Craig Dilger for The New York Times
Since November, conductors on a few Amtrak routes have been learning to use modified iPhones as electronic ticket scanners.
Old-school train conductors are finally ready to give up their hole punchers to try something new: the iPhone.
Amtrak, the government-owned corporation that oversees the nation’s railroad train services, has been training conductors since November to use the Apple handset as an electronic ticket scanner on a few routes, including from Boston to Portland, Me., and San Jose, Calif., to Sacramento.
By late summer, 1,700 conductors will be using the devices on Amtrak trains across the country, the company said.
With the new system, passengers will be able to print tickets or load a special bar code on their smartphone screens for conductors to scan, and conductors will be able to keep track of passengers on board, Amtrak said.
“You don’t even need to print the document and bring it with you,” said Matt Hardison, chief of sales distribution at Amtrak, who helped plan the iPhone program. “We’ve made a number of important improvements for both our customers and Amtrak, all in one fell swoop.”
Amtrak joins a growing number of businesses that are using mobile devices to improve operations. Some pilots are using iPads to replace flight manuals in the cockpit, a few police departments are experimenting with using iPhones to identify suspects, and doctors are using iPads to access patient records and X-ray charts.
A digitized check-in process for trains seems long overdue in a world of online concert tickets and flight reservations. But the industry faces a particular challenge in that passengers hop on and off at different platforms at different times, unlike at an airport, where people check in at one gateway to board a flight, and then stay there until the flight arrives.
The old manual ticketing process — punching a hole in the ticket, putting it in a pouch and then sending it to a central location, where it is eventually scanned and entered into a database — was not very good at tracking passengers on board because of the delay between when the ticket was checked and when it was processed.
With the new iPhone-powered system, conductors can monitor passenger check-ins in real time. That will help them manage seating: if there are passengers who don’t show up, for example, it will be easier to fill empty seats with other passengers.
“When it was all a manual system there was a lot of guesswork involved,” said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which contracts with Amtrak to operate the train service from Boston to Portland.
Each conductor’s iPhone is equipped with a case containing an extra battery and a bar-code scanner, and has a special app to scan tickets but also to do much more.
For example, with the app, conductors can indicate to the engineer if a disabled person is getting on at a particular stop so that the train staff can be prepared to coordinate the track and the wheelchair lift.
The app also allows conductors to report equipment failures, like broken toilet fixtures, to mechanics.
For passengers, the new system means it will be easier to book or modify reservations. For example, if a rider discovered at the last minute that she had to take a train at a different time, she could make the change online or in Amtrak’s iPhone app, whereas previously she would have had to refund a ticket and buy a new one at a machine or through an agent.
The iPhone system costs Amtrak $ 7.5 million — $ 5.5 million for the software development and $ 2 million for the hardware, the company said.
Amtrak’s smartphone app for passengers is currently available only for iPhones, but the corporation said it was working on a version for Android devices, due for release by early fall. Users of other types of smartphones can still load their tickets through Amtrak’s mobile Web site.