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Metro-North moves forward on digital tickets for 2014

A Metro North Ticket kiosk at the Tarrytown

A Metro North Ticket kiosk at the Tarrytown train station. (Dec. 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

Metro-North is moving ahead with a digital ticketing plan that could soon render its conductors' hole punchers a relic of train riding's past.

Instead of paper tickets, commuters would be able to flash conductors their digital tickets on smartphones so they can scan bar codes, according to a plan announced Monday at Metro-North's monthly committee meeting in Manhattan.

"This is really moving us forward in a significant way," Metro-North President Howard Permut told board members.

Metro-North, together with Long Island Rail Road, is seeking proposals from companies that could develop the technology by 2014.

There's no word yet on how much the new technology would cost the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent agency of Metro-North and the LIRR. Requests for proposals went out Jan. 22 and are due by March 15.

The MTA expects to award a contract in July. The winning bidder will begin a pilot program by the spring of 2014, with a full rollout by the fall of 2014.

"A large and growing segment of our customers already have their smartphones or tablets out with them as they ride," Permut said. "So ticketing via smartphones will help our customers avoid having to put down what they're doing and rummage through a wallet or purse."

The railroads are looking for a company that will develop an app that lets customers buy tickets on their mobile devices and display their tickets on a screen for conductors to check.

The announcement follows two successful pilot programs in 2012.

Last summer, Metro-North tested out a smartphone ticketing plan that had railroad employees acting as customers. Employees downloaded a free app to their iPhone, Android or BlackBerry, which allowed them to purchase a variety of tickets -- one-way, round-trip, 10-trip or monthly -- using a credit or debit card.

The time and date for the digital ticket appeared on the buyer's screen for conductors to check before he scanned a bar code with a handheld device.

In August, the LIRR tested out the app on nearly 6,000 fans taking the train to The Barclays PGA Tour on Long Island. After making the purchase, customers received train tickets via email or downloaded it onto their smartphone. LIRR employees validated the tickets with a handheld bar code reader.

"The LIRR's successful mobile ticketing pilot last summer for the PGA Tour at Bethpage showed customers are eager for mobile ticketing," said LIRR President Helena Williams.

A follow-up survey of 368 customers found that nearly all were "very satisfied." Nearly 81 percent rated it a five on a scale of one to five, MTA officials said.

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