Amtrak gives up traditional hole punch in favor of iPhone ticketing application


A commuter waits for an Amtrak train at Newark’s Penn Station. Starting next summer, the company will roll out nationwide an eTicketing program. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

There’s long been a certain quaintness to riding the train — the conductor using a hole punch to mark your ticket, the dining car attendant writing your order on a long, thin card — but Amtrak is changing all that.

The train operator next summer plans to roll out nationwide an e-ticketing program that provides conductors with a scanner-equipped iPhone to register rider tickets, in paper form or on laptops, tablets and phones. The initiative allows customers to print tickets from home or access them on mobile devices, rather than requiring them to use station kiosks or ticket windows.

The program has been in the works for about five years, but has taken major steps this year with two pilot efforts. In February, Amtrak started using e-ticketing on Auto Train, a train that travels between Lorton and Florida, and allows passengers to bring their cars aboard.

Last month, Amtrak launched a pilot of the e-ticketing model on the Downeaster, a line that runs between Portland, Maine, and Boston.

For Amtrak, the e-ticketing effort is expected to improve efficiency and safety. Today, conductors are responsible for keeping track of collected tickets, which are later sent to a facility in Texas to be scanned and documented. Additionally, conductors aren’t able to send real-time updates to its reservation system to indicate exactly who is on the train, valuable information in the case of an emergency or accident.

The new model links conductors with Amtrak’s reservation system, allowing them to see how many passengers are expected to get on at each stop and notifying them if a passenger with special needs or a business-class passenger is preparing to board. When they scan a ticket, conductors immediately have a real-time log of who and how many people are on the train and at what station they’re slated to disembark.

For customers, the new system means they can exchange tickets more easily if, for instance, they want to take an earlier train. Rather than have to return a printed ticket, they can simply make the adjustment online.

Amtrak developed the user interface for the mobile software through a contract with Agilex, a Chantilly-based information technology contractor.

“One of the critical design points was building an application that could work connected or disconnected,” said Ira Entis, president of advanced technologies at Agilex. Amtrak is “one of the few modes of transportation ... where you give them your ticket after you’re on board. ... Then we have to sort things out, but that sorting out is often in a tunnel or in the middle of the country,” where wireless signals are iffy.

Matthew F. Hardison, chief of sales distribution and customer service at Amtrak, said the new mobile device creates the opportunity to build other applications. Thus far, Amtrak already has developed one that allows conductors to electronically report problems on trains, such as broken restrooms or seats, rather than fill out and submit paper forms.

Deborah Stone, senior director of sales and reservation systems, said the train operator expects to begin using the application next year.

The ticketing initiative comes as Amtrak modernizes other processes as well. It also has rolled out WiFi access for a larger group of passengers this year and is equipping cafe and dining cars with tablets that allow employees to enter and track food and drink purchases.

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