Amtrak Downeaster rolls out electronic tickets, improved Wi-Fi

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PORTLAND — For decades, railroad conductors have walked the aisles of moving trains, punching passengers’ tickets.

The routine is probably as old as passenger trains themselves.

For Wayne Davis, founder of the TrainRiders/Northeast rail advocacy group, the discarded hole punches told a story.

“A lot of things in my lifetime have changed,” the 76-year-old Brunswick resident said. “You could always tell how busy a train was by all of the little paper spots on the carpeting.”

But that simple act is a thing of the past now on Amtrak Downeaster between Portland and Boston.

Amtrak this month rolled out a new e-ticketing system that allows passengers to print their tickets at home. Each ticket has a bar code, which the conductor will scan using an iPhone.

The new system is designed to make it easier and more convenient to ride the train.

Under the old system, riders would receive a receipt for their tickets, either by printing it out at home or from an information window at the station. Those receipts would be redeemed for train tickets at a station kiosk. If the ticket was lost, the passenger was out of luck.

But with the e-tickets, passengers can show the conductor the bar code on their smart phones. If a rider loses a printout or cannot present it on their phone, they can print out another copy at an Amtrak kiosk.

Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which operates the Downeaster, said the new system will also allow NNEPRA to know exactly how many riders are on a train at any given time, as well as where they get on and off. Under the old system, train receipts were collected at the end of the month and shipped to El Paso, Texas, for processing.

For now, e-tickets are only available for one-way travel between Portland and Boston. Riders continuing beyond Boston, or using multi-ride tickets, group tickets or tickets purchased through a travel agency or corporate office will still have to use the old, paper method.

Amtrak said in a press release that the new ticketing system will be expanded to all its trains next year.

Downeaster conductor Jason Dunigan, 30, of Westbrook, said the iPhone has been embraced by his fellow conductors. Now, rather than spending his time counting tickets, conductors can be better ambassadors for the train, he said.

“We’re so much quicker getting through the tickets, which is good because it gives us more time to spend with the riders, answering questions,” Dunigan said. “I’ve noticed I’m starting to get to know the riders more now.”

Wi-Fi

Passengers may also notice a stronger Wi-Fi signal on board the Downeaster.

Quinn said the NNEPRA has been offering Wi-Fi on the Downeaster since 2008, but she admitted “it was not the best.”

When there were a lot of passengers, the train would run out of bandwidth, which would irritate commuters trying to get some work done on the 2 1/2-hour ride between Boston and Portland.

But Quinn said Amtrak is now offering hard-wired Wi-Fi on all its trains. “It’s a much, much, much more robust system that provides the Internet to more passengers,” she said.

The new Wi-Fi system picks up signals from all cell phone towers between Portland and Boston, rather than being limited to one carrier.

“We tried really hard – (the old system) was better than nothing,” Quinn said. “But this is far superior.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

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