Mobile ticketing has finally become a reality for some Chicago-area rail commuters, but not for Metra users.

Riders on the South Shore Line, which carries about 6,500 people a day between northwest Indiana and downtown Chicago, can now use their smartphones as their tickets, instead of paper tickets or passes, the railroad said.

By downloading a free app, South Shore passengers can buy and store tickets on their phones. When they board trains, riders simply show conductors their tickets on their phone screens.

Mobile ticketing is the hottest trend in mass transit, and the South Shore is one of only a handful of commuter rail agencies across the country to use the technology, experts say.

South Shore officials say the app’s primary benefit to customers is that it allows them to avoid having to pay for tickets at counters or vending machines, or from conductors on trains. Mobile ticketing also saves railroads the trouble and expense of dealing with cash.

“The bane of commuter railroads is cash sales on trains,” said South Shore General Manager Gerald Hanas. “We’re using every tool at our disposal to take cash fares off trains.”

A survey showed about 70 percent of South Shore customers have smartphones, Hanas said.

Metra, which has more than 300,000 weekday riders, says it plans to have a mobile-ticketing pilot program working by the end of the year. The commuter rail line has received a proposal from the CTA and Cubic Transportation Systems Inc., the company that provides the contactless Ventra cards, on a possible mobile-ticketing collaboration, spokesman Michael Gillis said.

State law requires Metra, the CTA and Pace to have a regional fare payment system in place by Jan. 1.

The South Shore, operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, partnered with New York City-based Bytemark to develop the app. Available for Apple iOS and Android devices, it can be downloaded through the App Store and Google Play or via the NICTD website,

After downloading the app, customers load information about their credit cards and ticket preferences. Riders can buy monthly passes, 25- or 10-ride tickets or one-way tickets.

The app also enables riders to register their transit benefit accounts, in addition to a credit card, and to split the cost of tickets between the two cards.

South Shore officials said a key factor in choosing the Bytemark system was that it enables conductors to visually check tickets, instead of other systems that require conductors to use hand-held scanners to validate bar codes or QR codes.

The app also offers train schedules with arrival times and a system map. The South Shore provides 41 weekday trains with 12 stops in Indiana as far east as South Bend and seven stops in Illinois, including Millennium and Van Buren Street stations.

Bytemark has created apps for Capital Metro, the regional public transportation provider in Austin, Texas, and the NY Waterway, a New York City-area ferry service.

NICTD paid Bytemark $50,000 for development of the app, and also gives the company a 2.75 percent sales fee.

Mobile-ticketing systems are already in use on other commuter railroads, including ones in Boston, New Jersey and Dallas.

(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Tags: apps, chicago
Photo Credit: The South Shore Line's mobile ticketing solution allows customers to get schedule information, purchase tickets and use their smartphone as an active ticket. iTunes