How Would You Make the Amtrak Experience Better?

Scott Mayerowitz wishes for a better Amtrak experience in the Northeast corridor.

Here are his complaints.

  • Slow internet connectivity. I don’t need wireless internet flying US Airways between Washington National and LaGuardia or Boston (though they have it, and paying for monthly unlimited inflight internet anyway I use it). But on a two and a half hour train ride in the middle of the business day it’s much more important. I usually use my own wireless solution, because Amtrak’s is unreliable.

  • No advance seat assignments. Amtrak didn’t used to require advance reservations at all for some trains, now even regional trains require that. But advance reservations don’t mean seat assignments, and during peak times you have to sprint, bribe, or access the train via Amtrak’s lounge to get seats together if traveling as a couple.

  • The food is awful. Scott actually says “could use some improvement” but the truth is far harsher. Still, as US Airways elite frequent flyers know, two and a half hour trips do not require meals. So this concern is minor.

  • Conductors don’t enforce quiet in the quiet car.

Since I don’t start off in downtown DC (I live and work in Arlington) I don’t find the train to be more convenient than flying. There are plenty of people who swear by downtown-to-downtown. Goodness knows the seven most frustrating words in the English language have to be, “We’re currently number thirty seven for takeoff.”

The Amtrak experience could be better — and that could bring over incremental business travel away from the airlines, and so improvements could even help the railway’s bottom-line.

How would you improve the Amtrak experience?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “and so improvements could even help the railway’s bottom-line”

    So could eliminating 95% of their routes

  2. Well for a start turn Acela into a real high speed train. Acela is certified for 165mph but it’s average operations speed between DC and Boston is only 67mph, barely faster than the Northeast Regional. If they can double the speed then it’s going to be a solid competitor to air travel.

  3. Amtrak is one of the few great bipartisan causes in America. Doesn’t matter what side of the isle you are on, if you are from anywhere other than the east coast your only concern is keeping Amtrak’s funding limited since it doesn’t benefit your constituents yet preserving whatever meager and horribly expensive rail service exists in your district or state. Of course, the majority of Congress is made up of these people since most Americans don’t live on the east coast.

    This is why I believe Amtrak will never reach its true potential. I think the best outcome would be to kill Amtrak and get rid of the huge network over most of the nation that very few people actually ride. Then let the northeastern states form a multistate compact to service the Portland to Richmond corridor that Amtrak actually does profitably.

  4. Purely price. As an Amtrak leisure traveler, Amtrak is competing with both airlines and Boltbus/Megabus. You can hold the sandwich (or charge more), and keep the wifi as is.

    On the seats incidentally, I find the current system to be much better than having reserved seats. Most trains I’m on will have empty seats, which is definitely more pleasant. For a short trip, it’s also nice to be able to just sit where there is a seat available, rather than having to walk the entire train to find a certain seat.

  5. The fundamental problem with Amtrak is that, even in the Northeast, we are fundamentally a suburban society with lots of cars and (relatively) cheap gasoline. So we don’t take many “downtown to downtown” trips. This means that for most travelers, driving or (for longer distances) flying will always be more convenient. There is no price point at which Amtrak can offer service that would be better than these alternatives for most people.

  6. 1: Look beyond the Northeast Corridor. It is absolutely absurd that the NE Corridor stops at Boston South Station and the Downeaster picks up at North Station. There should be a means for through traffic, or at least having both lines terminate at the same station.

    2: This is from the perspective of a former Arlingtonian (is that a word?) and now a Portland, Maine, area resident. Look at the Downeaster and model some of that. The food isn’t world class, but an Amato’s sandwich and a Shipyard Export hit the spot after a long day. I believe Maine requires a proportion of local catering as part of its funding. Try some local options from up and down the line to get better food/beer on board. The business class car (which costs me a whopping $8 each way to Boston) starts me with a cup of coffee and a newspaper.

    3: Make the Acela high speed. Actual high speed. It’s not really faster than a regular regional train right now.

    4: Did I mention that if I could take the train directly from Portland to Philly, I would, provided that it was comparable to airfare?

    5: The NE Corridor needs assigned seating. Too often, even as a single traveler getting on somewhere other than the origin, you have a full train by virtue of people spread out over 2 seats with their crap in the other seat and them sleeping or pretending to. Assign seats or enforce one seat per customer.

  7. The first issue is, as Paul noted, Acela isn’t a real high-speed train. There is a total savings of about 30 minutes by taking the Acela over the NE Regional from BOS-NYP. The price is usually at least 3x that of the regional for a 30 minute time savings. I still don’t understand why companies and individuals feel the need to take this service over the more frequent regional train (Which I feel has more comfortable seats, although does have more kettles).

