a critical point for the technology initiative. In January, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised mobile ticketing would be partially rolled out on the LIRR in June, and available systemwide by the end of the year. The goal is part of a broader initiative by Cuomo to better integrate wireless technology throughout the transit system to create “the MTA of tomorrow.”

“We have recaptured the daring. We have recaptured the ambition. And we have the competence to make it happen,” Cuomo said at a January news conference announcing the initiative. “We’re going forth on a new track to get these things done.”

Although mobile ticketing technology has existed for years, Martin Schroeder, director of engineering and transit technology for the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C., trade and advocacy group, said he didn’t fault any railroad that took its time in adopting it.

“Transit is an industry that wants to make sure the products they put out there work. They are risk-averse. They want things to work when they put them in,” Schroeder said. “They’re not in the gambling business. They’re in the transportation business. So it may take them a little longer to make that decision, because they want it to be right.”

While promising his support of the LIRR workforce, Simon still questioned the proposed June rollout date for mobile ticketing, which he said is “too soon.” Union officials have raised several concerns about the technology, including connectivity problems while customers are trying to buy tickets onboard trains and the potential for fare disputes caused by mobile phones being drained of their battery power.

“I think you need at least a year to make sure you can iron out the kinks,” Simon said. “A year would probably get us where you need to be.”

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said while phone battery life and connectivity present challenges, they “shouldn’t be an inhibitor.” He said the agency needs to develop a “work-around” for such situations.

“We see those as things we’re going to have to cover. It’ll be part of a dialogue with customers as well as with the equipment manufacturer,” Prendergast said. “It shouldn’t be something that forces us to say, ‘Let’s not take this on.’ ”

Ronkonkoma commuter Bryan Fox agrees that the pros far outweigh the cons when it comes to being able to buy tickets on his phone, as he already can do when he goes to the movies, a concert or sporting event.

“There’s electronic tickets pretty much everywhere else. . . . That we’re all waiting in line to select tickets is just crazy,” said Fox, 39. “You have these nightmarish queues of folks punching into a machine, when they all have cellphones.”

As part of the transit technology initiative, the LIRR will also expand the use of onboard ticket printing machines and credit card readers, according to Simon. Cuomo has also promised that by 2018, commuters will be able to pay for trips on both the LIRR and the New York City Transit subway system using a singular account and mobile app.

HOW MOBILE TICKETING WORKS

  • A user downloads a free app to his or her smartphone or mobile device.
  • User sets up an account linked to a credit card or bank account.
  • User purchases a single or multiple-ride ticket.
  • Once on board, the user activates his or her ticket and displays to a conductor for visual inspection or to be scanned with a special device.

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