Conductor’s Punch: Obsolete?

On most railroad systems, passengers present their tickets to train crew who walk the aisles, making holes in the ticket with their time-honored punches.  (Some systems collect fares automatically at stations, and NJT uses magnetically-coded tickets at Newark Airport and Secaucus Junction.)  However, the days of the old punch may be numbered.  Brian X. Chen, writing in the New York Times  (May 7), reports that Amtrak is trying a new approach: instead of punching the ticket, the conductor simply scans the ticket electronically, using a modified iPhone.  Not only is the new system faster than the manual punch, it allows Amtrak’s headquarters to know instantly how many people are on each train and adjust equipment and sales accordingly.  The customer need not even have a paper ticket: the conductor can simply scan an image of the ticket from the customer’s own smartphone.  The new system seems long overdue in an age where airlines have long used automatic check-in, but railroads are unusually challenging to automate, given the many stops, with passengers frequently boarding and detraining.  Amtrak is initially deploying the new system between Boston and Portland, Maine, and between San Jose and Sacramento, California.  By late summer, Chen writes, 1700 Amtrak conductors will be using automatic scanners across the country.

The Lackawanna Coalition believes that accurate collection of fares and reliable data regarding train usage are essential to efficient management of any transportation system.