    Secondly, the pricing must be fair. There is really no incentive for one to take the train from BOS-NYC anymore as the bus is only 30 minutes longer and basically costs 20$ each way. I personally hate the bus, but if I was traveling for leisure, I’d gladly take the 20$ fare over the 120$ fare for a one-way BOS-NYC. The bus wifi is horrible, but again, it’s such a short trip. Last minute pricing isn’t much better, although it is better than the planes which are only comparably priced if booked well in advance.

    Third, the train must actually work. I was traveling NYP-PVD last week and the train broke down at the South Norwalk Metro-North station. They expected us to sit there and wait 2 hours and get on the next train. We were all standing on the platform when suddenly the conductor shouted ‘we got it to work, everyone back on the train’. Great professional service there….

  8. 25000 UR to get a family of four from Minneapolis to New Orleans in a sleeper car with food included does not need improvement.

  9. For me to ride Amtrak regularly, my door-to-door time must be “fast” or my ride must be cheaper.

    The problem we have in this country is low population densities, cheap gas, and cheap parking. Roughly 90% of the Washington DC MSA lives outside of the city boundaries. I’m not even trying to split hairs by a contorted definition of “down town”. DC itself has a little more than 600,000 residents, and the MSA is about 5.8 million.

    Heck, we even have three airports in this region. They’re easier to get to and parking is cheaper than Amtrak.

  10. Forget experience…new draconian refund rules will start on March 1, 2014. Coupled that with lack of IRROPS management even for their best customers is going to turn into a nightmare!! Amtrak management may think they are competing with the airlines but in reality on the NE corridor the car is their major competitor! If it looks like a train and rides like a train then it is a train and not a plane…the policies should be closer o train travel rather then air travel or at least take a page or two from the airlines IRRPOS and elite customer experience!

  11. Just cleaning up the stations would be a big step. Sure there’s a lot of good ones, but others like Oakland seem to be campout locations for local vagrants.

  12. The Amtrak experience is actually pretty good in some corridors such as between Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, and Portland (and some points beyond.) Sure, the trains could be faster, but the overall experience and time compares favorably with flying, especially if you consider price and that you have a choice of Amtrak stations that tends to be more conveniently located than airports.

    Business class may just include a slightly better seat, a coupon for food, and a more relaxed boarding process, but the economy experience is fairly similar to a domestic F experience. An economy seat on the Cascades isn’t unlike a domestic F seat on a 737 or A320 (probably more pitch than F) and it sure beats Y on an E120, Q400 or a regional jet!

  13. From DC (I live in Alexandria) I travel to Boston and NYC a few times a month. Fly to Boston. Amtrak to NYC. I usually cab or Uber to Union Station or National so it’s all the same. Bring some work, maybe get on the quiet or upgrade from time to time. I just can’t find anything too negative about the train compared to the shuttle. Relaxing. Plenty of room. No middle seat -ever! Generally not impacted by weather. And a delay is much easier to take while sitting in a train as opposed to on a plane or in an airport. The ticket refund policy is completely lax, (though I am reading from Mr. Chu above this will change?)

    Assigned seats might be nice – it might be nice not to get in the line at Union Station to board with a seat number in hand and it wouldn’t matter. But then, I like to pick my seat mates if I have to. Not be stuck. Although the Penn Station experience waiting for the train to post is a bummer.

    Someone mentioned better food would be good, but I would never buy food on the train anyway. It’s the train. I do tend to bring a snack of my own to tie me over. It’s nice to be able to get a beer after a long day though if you need one.

    Single sex bathrooms would be nice. It gets kind of gross by the end of a long day in there. That’s about it. What can I say, I love the train. Please, don’t make me fly.

  14. I like the open seating. Of course I like that on Southwest too! I think the food could be better. And enforce the quiet car. Acela is not worth it to me, I just take the NE Regional in business and it’s ten times better than flying. Mostly go Baltimore -Nyp and Baltimore – Richmond. I’d rather take train than fly any day.

  15. Let me tell you from experience…. from Boston to NYC the train is OK going south… BUT, coming the other way the condition of the train is DISGUSTING! I asked a conductor one time what was the reason for this and he said the train is serviced in Boston. It goes all the way down to Washington (or somewhere) and then it turns around AND IS NOT SERVICED otherwise all day. The conditions of the bathroom heading NORTH are disgusting!!! urine all over the floor, no hand towels, etc. The food car is also typically out of food heading north. I’ll take a hot dog, sorry we are out of that.. I’ll take some crackers.. sorry we are out of that,etc. I HATE taking the Amtrak train going North! Most of the time the conductors are surly… not pleasant.

