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The app that Charlie really could have used

Come fall, commuter rail riders will be able to use their smartphones to pay the fare

A prototype screenshot of a mobile ticketing app. A prototype screenshot of a mobile ticketing app. (NICK DILLON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / April 21, 2012
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Commuter rail riders will be able to purchase and display tickets on their smartphones later this year, instead of fumbling with cash or fishing for prepaid paper tickets and passes, under an agreement signed Friday by the MBTA.

With an estimated two-thirds of riders carrying smartphones, the application could also make fare collection more efficient on crowded trains and reduce on-board cash transactions for the MBTA, which runs the nation’s fifth-busiest commuter rail network.

Mobile ticketing applications are widely used in England, but the T would be the first major US commuter rail to offer passengers an alternative to paper.

At the same time, the T is abandoning past promises to expand the CharlieCard to the commuter rail system, nearly six years after the plastic card debuted on subway, bus, and trolley lines.

The T expects the smartphone application to be available by the fall, modeled after similar apps that a British company called Masabi has developed for half of England’s rail agencies. Masabi debuted the world’s first mobile train ticket in 2007, for trains between Birmingham and London. It now handles millions of dollars in monthly transactions throughout Great Britain, said Ben Whitaker, the company’s chief executive and cofounder.

Customers with an iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry who download the free app will be able to buy one-way, round trip, 10-ride, and monthly tickets and passes using debit or credit cards.

T officials said they expect people who have already traded their Starbucks card for an app or who shop at small businesses using LevelUp to be early adopters. When activated, the transit app will resemble a T pass and, like a Starbucks app, will have a scannable code known as a QR code.

Riders will activate their pass when the conductor approaches, and it will generate a one-time image lasting long enough to be checked on the trip but not reused on another ride. As with traditional tickets and passes, conductors will note that a person has already paid by affixing small seat-check slips.

Though the mobile tickets will contain QR codes, the T will not initially equip all conductors with hand-held scanners, using them only for spot checks. Instead, digital watermarks, such as changing colors and animation, will help deter fraud while allowing passes to be verified at a glance, said Joshua K. Robin, the T’s director of innovation and special projects.

Jake Sproul, 26, a Providence-to-Boston commuter waiting in a 12-deep line for a South Station vending machine, said the app would be “a vast improvement.’’ He still smarts at the memory of a punch card lost with seven rides remaining, worth $54.25. “It’s a lot easier to lose a piece of paper than it is your cellphone,’’ he said.

The T has begun talking to its 370 conductors, and union president Bob McDonald said they are enthusiastic.

“We’re still doing things the antiquated way we’ve been doing for 100 years,’’ said McDonald, of United Transportation Union Local 898. “It will be great for everybody involved, the conductors and the passengers.’’

The mobile application will cost the MBTA little to deploy - printing for an in-house marketing campaign, mostly - while providing app developer Masabi a 2.8 percent cut of tickets and passes sold by app. That contrasts with expanding the CharlieCard to commuter rail, at an estimated cost of up to $70 million.

“We’ve been struggling with how do we expand Charlie to commuter rail, and the options that we looked at weren’t convenient and also required a significant capital investment,’’ said Jonathan R. Davis, the T’s acting general manager.

At South Station, where the smartphone seemed to be the accessory of choice, waiting commuters reacted with a blend of indifference and enthusiasm to the prospect of the mobile app.

Peter Settel, 40, of Duxbury said he would appreciate it the few times a year he races for the train only to realize his punch card is used up, forcing him to contemplate the line or board and pay a surcharge for a cash ticket. “Other than that, [the paper] system’s not too bad,’’ he said.

But Ryan McGovern, who started commuting from Holbrook six months ago, said he is already tired of paper passes, dog-eared from frequent use, easy to lose. Commuter rail passes also confer unlimited bus and subway rides, but they must be swiped each time, unlike the CharlieCard, which can be tapped without being removed from a wallet.

(For those also riding buses and subways, the commuter rail app would be linked to a CharlieCard for transfers, Robin said.)

“When I lose it, I can’t replace it, because it’s like walking around with a $100 bill,’’ said McGovern, 24, who takes the train to the subway to the bus. “Except I don’t slide a $100 bill in and out of a machine all the time.’’

T officials said the app will help remove cash from the commuter rail system, where conductors collect $20 million annually from the small percentage of riders who buy tickets on the train. It will also help them collect more precise ridership data.

Industry leaders who have struggled to bring smartcards to commuter rail regard phones as “the next big thing,’’ said Martin Schroeder, chief engineer for the American Public Transportation Association.

“It’s very convenient for passengers,’’ many of whom already use phones to get schedules, find stations, and check service updates, he said. “It also saves the transit industry money from distributing paper tickets and gives them more information about their riders.’’

Among the big six commuter rail providers - the three serving Greater New York, plus Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia - only the Long Island Rail Road is experimenting with mobile ticketing in a pilot involving 100 passengers, according to the T.

The T was merely exploring the potential for a mobile app when it put out a feeler for proposals in December. Masabi’s was so impressive the T signed an agreement for a one-year trial, agency officials said.

Once a ticket has been purchased, the apps do not require a data or cell connection to work, Whitaker said in a phone interview from London. “It’s basically one of those no-brainers, where you show somebody this kind of thing and they say, ‘I would have used this yesterday if I knew about this.’ ’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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