Boston's MBTA to turn your smartphone into a personal ticket machine

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority this fall will become the first American railway system in the United States to allow riders to preorder and display their train tickets entirely through their smartphones.

The MBTA announced Monday that it will be working with U.K.-based mobile ticketing firm Masabi to deploy and operate a mobile application that will let users purchase their commuter rail tickets on their device and to add more value to their standard “Charlie Card” subway passes. While there is no firm date yet when the new application to launch, MBTA officials are hopeful that it can come online sometime this fall after conducting some summertime trial runs. The app will be available for download on iPhones, BlackBerry smartphones and Android devices, according to Masabi.

Here’s how it works: Users download the MBTA’s app onto their smartphone and select a starting location and destination. From there, they enter in their credit card number one time to process the transaction. In subsequent purchases, the app will save the credit card data and users will only have to enter in the three-digit security code on the back of their card for verification. After purchasing their pass, the ticket will then display on their smartphone with a specially designed marker that constantly shifts colors to let train conductors know the ticket is not a simple forgery.

“The biggest reason we were impressed with Masabi was that they have a unique visual ticket that displays on the phone,” explains Joshua Robin, the MBTA’s director of innovation and special projects. “It’s a moving image that changes colors frequently, meaning our conducts can simply look at it to verify that it’s real rather than needing to use any special equipment.”

The MBTA has long been trying to figure out ways to make purchasing tickets for commuter rail riders more convenient. The agency had considered implementing a Charlie Card-type system where users could add value and then have their cards scanned before entering the train. But while such a system worked well on the relatively small area where the MBTA’s subway system works, the agency found it much harder and more expensive to deploy and maintain out in the suburban areas that are typically served by the commuter rail. Robin says that such an upgrade to the entire MBTA train system would have cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million to $70 million to implement, a fiscal and political impossibility for a train service that has faced significant financing issues in recent years.

“Rather than installing an expensive ticket machine on the platforms that costs a lot to maintain, we decided to let people use the ticket machines that they have in their pockets,” says Robin. “This really changes the dynamic and makes it much more convenient and cost effective.”

The good news for the MBTA is that Masabi has a lot of experience in the mobile ticketing realm as it has deployed its ticket smartphone app for several major British railways, including Virgin Trains, Chiltern Railways and CrossCountry trains. Masabi CEO Ben Whitaker says that the company processes millions of dollars of ticketing transactions in the U.K. each month and that its mobile app is available on roughly half of the railroads in the U.K. He says that the chief attraction of the firm’s product for agencies like the MBTA is its ability to deliver convenience for users without heavily taxing its technology investment budget.

“We help businesses provide more ticket sales without having to take on huge capital expenditures,” he says. “This is one of those rare opportunities out there to change people’s daily lives.”

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