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Metra plans to scan tickets on riders’ smartphones

A Metrtraconductor collects fares checks tickets 5:15 p.m. outbound North Line traThursday Sept. 1 2011 Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

A Metra train conductor collects fares and checks tickets on a 5:15 p.m. outbound North Line train Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 7, 2013 1:27PM

Metra is looking at ways to let conductors scan tickets on smartphones and will have a better sense of a revamped ticketing system by next fall, the commuter rail agency’s chief said Wednesday.

Metra CEO Alex Clifford told the Regional Transportation Authority that a pilot program next summer will find out which technology is best to transition Metra’s fare into a universal fare system along with Pace and the CTA. But he said smartphone technology seems to be in the cards.

“We do know that it’s cost prohibitive and not likely a good outcome to go out and invest in a bunch of gates and lock down our system. Many of our stations you couldn’t even get into. That’s just not possible,” Clifford said. “We’re not going to have that sort of tap on, tap off system in that respect, but what we do know is that we’re seeing some good evidence that smartphone technology is working.”

Metra plans to hire a consultant to develop the technology, then unveil a pilot program by summer. A bid would be issued for aspects of what the system would look like.

“We might need to add on to that, but by next fall we should have a fairly good idea on how the test pilots work and what we’ll be doing in the future,” Metra planning chief Lynette Ciavarella said.

Conductors would scan tickets on riders’ smartphones. If a rider travels for more than one zone, a conductor would place a card under the clip to reflect that so the rider’s ticket wouldn’t be scanned twice.

Clifford said things haven’t been easy for Metra in the quest to come up with a universal fare card, which is mandated by 2015. CTA and Pace customers will begin using the joint Ventra Card in the summer.

But Metra’s fare is based on distance traveled, not a flat fare. Clifford said Metra can’t use the contactless payment Ventra Card, and won’t spend money on adding turnstiles or gates that would allow for the tap on, tap off technology.

“My caution at this point has been because of this window that we’re in right now, trying to figure out what our next generation of fare media and fare collection looks like, my caution is let’s not go out and just resolve that problem today and invest millions of dollars . . . to try to put two ticket vending machines at every station,” Clifford said. “My caution has been, let’s live with what we have for just a short while while we resolve what this will look like, because there is a possibility that whatever the future looks like, you might not need a ticket vending machine at all.”

Clifford also told the RTA that an aggressive campaign to ensure that conductors are actually collecting Metra fares seems to be paying off.

The number of monthly complaints of conductors not collecting fares has dropped from a high of 99 in September of 2011 to as few as two a month, Clifford said.

The decrease followed a fall 2011 campaign, asking riders to be sure to pay their fares and to alert Metra if they saw a conductor who wasn’t collecting fares.

Metra followed up on complaints by sending undercover riders out to monitor collections, resulting in discipline for a handful of conductors, Clifford said.

“The overwhelming majority of conductors were doing the job right,’’ he said.

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