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Amtrak exec: Majority of tickets are redeemed electronically

As public transportation systems slowly shift over to mobile, Amtrak has been a leader in the space by offering mobile ticketing on almost all of its trains and buses and today boasts that the majority of its tickets are redeemed electronically.

Transportation has an obvious use case for mobile, with users able to easily pull out their phone and scan a ticket instead of having to waste time at stations purchasing a ticket and instead of having to remember a piece of paper. However, there are challenges inherent in extending mobile services to such far-reaching organizations where schedules can change at a minute's notice.

?Mobile ticketing has a host of challenges,? said Arthur Agin, director of mobile ecommerce at Amtrak. ?It took Amtrak several years to overcome these challenges to ensure that we are able to stand and retrieve customers? tickets while they?re mobile on the train.

?That is one challenge that Amtrak faces is that the actual scanning of a ticket does not take place in a fixed location,? he said. ?It takes place on a train while it?s moving.

?Because we rolled it out through the conductors and it?s really essential to the conductors themselves, all of our trains accept mobile ticketing except a few exceptions, a large number of our busses also accept mobile ticketing. The large majority of our tickets today are scanned on board through electronic tickets.?

Here, Mr. Agin discusses the challenges and successes the rail company has encountered with mobile.

How has mobile ticketing affected your operations?
Customers no longer have to stop at kiosks or ticket counters to pick up their tickets. That has allowed customers to book their tickets in a much more dynamic spur of the moment environment, so customers can jump onto, purchase a ticket, get to the station, pull out an iPhone, Android, Windows Phone app, pull up their ticket on that application and show it to the conductor. There?s no longer a need for stopping at a ticket counter or kiosk to print something out.

How does mobile ticketing impact your customers?
Customers engage with us more on the information than on the purchase. Much more the day of travel and as they travel. Customers still tend to purchase their tickets through their computer because that?s when they?re thinking about it. We take the perspective of we want to enable the customer to interact with Amtrak the way that they want to and the way that makes them happy. There are still a large number of customers purchasing tickets on mobile, and that number continues to grow, but customers tend to use mobile much more for things like finding the status of a train, finding directions to a station or pulling up the ticket they bought.

We built the capability to support other products in the marketplace so customers on iPhones can send the ticket to Passbook. They can get notifications or reminders to leave for the station. They can take their ticket and put a reminder on their calendar that says, ?Hey, time to leave for the station.? All these things are possible today on mobile.

What about benefits for Amtrak?
Really, customer satisfaction more than anything else. Customers love the ability to control what they?re doing, when they?re doing it and have these reminders. We allow customers with mobile tickets, right up until the train departs they can change it. If they get to the station early and they see that an earlier train is leaving in two minutes, they can be walking to the platform as they?re changing their ticket from the later train to the earlier train, make the change, get on board, the conductor scans it and everyone?s happy. When they make that change it is almost immediately synced with the conductor?s device. That flexibility ? customers love it.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in mobile ticketing?
Probably the biggest challenge we face is something faced by most companies, which is that the mobile environment is evolving very fast. From a customer perspective we have no ability to wait and see how things work out, especially when Apple?s releasing a major operating system update every year and Google is doing it every year or twice a year. These things impact us and we have to be on top of them otherwise our customers have a poor experience. When Apple releases a new operating system, we have a majority of our customers on that operating system within a day, and that?s just the environment that we live in.

What is different in the newest version of your iPhone app?
The biggest change is just the user interface, the experience of it. Apple released iOS 7 in September, and this application has completely adopted that dynamic, that look and feel. We?ve also looked at what customers are really doing with our application and brought those pieces to the front. This version lays the groundwork for us to continue to innovate for our customers. We?ve made it easier to find trains and access etickets. We?ve made sure station information is absolutely accurate. Our train status information is much more geared towards scenarios putting the information the customer wants clear and easy to find, so instead of just giving them a bunch of times, we just say on time, departed, whatever the status is, we want to make it very clear and easy to see.

How do you help consumers checkout more easily on such a small screen?
That?s why it?s so important to have a good experience as you?re selecting the trains because you have very little real estate to communicate a lot of information. You also don?t want to hide critical functionality. We?ve brought the ability to utilize your discounts to the forefront.

The other area that our application does is that if you have an account, when you log in on your smartphone everything goes better because as you are booking your ticket we?re going to take your information from your account and pre-populate it for you so you don?t have to enter your name on this tiny keyboard we put it there. We know who you are, so we?re going to bring that in to make it easier.

Our application is also built on the existing interfaces for the operating system so that it?s a familiar experience for the customer. They don?t have to learn how to use the keyboard because keys are in a different position, we are using what?s built into the operating system. It makes life easier for us and for the customers.

How do you simplify the checkout flow for non-members?
You?re able to select and then retain your favorite stations, and most people are leaving from the same states. Those pieces are there for customers whether they?re logged in or not. A lot of thought went into how can we speed things up for customers who are logged in, but also make it a good experience for those who are not.

Final Take
Rebecca Borison is editorial assistant on Mobile Marketer, New York