I’m writing this week’s column while riding Amtrak’s flagship train, the Acela Express, between Washington, D.C., and New York. In many ways, I love this train. But it can also disappoint me.
Let’s face it: Amtrak has to provide good enough service to have travelers pick it over flying, driving, or taking the bus, but it doesn't have to do much more. Multiple airlines and bus companies travel between Boston, New York, and Washington. But only one train line connects all three: Amtrak.
Leaving aside political questions of government funding (and if it’s not enough or too much), Amtrak is a monopoly. Since it controls the market share, it doesn't need to be an innovator or focus on customer service.
And that’s a shame, because Amtrak has a lot going for it, especially in the Northeast. If you're traveling from one city center to another, the train makes the most sense. It’s typically faster and more relaxing than the region’s congested highways. Unlike flying, you can show up 15 minutes before departure. Trains are rarely delayed by weather. And when’s the last time a train had to “circle” the station because of traffic?
Every seat has its own power outlet. Wi-Fi is free, although excruciatingly slow. (Cool feature: the log-on screen tracks your current location—perfect for travel geeks like me.) Trains are frequent, with 15 weekday Acela Express departures between New York and Washington and 10 between New York and Boston. There are also plenty of slower regional trains between those cities. And traveling by train is much better for the environment than driving or flying.
So why am I not a bigger fan? It’s a lot of little things.
Take seat assignments. You need a reservation to board any train in the Northeast, but that doesn’t guarantee you a seat with your traveling companions. In New York, Washington, and Boston, there’s often a mad dash to board the train first and secure two seats together. Some folks who don’t need help with their bags still seek out Red Cap assistance, knowing it will help them jump the line. (Access to Amtrak’s Club Acela lounge is another way to cut the line, either through direct doors to the platform or advance knowledge of track assignments.) For those boarding at stations in between the big cities, finding two adjacent seats on a busy day is nearly impossible.
Trains in Europe have advanced assigned seats. I’m not asking Amtrak to race across the country at the same high speeds that France’s TGV trains or Spain’s AVE trains do (though that would be nice). I’m just saying, how about a software update to provide passengers with better seating choices? Even my local movie theater now offers advanced assigned seats.
“Amtrak’s computerized reservation system is not presently set up to handle an assigned option,” Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole told me. “We are exploring options to upgrade the system, but don’t have any specifics or a time frame for implementation to share at this time.” At least they know the problem exists and are working on it.
They have made some significant improvements in other areas, though it’s taken a while. The introduction of e-tickets that you can print out from home or display from your smartphone came just in July of 2012—finally, passengers can skip the ticket window or kiosk and go straight to their gate. A few months ago, Amtrak allowed for e-vouchers from canceled trips to be redeemed online. Amtrak offers some of its best prices and promotions online; prior to this change, those redeeming vouchers couldn’t take advantage of those online deals.
The food in the café car could use some improvement, but the drink prices are reasonable (for a New Yorker, at least): $5.50 for a Bud Light, $7 for a Sam Adams, $8 for a Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA.
Then there’s the quiet car—a supposedly library-like environment where cell phones are prohibited and conversations must be kept to a whisper. It’s a brilliant introduction. Planes could use such sections, even if we still can’t use our cell phones. The problem: conductors don’t enforce it.
A lot of people ask me what I think about the merging of airlines and how it will impact travelers. It will surely lead to a more stable and profitable industry (and probably higher fares). But at a certain point, too few choices could mean that individual airlines won’t fight for our business.
Without that competition, it’s easy for Amtrak to feel complacent. And while there have been improvements, there’s clearly more work to be done.