Tracking Trains

Reverse Engineering and Hacking Text Messages for Great Good

Tagged: Software

I’ve been regularly commuting between Philly and DC on Amtrak for over six months now. Being in the Northeast corridor—the only profitable region in Amtrak’s network—and specifically being in the NYC↔Philly↔Washington trifecta that accounts for about a third of Amtrak’s overall nationwide ridership, the service is generally excellent. Not Shinkansen excellent, but good enough to take me where I need to go in relative comfort, in a third less time than would be necessary to drive. And in English, too, so I can die with a smile on my face, without feelin’ like the good Lord gypped me.

For a pseudo-public entity, Amtrak does a surprisingly good job keeping up with the technological times. It’s had free WiFi on its trains for a number of years, the conductors scan tickets using ruggedized iPhones, and its iOS app lets me store and organize my myriad tickets in Passbook. One can even present tickets via an Apple Watch.

The one gripe I have about the system is that, despite Amtrak’s excellent online tools for tracking the exact location of trains, there is no good way to get useful train status alerts. I often work at a location ~45 minutes outside of DC, so I want to know whether my train is delayed before I depart for the station.

The Southbound trains I take from Philadelphia originate in either New York or Boston. Therefore, I want to get an alert texted to my phone when the train has departed New York. If it departed New York on time, then I can proceed as normal. If it was delayed, then I can hit the snooze button. If it didn’t even leave yet, then I know that it will be at least an hour before it arrives in Philly.

The first thing I had to do was figure out a way to send text messages for free. Every major cellular provider has some sort of gateway service where an E-mail sent to the proper address will be forwarded to the associated phone number. Therefore, I created a simple Python library (in pure Python; no dependencies) for sending free (to the sender) text messages to phones from every major international carrier:

Next, I had to reverse engineerdevise a way to get accurate train status updates. This was relatively straightforward, but I hesitate to go into details because it might implicate me in several terms-of-use violations.

I pieced this all together into a new service that I have been using and allowing several fellow commuters to beta-test for the past couple months. I’m excited to release it to the public now:

This website has no affiliation with any railways or train operators. If you are a railway or train operator, please keep in mind that this is a toy website created by a single guy with altruistic motives. Please don’t sue me. Instead, let’s talk about how I can give you what I’ve created here so that you might host it and provide it as a service for your customers.

No profit is made off of the services on this website. In fact, I lose money by running it. Therefore, there are certain concessions that have been made due to lack of fuding. Namely, there is the possibility that a malicious party could illegally intercept the messages sent between a user’s web browser and this server, potentially altering his or her account and alerts. I have implemented as many security features as possible to protect against this, but in order to be almost foolproof I would need to host the site on SSL, which requires money. If you desire additional security and features, please consider donating.

Enjoy, and please drop me a line if you find the service useful!

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