London based Masabi developed the technology and manages the back end of the system. New York's Metro North Railroad piloted the ticketing technology earlier this year. Masabi is working with a number of other transit agencies in the U.S., but wouldn't say which ones. The company's technology is already being used in the U.K. by Virgin Trains and other rail companies.
"Their phone becomes their vending machine and their ticket," said director of innovation for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) Joshua Robin. "In just the first few days we've seen 7,000 downloads of the app and about $20,000 in tickets purchased."
The mTicket application could ease the frustration of both passengers and conductors. Less than half of the MBTA's 140 commuter rail stations have fare vending machines, which means customers boarding on those stops need to buy tickets on the train. If the stations do have vending machines and customers still opt to buy tickets on the train, there's a $3 surcharge. For conductors, mTicket means not having to handle the millions of dollars in fares collected every year. There would also be less debris in the train cars from punched paper tickets.
After downloading the app, riders can purchase their tickets, then activate them, which allows their smartphones to display a series of colored bars for the conductors to verify. There's also a QR code that can be scanned, but that won't happen for every rider, Robin said.
To see the mTicket app in action at Boston's North Station, watch a video on YouTube.
Riders to and from Boston's South Station will be able to buy tickets using the app by December and monthly passes will be rolling out soon, according to Robin.
"We know we're doing well because the biggest complaint is that it's not available for everything yet," Robin said.
Two years ago the MBTA developed an application that allowed commuters to track buses on their smartphones. Robin said that the mTicket application is the next step in the MBTA's vision "to allow customers to do just about any transaction on their phones."
Robin said that originally the MBTA wanted to bring its contactless payment system used on the subways and trolley cars, called Charlie Cards, to the commuter rail, but found that it would cost $70 million.
"We just want customers to be able to come up to the gate and use whatever device or whatever they already have in their wallets," he said.