An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

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An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby Jeff Smith » Mon Mar 12, 2012 10:49 am

This is a really thought-provoking article. I am going to start it in Amtrak, move it to Chicago, LIRR, MARC/VRE, NJT, MNRR, MBTA, SEPTA/PATCO, usw., and then park it in Class I. I may move it back to Amtrak.

Anyway, it raises one, really good, point. Amtrak's and other agencies not sharing services such as ticketing where it makes sense. Imagine a Penn Station that wasn't three terminals, but a single, unified terminal. Does it make sense?

http://www.buffalorising.com/2012/03/th ... sport.html

Yet is it a lack of funds that make the three agencies that call it home - Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the Long Island Railroad - act as though the others don't exist? The three railroads have completely separate ticketing areas, signage systems, etc. This is hardly the only case in America. For some reason, Amtrak seems to despise sharing ticket agents with other carriers. There are separate windows for Amtrak and commuter lines everywhere I've been. Given that many journeys include both commuter and inter-city segments, this seems crazy. If you can't have integrated ticketing (and actually, I don't see why you can't), at least you should be able to have a single agent help you.

The worst example of this I know is in Providence, where Amtrak monopolizes the four ticket windows. If you want to buy an MBTA T ticket, you have to go to a cafe next door. This tiny little coffee shop found a way to sell both pastries and train tickets (albeit from separate registers), so why can't Amtrak figure out how to sell two kinds of tickets?
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby SwingMan » Mon Mar 12, 2012 11:14 am

In a weird way I understand what the writer saying, but it just would be way too tough to actually initiate. This is one of the busiest stations in the freaking world, and this is suggesting just putting them together?


I'll go out on a limb and say this isn't going to happen. Just can't see it.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby Matthew Mitchell » Mon Mar 12, 2012 11:20 am

so why can't Amtrak figure out how to sell two kinds of tickets?
Uh, union rules and related protectionism?

Amtrak does sell commuter tickets for MARC in Washington and Baltimore, but they also operate the trains.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby ryanov » Mon Mar 12, 2012 11:27 am

New Brunswick, NJ has one ticket window that sells both NJTransit and Amtrak tickets.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby Ken W2KB » Mon Mar 12, 2012 11:30 am

NY Penn, adjacent to Amtrak's windows, has ticket windows for United Airlines. I have only seen it at around 8 p.m. and it was not open then.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby hammersklavier » Mon Mar 12, 2012 11:58 am

lirr415 wrote:In a weird way I understand what the writer saying, but it just would be way too tough to actually initiate. This is one of the busiest stations in the freaking world, and this is suggesting just putting them together?


I'll go out on a limb and say this isn't going to happen. Just can't see it.

Happens at e.g. the Gare du Nord, Gare de l'Est, Gare d'Austerlitz, any other "gare" you can name, Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, Hamburg, Munich, anything else that's a "Bahnhof", or "estacion", or "stazione", and on and on and on.

The point being, this is a simple issue of good organization which we have close to no experience with in the U.S. (bar a handful of examples like the Port Jervis Line). Elsewhere in the world it's fairly standard.

The Germans have a saying: "Organization before electronics before concrete". What that means is that if there is an organizational way to improve service, that's what needs be done first; and then if there's a way with better signalling and equipment, that follows; new infrastructure goes in last. Here in the U.S. we've become inured to concrete über alles--to the extent, even, that concrete is used to entrench bad organizational practices. (BART at Millbrae, anyone?) Well, what this author is saying is something that's needed to be said for a long time: that until we start seeing better and more integrated organizational practices, our rail network will stay subpar.

By the way, as an example of good organizational practice: the commuter rail network of the Swiss city of Basel (take a look) runs between three countries. If the European railroads were as protective of their "turf" as ours are here, such an arrangement would be impossible.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby Jeff Smith » Mon Mar 12, 2012 12:41 pm

Matthew Mitchell wrote:
so why can't Amtrak figure out how to sell two kinds of tickets?
Uh, union rules and related protectionism?

Amtrak does sell commuter tickets for MARC in Washington and Baltimore, but they also operate the trains.


That's a great point. As a point of comparison, AFAIK, MNRR's ticket windows at most outlying stations are going the way of steam engines. I'm sure this was negotiated as part of the collective bargaining process. How was this negotiated? To protect the existing workers the station windows weren't closed until the window agent retired, transferred, bid off, took a package, whatever. As this happened, the windows would close (sometimes the station house would as well, depending upon utility and ownership). Concurrently, MNRR was limited to the number of ticket vending machines (TVM's) they could install. I'm sure LIRR/NJT/Amtrak jobs could be projected in the same manner.

As to how it would happen at Penn? Create a common paymaster and government organization. You come up with some measure of what the ticket window volume is per organization, and the three agencies contribute their proportional share to the cost.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby MattW » Mon Mar 12, 2012 1:17 pm

I think the solution is to try and nationalize the ticketing system. Instead of two different types of tickets, why can't different operators print on the same exact stock? Or better yet, with the move to e-ticketing, why can't different operators scan the same barcode or read the same RFID chip? Here in Atlanta, I can tap my Breeze Card on a Gwinnet County Transit Bus, ride down to Doraville and tap that same Breeze Card to enter the MARTA rail system, ride to Arts Center and tap that same Breeze Card to board a Cobb County Transit Bus. Why can't I tap that card on the Conductor's iPhone as my ticket on the Crescent to New York? Where I then tap that same card on a LIRR Conductor's iPhone as my ticket to Montauk?
At the very least, why can't we have an official routing system? Playing with Google Maps, I was able to get it to spit out a transit trip from some random neighborhood east of D.C., on a Metro bus, then on the Capitol Limited, then Metra out to a western Chicago suburb. But why should we rely on Google to collect and store the information when they get around to it? In my mind, all transit operators should be part of the same database so even if you can't yet book passage between them, you can at least know how to get there.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby Jeff Smith » Mon Mar 12, 2012 1:50 pm

For the NY metro area, some had envisioned MetroCard doing that for the commuter lines. Airlines have done a decent job of standardizing. I'm not sure how Amtrak fits into that mold; airline or commuter?
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby glennk419 » Mon Mar 12, 2012 2:01 pm

FWIW, at least at Trenton, Amtrak, NJT and SEPTA trains do all show up on the same arrival / departure screens above the platforms (and the announcements come out of the same loudspeakers). ;)
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel?