  16. Faster. Amtrak trains need to be faster.

    How I envy true high speed rail. Look at any other developed nation with a rail network; they all have high speed rail. I’m talking 220+, not the measely 180-for-5-min-then-70 like Amtrak.

    Of course, this is highly unfeasible given the state of rail in the US. Just look at the CA rail project; probably will never be built on schedule, under budget. I digress.

  17. Well, somehow the train service between Portland, Oregon and Seattle (and Vancouver) only seems to get better. Last time we drove to Seattle and were really sorry, as we paid a lot to park our car at the hotel and hardly ever used it. It would have been much more convenient to take the train avoiding both the parking charges and the nasty traffic.

    The train service is reliable, clean, and comfortable. Wifi has always been good (food-not so much), and the price for this service is very reasonable. Now they have added service and made it more fun and interesting with Pendleton upholstery, vinyl records, etc. Gimmicky? Maybe, but it could be fun, and the service was already quite good. That said, I have tried Amtrak on the East Coast years ago and can only hope it is better now.

    Check out the slide show on the new Portland Express.

  18. Actually, it looks like the Portland Express with Pendleton blankets, Tanner goods leather coasters, vinyl records, typewriter, and various NW decor is a temporary phenomenon ( and brilliant marketing idea) that originated with Travel Portland. I plan to take a gratuitous trip to Seattle just to check it out.

    I wonder if this would work for East Coast cities?

  19. I can say this. When I lived in New Haven and needed to go to DC, Amtrak, even with its flaws, beat flying hands down.

    Drive to White Plains (1 hour), Hartford (1 hour) or LGA (2 hours) (yes, there is an airport in New Haven, but only if you want to go to PHL)
    Get to airport at least an hour before flight.
    Fly to DCA (1 hour).
    Get a cab to downtown (30 minutes).
    Total Time To Fly: 3 1/2 hours (best case)

    Drive to NH Station (15 minutes)
    Get on train and ride to DC. (4 1/2 hours)
    Get off train and walk to hotel/meetings. (20 minutes)
    Total Time To Train: 5 hours

    So, yeah, the train takes longer than the best case scenario for flying, but without taking your shoes off, driving all over the place, and all other forms of misery that go with flying.

  20. Reserved seating that means what it says. A seat number on my ticket. No more stampedes at ny penn to get a seat.

  21. If you’re traveling solo, the current no reserved seats works fine. I just traveled to NY from RI on the Acela with my husband and couldn’t sit in the same car with him because there were no seats available. I would NEVER travel by train with anyone again. What do families do? Sit their little kids with strangers and hope for the best?

  22. I took the train from Joliet, IL (nr Chicago) to st Louis with two little kids. The no reserved seat numbers policy worked fine. We got on board early enough, but the conductors had single travelers sit together so that groups could stay together. It’s one of those things that depend upon the implementation I suppose. As we experienced it, it was fine. And comfy.
    I’d like it to be faster, with more frequent connections to smaller stations. And better food would be good too. But, that’s all minor. It works pretty well as it is.
    One egregious problem is that they haven’t reinstated service from Jacksonville to new Orleans since Katrina (sunset limited, I think). Freight trains have been using that track for years, but Amtrak hasn’t reinstated the service they are legally (and I’d say morally even) obligated to provide.

  23. Enforce the quiet car and have reserved seating during peak traveling times. My last trip was Providence to DC on the late train the weekend after Easter. From NYC to Phili people were literally standing the entire way. Families were trying to find seats for kids wandering around trying to find a place for their kids to sleep. They should not be able to oversell the train that much.

  24. A few weeks ago, I took Amtrak for the first time since I was a little girl. It was between Portland and Seattle, and I really enjoyed it. I was staying in downtown Portland and downtown Seattle, so it was nice to walk up to the station and then grab a quick taxi in Seattle at the end. I probably saved an hour right there, plus I didn’t have to pay for my non-carry on bag, etc. It was only around three hours (maybe 3.5), so when you consider the travel the airport, higher fares and baggage fees, I actually feel like I got a good deal. Plus, something about a train makes me sleep… and I never sleep on a plane, even in a lie flat. Go figure.

  25. I’d improve Amtrak by moving USPS, TSA, and DMV operations to reside within the rail cars. One huge rolling pseudo-government entity, if you will. The reason? People already have such low expectations for these entities that the slow internet, poor food, and other problems will seem like relative luxuries. Upon arrival, your packages will be mailed, your nether regions scanned and approved, and your license renewed. Customer satisfaction will shoot through the roof. How to finance this? No worries… just raise taxes or something like that… that makes it free.

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