Have you ever been stuck on the commuter train platform, seen the train appear on the horizon and realized your commuter pass is expired? Have you ever almost missed your train because of the long lines in front of the ticket machines at North Station?
Those commuting annoyances could soon be a distant memory — as long as you have a smartphone.
Starting this fall, the MBTA will introduce a smartphone application that will allow riders to buy tickets on their phones using their debit or credit cards. Just press a button, show the conductor your phone screen and you're good to go, according to the MBTA. No more waiting in lines, no more cobbling together loose dollar bills in your pocket, no more holding onto little pieces of paper for a month.
"I use the train every day, and I could see that being pretty convenient," said Spencer Webber, who commutes back and forth from Swampscott to Beverly and was playing with his iPhone yesterday while waiting on the Beverly Depot platform. "It would be safer, too, because, you wouldn't always have to carry around a wallet."
The new app is being developed by Masabi, a London-based company that has already developed mobile ticketing technology on almost a dozen train lines in the United Kingdom. Surprisingly, the proposed MBTA app would be the first smartphone rail ticketing system in the United States.
"I think transportation agencies get locked into their own proprietary payment models and think they have to fit everything into that model," said Joshua Robin, the director of innovation and special projects at the MBTA. "I think the smartest thing we did is look beyond that. This uses something the customer already has in their pocket instead of forcing them to get another card."
The proposal also officially ends the MBTA's consideration of implementing Charlie Card technology for the commuter rail system. The capital investment to bring the Charlie Card service to commuter lines was estimated at upward of $70 million, and officials could not agree on how the proposed system would work, Robin said.
The smartphone application, which is still in development, will work on the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry platforms. After purchase, the ticket will appear on the phone screen and will contain a bar code that can be scanned, as well as a unique encrypted image that will appear long enough for the conductor to check to ensure the ticket's authenticity.
Smartphone commuter tickets will cost the same as at an automated ticket vending machine like those found at North Station.
Kenneth Jackson, a Revere resident who travels frequently to Beverly on the commuter train, said the innovation wouldn't affect him much — he prefers old-fashioned cash, even though he has a BlackBerry — but he agreed that the innovation would probably go over well with everyone else.
"Technology has come a long way, and a lot of people have their technology and embrace it, so I'm sure it will do well," he said while waiting for the Boston-bound train at the Beverly Depot platform yesterday. "I see a lot of people, in my experience, on the train that all have some kind of ticket. People hardly ever carry cash anymore."
The new venture will save the MBTA "multimillions" annually by eliminating the need for additional ticket vending machines and by lowering cash-handling costs. Currently, fewer than half of MBTA's 140 commuter rail stations have fare vending machines. Purchasing ticket machines for stations that don't have them, including the Beverly and Salem stations, would cost between $30,000 and $50,000 each upfront and would also require yearly maintenance expenses, Robin said.
In a few weeks, the MBTA will invite customers to participate in focus groups to help design the new applications and will also seek a small group to use the app as part of the pilot program, which is expected to begin in late summer. The app will be available to the general public in the fall.