Postby amtrakowitz » Mon Mar 12, 2012 2:25 pm

The crux of the article seems to be the last paragraph.
While we are waiting around for funding issues to be resolved, wouldn't it be nice if our governments and various travel companies actually focused on fixing some of these straightforward problems with coordination, ticketing, and customer service? It's hard to take their capital requests seriously if they aren't going to do what they can now.

Indeed; let's all clamor for yet another government solution.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby travelrobb » Mon Mar 12, 2012 2:51 pm

Amtrak does sell passage on the commuter rails in some cases -- or at least one case: you can buy a thru ticket for connecting service on NJT's Atlantic City line (e.g., from Egg Harbor to Wilmington). I suspect it depends on how strong the working relationship is with the commuter service in question. So a codeshare with Metro North is highly unlikely -- and too bad for that. I think it's nuts that there aren't codeshare agreements everywhere that Amtrak shares a market with a commuter service -- both partners are just shooting themselves in the foot.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby Arborwayfan » Mon Mar 12, 2012 2:57 pm

Yes, yes, services should be more coordinated. I've said elsewhere on the forum that Amtrak's website should tell you "If you are in Champaign and want to go to the Field Museum, change to Metra at Homewood. If you want to go to South Bend in the morning, change for Metra at Homewood and South Shore at..." An information solution, relatively easy, to help non-railfans understand the relatively easy trips they could make. A more complicated solution would be to actually give all those commuter rail stops 3-letter codes (maybe one code for each fare zone on each line) and let people buy their tix all in one place): if you're in Kingston Mass and want to go to Kingston RI, you punch in and pay and get tix for both segments. Computer sends the money the right way. Ridership goes up, everyone's better off. Next, better fare integration between subway, commuter rail, etc. Low tech or high tech both OK, but somehow make combined trips attractive. (T passes do this, of course, but do it for the occasional rider, too; if not discounted, at least all from one machine that makes it easy to do.)

A warning: the same window is not always the best solution, at least when selling paper tix: When Amtrak ran the T commuter rail, they sold all tickets from the same windows in S. Station. It was a disaster. Every time I wanted to buy a ticket, there would be a bunch of people making sleeper reservations on four-segment trips ahead of me. At least once I missed a train. MUCH better to have separate windows, as I believe they have had since MBCR took over. Think supermarket: "one to Roslindale" is the express lane; "deluxe bedroom to West Glacier for 3 people" isn't. I imagine that this lesson extends to NY Penn Station and other places like it.

And actually this sounds like exactly the situation for a government solution. For starters, they are all government agencies already. Having them figure out how to cooperate would be "entrepreurial government" and would make the situation more efficient. And most of the divisions they article says should be overcome are created by artificial political boundaries (LIRR and Metro North are NY, NJT is NJ, Amtrak is federal. Amtrak is obviously national, but the other two could probably cooperate mroe effectively.
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel??

Postby tgolanos » Mon Mar 12, 2012 3:47 pm

hammersklavier wrote:
lirr415 wrote:In a weird way I understand what the writer saying, but it just would be way too tough to actually initiate. This is one of the busiest stations in the freaking world, and this is suggesting just putting them together?


I'll go out on a limb and say this isn't going to happen. Just can't see it.

Happens at e.g. the Gare du Nord, Gare de l'Est, Gare d'Austerlitz, any other "gare" you can name, Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, Hamburg, Munich, anything else that's a "Bahnhof", or "estacion", or "stazione", and on and on and on.

The point being, this is a simple issue of good organization which we have close to no experience with in the U.S. (bar a handful of examples like the Port Jervis Line). Elsewhere in the world it's fairly standard.

The Germans have a saying: "Organization before electronics before concrete". What that means is that if there is an organizational way to improve service, that's what needs be done first; and then if there's a way with better signalling and equipment, that follows; new infrastructure goes in last. Here in the U.S. we've become inured to concrete über alles--to the extent, even, that concrete is used to entrench bad organizational practices. (BART at Millbrae, anyone?) Well, what this author is saying is something that's needed to be said for a long time: that until we start seeing better and more integrated organizational practices, our rail network will stay subpar.

By the way, as an example of good organizational practice: the commuter rail network of the Swiss city of Basel (take a look) runs between three countries. If the European railroads were as protective of their "turf" as ours are here, such an arrangement would be impossible.


Many long distance ICE train tickets in Germany also include the 'City Ticket' option, allowing for one journey on an S-Bahn line, so you can get to your destination easier. I'm not too sure about how it works in der Schweiz, but in Germany the S-Bahn is run by Deutsche Bahn. Maybe that makes selling tickets easier?
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Re: An Indictment of American Rail Travel?

Postby amtrakowitz » Mon Mar 12, 2012 4:35 pm

A great deal of S-Bahn passengers in Berlin would like a different operator to run the service.
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