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Buy Metra Tickets and Reload a Ventra Account With Upcoming App

Ventra app
The upcoming Ventra app will work on both Android and iPhones, and will offer, for the first time since at least 1996, the opportunity to buy Metra tickets on board without a surcharge.

Imagine this scenario: You're running late to catch Metra's UP-North Line to Rogers Park and, because the trains run so infrequently, you really need to make this run. You don't have a 10-ride ticket in your wallet, the line for a ticket agent is too long, there are no vending machines at Ogilvie Transportation Center, and the conductors will charge you a $3 surcharge (soon to be $5) if you buy a ticket from them.

Riders with an iPhone or Android smartphone will no longer experience that stressful situation after Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority, and Pace co-launch the Ventra app this year. For the first time in the last 20 years (at least) riders will be able to pay for their trip on board with a credit card as well as without a surcharge. Being able to buy Metra tickets electronically on the train is a significant new convenience for daily and casual riders that makes up for the limited and slow options off the train.

Last week, representatives from Metra and the CTA demonstrated core features of the app, which is still in development. In light of the Ventra card's extremely glitchy launch, I hesitate to say it, but my impression was that the new app worked quite well. During the demonstration, Tony Coppoletta, the CTA's external electronic communications manager and who is involved in the app's development, noted that "the plumbing is all there, and we're putting on finishing touches". The app works but there are still bugs to squash.

All three agencies understand that a successful app debut is important because of the botched Ventra launch two years ago. They're using an app developer, GlobeSherpa, that has created successful ticketing systems for other transit agencies, and they're taking testing seriously. So far, over 1,000 people have applied to test the app before the it goes public, and CTA spokesperson Catherine Hosinski said they've started "reviewing the responses to make our initial selection."

The Ventra app has an array of features that can be used with and without creating an account, and certain functions even work without a cellular or wifi connection. For riders who log in to their Ventra account through the app, they'll be able to access their account balance, buy CTA and Metra passes, load value from a bank card, turn autoload on and off, and buy and use Metra tickets and passes. Additionally, the Ventra app provides travel info from the CTA and Pace bus trackers, and CTA and Metra train trackers.

Essentially, Coppoletta said, "This puts a Ventra vending machine in your pocket." Even when riders are not signed into a Ventra account, they'll be able look up travel info and check an unregistered Ventra card's balance. They'll also be able to buy and use Metra tickets and passes by typing in a credit or debit card number. However these tickets purchased via an unregistered account won't be replaceable if the phone is lost or stolen. The system should work well for visitors want to purchase a Metra ticket with a credit card, but don't own a Ventra card.

Jeff Brantz, manager of schedules and service at Metra, said the app was designed to store tickets and passes on the phone, offline, because "we do have some dead spots [for cell phone service] in the Metra service area." This could be helpful for people with limited data plans, since you can turn on airplane mode after activating a ticket.

Riders should activate their ticket soon after they board. Then they can use other apps while they wait for the conductor to come by. The QR code on the screen can be scanned by the conductor, but scanners aren't required. While including the QR code was part of the agreement with Cubic Transportation Systems, the company behind Ventra, scanning the ticket is just one way to validate it.

Metra conductors will validate tickets by inspecting the on-screen animation and asking the rider to tap the screen, an action that changes its color. Brantz said that every type of ticket is available through the app, but those who use reduced fare will have to show the conductor proper ID.

While the app requires riders to have a smartphone, you don't need a credit or debit cards to benefit from it. Coppoletta described a scenario where a rider checks their Ventra account balance at home and "knows if [they] need to run into the CVS on the corner and top up [their] fare."

That fare, paid in cash at a retail vendor, can be used to pay for Metra tickets or Pace and CTA fare via the rider's Ventra card or a registered NFC-enabled smartphone. (The Ventra app doesn't enable using Apple Pay or Google Wallet as a funding source, but CTA said they are looking at how they might include this and other features in future versions.)

CTA's customer satisfaction survey in 2014 found that 78 percent of its customers have smartphones, including 75 percent of bus riders and 83 percent of train riders. The questionnaire didn't ask how many riders had an active data plan. Metra's Brantz said they have similar statistics for their customers. In the potential tester application, the CTA is asking if they applicant has a pre-paid or contract plan, to "make sure we have a diverse representation of our customers," Coppoletta explained.

There's one more way CTA and Pace bus riders can benefit from the app, he said. They can check account balance and load more transit value onto the Ventra account while waiting for the bus, or even on the bus – in less than 15 seconds, as our video shows – if they didn't have time to do so before they boarded.

If you're like the harried Metra rider in the scenario, download the app as soon as it's released – or even do it on the train – so that you'll never have to choose between waiting in line and missing a train, or paying $5 extra for a $3 ticket.

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