Amtrak Tests Digital Ticketing

Amtrak tickets are finally going digital.

Mirroring an airline practice, the rail company is testing e-ticketing that allows customers to print their tickets at home or have them e-mailed to their smartphones as a PDF file. Using a mobile device, the conductor scans a bar code on the PDF file to confirm the ticket.

The trial, which started this month, is limited, and available only to the customers of Amtrak's Downeaster service, which runs between Portland, Maine, and Boston. Around next February, the trial will be expanded to California routes, including the San Jose-Sacramento service and the San Joaquin service, which runs between Oakland and Bakersfield.

If the broadened trial goes well, Amtrak hopes to roll out e-ticketing nationally by summer, says Matt Hardison, Amtrak's chief of sales distribution and customer service.

Because the e-ticket option lets customers make reservation changes until the last minute, passengers who want to catch an earlier or later train for the return leg of the trip can now bypass the ticketing booth.

Amtrak also sees security benefits to e-ticketing because it gives the company a real-time passenger manifest that is updated and stored electronically.

Customers who ride the Downeaster service -- about 500,000 passengers last year -- have quickly embraced the new option, Hardison says. He estimates that 90(PERCENT) of tickets issued for the route are now printed at home or are electronic versions.

For now, passengers traveling with tickets bought from travel agencies or for group travel will not be able to use e-tickets.

Amtrak plans to end those restrictions in 2013.

Amtrak's service comes more than three years after most major airlines stopped issuing paper tickets.

Hardison says Amtrak faced unique challenges in how tickets are verified. While airlines can verify a ticket in a secure environment at airport gates, train conductors are operating in a mobile setting on the train as it's moving and picking up tickets on board. Improving the reliability and security of the conductor's mobile scanning device was a hurdle, he says.

"We don't have gates like airlines do," Hardison says. "Conductors are picking up the ticket on board. In the last few years, mobile technology has matured enough that we can use it in a rail environment."

Bill Egert, president of SSE Technologies, a bar-code technology developer, says e-ticketing on moving trains is also more expensive because it requires a robust wireless system. "The level of complexity is higher," he says.

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