Putting Train Payments On The Fast Track

Collecting train tickets, opening and closing coach doors, ensuring passengers’ safety and various other duties are all part of a busy commuter rail conductor’s workflow. That can all grind to a halt, however, if a tourist, new resident or someone unfamiliar with the system wants to buy a ticket onboard the train, rather than in advance, as most travelers do.

The approximately 127,000 daily passengers on the Boston commuter rail have had a few payment options, but, until recently, paying for a ticket with credit or debit cards while onboard was not one of them. A customer without a pre-purchased ticket would have to buy one with cash – or, if he wasn’t carrying physical currency, would need to download and pay through an app or have the conductor write out a post-ride payment form to mail for reimbursement.

“It’s something of an arcane process,” acknowledged David Walker, director of revenue and marketing for Keolis Commuter Service, which operates the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA)’s commuter rail.

Ticket payment options are finally coming up to speed, though, as Keolis seeks to both respond to consumer demand and gather better payment data — information that can inform future efforts to increase ridership. The company is currently rolling out a new mPOS solution to the MBTA commuter rail, the fifth largest in North America.

Walker and Ric Salvatici, the company’s vice president of digital solutions, recently spoke with PYMNTS about how Keolis worked to offer an mPOS shaped to conductor and rail operators’ particular needs.

Creating for Conductors

Commuter rail riders can pre-purchase tickets at in-station kiosks, ticket offices, online or through a mobile app. Those without the MBTA app who planned to buy once onboard previously had to furnish cash to purchase a paper ticket from a conductor. That’s an inconvenience for conductors, who are not always safe carrying large cash volumes, and commuters, who must remember to bring hard currency.

“[First-time customers] don’t know they have to use cash,” Salvatici explained. “That sometimes creates a problem for our conductors, who are then left with a choice of what to do when somebody just came with a credit card.”

He estimates that 70 to 80 percent of passengers who currently use cash will switch over to cards once given the opportunity. This may be a small portion of the commuter rail’s overall ridership, however, as only about 5 to 7 percent of customers purchase tickets onboard, according to Walker. These tend to be occasional riders; regular commuters often rely on paper tickets that can be purchased and reloaded at train stations, and 33 percent of passengers use the mobile app.

First piloted in February, the new mPOS solution supports quick ticket sales, allowing conductors to quickly move on to serve the next customer. There can be more than 120 people per coach car, Walker said, a situation further complicated because customers’ fares are often determined by their arrival and departure zones. Making transactions move more quickly meant the mPOS solution had to allow conductors to enter this information with as few clicks as possible, Salvatici added.

Keolis wanted to find a solution that integrated with conductors’ existing handheld devices, further easing the payment method transition by keeping them from having to learn a new system.

Conductors already carry modified iPhones to receive notifications and operational information, Salvatici said, so Keolis found a system from mPOS solutions provider e-Nabler that would enable them to use the same interface with which they were already accustomed. After a few test runs, the operator also settled on a slimmer Bluetooth printer model, which would more easily fit on conductors’ belts.

Dialing up Data

Spurring the initiative was a new agreement between Keolis and the MBTA, one calling for the former to take on more responsibility for increasing revenue and ridership, Walker said. To lay the foundation for these efforts, the commuter rail operator needed more insightful data than it could gather from paper tickets, making the ability to collect deeper information also crucial to the new mPOS system.

Collected paper tickets were previously tallied once a month, providing a limited view into ridership and sales. With the mPOS solution, however, Keolis can collect details such as the times when riders are riding, the routes they’re using and whether the trip is on a weekday or weekend, Walker said. This can help inform which products to offer, such as discounted weekend tickets. The mPOS system also needed to provide raw data Keolis could integrate with monthly pass and mobile app ticket sale information, Salvatici said, giving the operator a full view of revenue intake.

If all goes as planned, it may not be too long before commuter rail payments are traveling at the speed of mPOS.



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