Ventra adventure on Metra shows app has potential
Got the Ventra app loaded. Bought a Metra ticket. Activated the ticket. Now the moment of truth -- will my Metra conductor accept this virtual ticket as legal tender? Or will I be ejected in Westmont?
He gives the screen image of an e-ticket a nod, asks me to tap it and ... I'm in!
One small step for my smartphone, one giant step for Metra nation when the new Ventra app that allows people to buy fares on iPhones and Androids goes live later this fall.
What else can this bad boy do? It allows users to put money on their Ventra cards for Pace and CTA rides plus check arrival times for buses and trains on all three systems.
If you're wondering about virtual Pace and CTA tickets, they're in the works but months away.
Along with co-opting transportation reporters, the CTA, Pace and Metra enlisted about 300 people to test drive the new app and are fine-tuning based on recommendations.
I took the app for a spin with an iPhone last week on Metra's BNSF Line. You can purchase tickets through the app without having a Ventra card, but I found it more convenient to integrate my Ventra account into the process since it's got my credit card information.
The basic menu offers five choices: My Ventra Cards, which puts more money into an account and gives the ride history; Buy Metra Tickets; My Metra Tickets, where virtual tickets are stored; Transit Tracker, which includes information on bus and train arrival times; and Look Up Ventra Value, which shows the account balance.
Purchasing was pretty simple. Pick a train line, departure station, destination and type of fare. I had no problems buying a single ticket and a 10-ride pass, and I liked the option of splitting payments between Ventra and credit card accounts.
As someone with less than perfect eyesight, I found some fonts were a little too small or faint.
"We've already made several adjustments to font sizes, colors and displays," Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said.
The conductors took the e-ticket in stride; the real test will be with a rush-hour carload of app-waving passengers.
Metra advises passengers to activate their tickets just before boarding, which I did. I was able to exit the app and check email, then easily return to the ticket without it disappearing. As a means of preventing fraud, the ticket changes color when you tap it.
Once activated, tickets will expire in about 25 minutes on a short trip within a zone, for example, or in 125 minutes on the longest rides between Zones A and M. Expired tickets will be stored and can be pulled up for a period in case of lengthy delays.
The transit tracker was useful but dropped the ball on my morning train's tardiness arriving in Downers Grove.
"We are aware with some issues with the Metra tracker and those are being addressed," Gillis said.
Ventra customer service agents will be able to troubleshoot when the app launches, Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said.
The app is a big step in integrating Metra into the Ventra fold. Pace and the CTA made the leap in 2014, switching to a Ventra card system used interchangeably between both systems.
One more thing
After observing a fellow traveler pacing up and down muttering about cutting off fingers, I asked about creating a feature to inform authorities about unusual occurrences.
"That's an interesting idea," Gillis said. "It's something we can consider for the future."
The app debuts later this fall, and you'll be able to download it from Google Play or the App Store.
Will you use it? Let me know at email@example.com.
• If you can avoid the intersection of Algonquin and Barrington roads in South Barrington, do so. A widening project equals lane closures starting today. Completion date is ... May 2016.
• Don't even try to go on Gilbert Street at Route 25 in South Elgin as of Wednesday. It's closed for reconstruction until early November.
You should know
An appearance by Lake County leaders to plug the Route 53 extension at a tollway committee meeting Sept. 14 has irritated and galvanized project opponents. Expect a counter-spin at Thursday's board meeting.
Of course Naperville would be the city that gets the latest in high-tech engineering funkiness with a diverging diamond interchange opening today at I-88 and Route 59. If you've navigated the diamond, drop me an email and tell me how it went.
Hey budding artists ... you could win fame and prizes participating in Metra's safety poster and essay contest. This year's theme is "Make Safety Your Focus: Look, Listen and Live" near railway tracks. The deadline is Jan. 29. To learn more, go to metrarail.com/metra/en/home.html.