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T conductors turn to iPhones for updates

When a commuter rail train is delayed, riders with smartphones often know more about what is happening than their conductors, armed only with ­radios.

Not anymore. Twenty-four conductors, banned by federal and MBTA rules from ­using or even carrying phones, are now armed with Conductor Companions, specially programmed iPhone 4s that cannot send texts or e-mails, download applications, browse the ­Internet, or make calls, except to 911.

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But conductors can run a special application that provides train locations, messages from dispatchers, and schedules and track information for the commuter rail and other T lines.

Gillian Wood, chief customer service officer for the company that operates the MBTA’s commuter rail, said the phone is the first of its kind on a US commuter railroad, but resembles conductor tools in Europe. It grew out of conversations between company managers and the conductors’ union that under­scored the communication gap aboard trains.

Relying on catch-as-catch-can radio chatter means conductors may know the reason their own train has slowed or stopped, but little else. “You might not necessarily know what’s going on 40 miles in front of you,” Wood said.

Ray Toole, a conductor for 21 years, called the device a game-changer. “Everyone’s on the same page immediately,” he said.

The Conductor Companion could allow conductors to shed the groaning binders they lug aboard trains, chock-full of operating regulations, customer service bulletins, and ­other memos and rules issued by government agencies and rail companies that oversee or share the track. All of that is being loaded onto the phones in searchable form.

The pilot program is divided between North and South Station conductors and will be evaluated after three months for potential expansion to all conductors.

The Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co., vying to retain a contract that pays nearly $300 million a year, said it spent about $100,000 on the phones and the appli­cation, created by the Boston app development firm Raizlabs.

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