Railroad Readies Onboard Ticket Validation System: Oracle implementation represents paradigm shift.

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The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA) manages an Amtrak intercity passenger train service in eight Northern California counties, partnering with Amtrak, the Union Pacific Railroad, and Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation. Serving 16 stations along a 170-mile rail corridor, CCJPA offers a convenient way to travel between the Sierra Foothills, Sacramento, the San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose and the rest of the Silicon Valley.

Although the train runs through one of the most technologically advanced regions of the country, the procedure through which tickets are collected and processed closely resembles the process used in the 19th century. Conductors walk through the cars collecting and punching tickets, creating reconciliation reports by hand at the end of the run. But that is about to change. Committed to continually improving customer service and security, CCJPA is in the process of implementing California's first real-time ticket sales and validation system on its trains.

The roots of the project run back several years. At that time, the CCJPA installed point-of-sales terminals in the café car on each train. "You could track inventory; you could track sales; we had revenue control. It gave us better management of the process," said Dave Kutrosky, the CCJPA's deputy director.

With that success, the agency decided that it was time to bring other processes into the 21st century. "We felt that was a step in the right direction," Kutrosky said. "So we wanted to see what we could do with ticketing and online ticket validation."

The train tickets have bar codes and ticket numbers. "We wanted to be able to track who is using our train; when were they getting on our train; when were they getting off our train; and what kinds of ticketing they are were using," Kutrosky said. While that information was available after the fact from Amtrak, the CCJPA wanted to more closely track actual usage. "Because the tickets had bar codes, we came up with the idea to use a bar code scanner to see who was on the train immediately," Kutrosky said.

In addition to other advantages, having a real-time passenger manifest would be critical if a train was subject to a terrorist attack or another type of catastrophe. "We would need the names immediately for recovery," Kutrosky said.

The idea was this. Ticket information would be captured in a handheld unit used by conductors and then transferred via the Verizon cellular backbone to a remote server. "If a train derails, we would know immediately who was on that train," Kutrosky said.

The first step was to meet with Amtrak, which provided the trains, crews and back-end management support to the CCJPA. While Amtrak officials were enthusiastic about concept, it was less clear to them how the project could be implemented given Amtrak's technological infrastructure. Amtrak kicked the project back to the CCJPA, which developed a basic system architecture laying out how the information would move from a handheld device to a remote server and then to the Amtrak servers. "The handheld units would hold the bar codes and live ticket numbers and the rest of the passenger information would be in the remote servers," Kutrosky said.

Once the basic architecture was in place, CCJPA issued a request for proposals (RFP). Ultimately, Innowave Technology, a premier Oracle consulting firm with expertise with the Oracle E-Business Suite, PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards as well as Oracle Fusion middleware, won the contract. "We went through a rigorous selection process and wound up with the Innowave-Oracle team," Kutrosky said.

CCJPA made that selection because it sees the ticketing project as a springboard and foundation for a long list of additional projects. "They were able to provide the hardware and the software that would allow us to expand our core business needs, lead to operating efficiencies and support our CRM program that we are trying to develop to be more responsive to our customers' needs," Kutrosky said. "The Capital Corridor is ranked number one in the Amtrak system for customer service. We want to make sure our customers are happy."

For its part, Innowave felt that the RFP played into its strengths. "I felt that requirements dictated an Oracle-based solution," said Mike Adams, vice president for business development at Innowave. The new solution had to be "something that could handle the failover, disaster recovery, the integration with Amtrak's systems and the reporting. And we 'get' Fusion middleware and why SOA makes sense. We can integrate with anything so they can start with this footprint and add on various services." Finally, the CCJPA provided specific service level agreements, which Adams felt comfortable that the solution could meet.

The solution Innowave is putting in place includes the Oracle SOA Suite, Oracle Database and Oracle Real Application Clusters on Linux. "These are building blocks," Adams said. "You have business agility, reusable code and horizontal and vertical scalability."

When the system is fully in place, conductors will scan customer tickets and a Bluetooth printer will produce a time-stamped seat check that includes the train number and destination. "That will help protect against fraud," said Kutrosky. "Right now, there is no time stamp on the seat checks." Onboard ticketing will be automated within the handheld unit. And once a bar code is read, the system will know that the ticket has been used and will not be able to be used again. The entire workflow is managed within the Oracle SOA Suite and its BPEL process manager. "We can create and modify business rules almost on the fly," Kutrosky noted.

Once the data is captured, it can be queried via Oracle Discoverer, Oracle's business intelligence technology. The CCJPA team will be able to generate a wide range of reports. For example, for each train, an end-of-the-run report has to be completed. Currently, this report requires conductors to complete several pages of paperwork. With the new system, the end-of-run report will consist of a single print-out. "We will be able to provide the number of people who got on and off at each station," Kutrosky said. "Right now, that is a manual process. And then it has to be faxed somewhere and a clerk has to type it into another system." The new system will cut labor costs considerably while improving data quality and accuracy.

This Oracle-based implementation represents a paradigm shift for the CCJPA, according to Kutrosky. "We are going from smoke signals to something that is wireless and bypassing everything else," he said.

The system could have a serious impact on operations. Train travel is up and the new system will help CCJPA respond to the increased demand and better understand its customers and why they use the service. "We have to be able to dig deeper to better understand their needs," Kutrosky said. "In the transit business, for every dollar you spend to retain a customer, you have to spend seven dollars to obtain a new rider." With a lot of new riders trying the service for the first time, retaining them is essential.