The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority this fall plans to pilot a mobile ticket-buying system for its rail commuters designed to cut cash-handling costs and generate useful data about riders' habits.

Customers will be able to buy tickets for outlying commuter rail lines through a smartphone application developed by London-based mobile ticketing technology provider Masabi US Ltd., according to an April 23 release.

Masabi's agreement with the authority encompasses a one-year pilot and includes a small group test this summer, Masabi CEO Ben Whitaker tells PaymentsSource.

The authority already operates the contactless Charlie Card smart card system for its subway and bus riders, but expanding it to the authority's commuter rail and parking operations was not feasible for a variety of financial and operations reasons, Joshua Robin, authority director of innovation and special projects, tells PaymentsSource.

More than half of the transit authority’s commuter rail stations have no ticket-vending machines, says Robin, forcing passengers to pay for tickets with cash onboard the train. Conductors now handle more than 200,000 cash transactions annually, a spokesperson tells PaymentsSource.

Masabi, which has partnerships with 11 rail systems in the United Kingdom, won the opportunity to conduct the pilot last year in what marks its first U.S. venture.

Over the next few months, Masabi plans to customize its core app to incorporate the Massachusetts rail routes and rates, while the authority begins marketing the app.

Users may download the app to their Blackberry, Android or iPhone devices. They then enter the name of the rail station where their trip originates, plus their destination and select fare options such as one-way, round trip and passenger pricing category. To complete the transaction, the user enters a credit or debit card account number plus the card verification code, and presses "enter."

Masabi's system immediately sends the ticket to the customer's mobile phone via a texted barcode conductors can scan.

Tickets must be activated by completing the transaction before the journey, which marks them as used, so they cannot be used again.

To prevent fraud, tickets are color-coded, and the colors are changed almost continuously, with at least one complete color switch every few minutes, says Whitaker.

“Guards have their own mobile phone application as a reference, so when they get to the beginning of the car, they can quickly check what the current colors are,” Whitaker says, preventing fraudsters from using fake images of tickets on mobile devices.

There is no hardware involved in the pilot, only software, says Robin.

The app also does not store card information, in case the phone is lost or stolen, he says. Agencies using Masabi’s mobile-ticketing system can use commuter trip data to plan train schedules more accurately and provide relevant updates to commuters, Whitaker says.

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