Editorials

What Online Ticketing can Mean for Rail Travel

For the last few years Amtrak has had online ticketing. This means that when you get your “ticket” from an Amtrak agent, you actually get a piece of paper with a bar code. You could also print out such a “ticket” at home online with Amtrak on your computer. On the train the conductors carry a small phone size computer with a bar code reader. Today instead of pulling tickets and holding on to ticket stubs, the conductor just “reads” the bar code on the ‘ticket”.

Don’t have a ticket? No problem now on Amtrak, if you have a smartphone. The conductor will ask you to use your smartphone to go to the Amtrak website and buy the ticket online. Then the conductor will read your bar code from your phone.

Paperless online ticketing has been around for some time and used for years by the airlines. It is now used by most intercity bus companies. Besides Amtrak, the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) and Coaster commuter trains of San Diego County have their own online ticketing. Metrolink which has been in the news about their problems with their ticket machines has announced they will start their own online ticketing soon. In the Bay Area, BART and Caltrain along with most of the transit services in the Bay Area accept the Clipper Card. With the Clipper card local passes for different agencies and cash credit for buying tickets on ticket machines can be bought online.

So what could we do if all rail, transit and intercity bus services had a standard, online and paperless ticketing system that could be used to provide seamless transfers between these different travel modes in California? Besides simplifying accounting for ticket sales, speeding up ticketing and costing less, online ticketing would make it very simple to buy tickets with transfers between trains and between buses and trains. This would create seamless ticketing between different travel modes.

All the information on how to get to where you want to go from where you are could be programed and found online.This is what you find on websites to make airline reservations. Need a day pass on LA Metro after you get off Amtrak? Want to travel from Claremont to Santa Barbara? Online find out the connections between Metrolink and Amtrak and pick which times you want to travel. You could buy tickets online at home or when on the run, then load the bar codes i on your phone. The main advantage of providing one step online ticketing to different modes is it will allow more people to get around California seamlessly without a car. With such easy online ticketing, transportation providers would be encouraged to improve connections between each other to increase their ridership. The net result would be more convenience and less confusion for the traveling public.

This can be set up by existing private companies that are already doing this for the airlines. When ordering airline tickets online, you have plenty of choices for prices and connections for travel. You are also encouraged to make reservations for hotels and car rentals all at the same time. The airlines for years have based prices for tickets on demand to get the most income. This means charging higher fares during busy travel times. It also includes offering discounts during times when business is slower. Discounts often fills up seats that otherwise would have gone empty. The result of this is more income for the airlines. Such ticketing could improve the income of rail services and transit.

Such services are common for most other travel today with online, paperless ticketing. It will simplify ticketing for existing services. For example Metrolink is having increasing problems with their ticketing machines. They are old, slow and often malfunction. There are not enough of them at some stations and often some of them are not working. The result is passengers fear they will miss their train while waiting to buy their tickets. As long as passenger want or need to buy tickets with cash there will be a need for ticketing machines.

But for many travelers, particularly those making transfers between different services, online ticketing will help open new markets to more passengers. This will also reduce the need for more ticketing machines when people can buy tickets with their smart phone before boarding or even on the train.

Such a state-wide online transportation ticketing network should be in place before the start up of High Speed Rail in California. High Speed Rail will be a major trunk service in the middle of California. For people to take full advantage of High Speed Rail, it needs a network connecting branch services so people can travel quickly throughout the State and beyond. With High Speed Rail service coming to several California airports, connections with airlines will also be needed. For any traveler use to flying, online reservations for connecting travel and lodging is the norm.

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