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.

  • duppie

    The reloading account feature might be a godsend. I got nearly kicked off a bus recently when the driver did not want me to recharge my account on the bus using their website. That website realistically takes a lot longer than 15 seconds.

    She told me that I had to get off the bus to recharge my account…

  • ScooterLibbby

    Metra has announced that the change to the $5 surcharge has been put on hold indefinitely, apparently until the new Ventra phone apps are up & running.

  • Anne A

    For those “running late” situations or when the line is just too long, yes, it will be good to have an option to pay on board without a surcharge.

    FYI – At many outlying stations, there is no attendant or vending machine at any time, so there is never a surcharge for paying on board after boarding at those stations. At many other stations, station attendants are only on duty on weekday mornings.

  • I forgot to add that the app can really help out with groups.

    You can buy as many tickets as you need for your group and use them all with the same phone.

    The conductor can inspect a single phone and validate every group member’s fare – think of the time that will save the conductors, allowing them to make sure they check everyone’s ticket.

  • Andy C.

    Any idea whether this app will work with UPass? For example, to load Metra/Pace fares or to load fare when school is not in session (and later, hopefully, to use the UPass with NFC)?

  • Whatever you can do on the website you’ll be able to do (faster) on the app.

    I don’t know about the NFC – I think that falls under the “CTA said they are looking at how they might include this and other features in future versions” line.

  • I’m hoping Cubic eventually supports adding Ventra cards in Apple Pay. (There were rumors several months back that they were in talks with Apple.) You can currently use any regular Apple Pay-supported credit card with Ventra, but that’s not very helpful if you have a UPass or use transit benefits that get loaded on your Ventra-branded card.

  • what_eva

    there are 2 vending machines at Ogilvie, they’re on the platform (ie through the revolving doors), at either end.

  • CL

    I don’t know how I survived without Ventra autoload. I haven’t had to think about my balance in months.

  • Thanks for letting me know.

    2 vending machines is hardly worth it. Train stations I’ve visited in Europe will have dozens of them. I don’t think we need dozens, but at least some amount commensurate with ridership. However, if Ventra can work as advertised, and be promoted well (so it’s picked up by 80% of the 5 million Ventra account holders), then the vending machine becomes obsolete.

  • what_eva

    They’re pretty small too, so they’re easily missed. I ride the UP-N here and there to Ravenswood to get to Lincoln Square or North Center must faster than the Brown Line (Divvy next to the station for last mile). The machines are totally hit and miss. Sometimes they’re out of service, sometimes the lines are long, other times I walk up and it’s quick.

    I’m definitely looking forward to seeing if the Ventra app works.

  • T.G. Crewe

    Great to see Metra finally getting on board! Perhaps then it will quiet the Ventra Critic’s a little bit.

  • BlueFairlane

    Functioning correctly would probably be enough to quiet Ventra critics.

  • T.G. Crewe

    Outside of the occasional hick up its pretty solid from my experience. Sure there are a few things that could be better but overall it works.

  • BlueFairlane

    It works now … mostly. Kind-of, in a shaky sort of way. It very much did not work when they rolled it out and for a long time afterward, and people (who aren’t technophiles) aren’t going to just forget that sort of thing. I don’t have much confidence in new technological schemes from these people. But if critic-silencing is a goal, this thing has to be flawless.

  • forensicgarlic

    I’m still mad they have these beautiful 480×640 color displays that still just say stop or go.

  • JeffParkNIMBY

    Can you buy 10 ride tickets?

  • Yes. Metra will be offering every current product through the app, including discount products like weekend fares and for senior citizens/military/high school students.

  • What should they say?

  • forensicgarlic

    One or all of the following:
    Amount deducted from the card
    Amount left on the card (days or dollars)
    Time left remaining on transfers
    Reasons for pass read failure
    common CTA requests (move to the back, stand for elderly / disabled, no food on the bus)

  • Does anyone have any recent news about this app? I’ve been looking, but haven’t been able to find any news articles later than April.

  • Awesome! Thank you! :)


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