I hate to beat a dead horse, and I’ve already read several articles by others on this theme, but apparently Amtrak isn’t getting the message so I’ll try my hand.
Here is the way train boarding should work, and does work at most train companies the world over. You show up at the station intending to board train #364 for East Lansing, perhaps only a few minutes before the train departs. You find a giant display board that informs you that train #364 is boarding on track 20. You wander out to the platform for track 20 and board the train. The train leaves. A conductor comes by and checks your ticket. It might be the lowest-stress way to travel around.
But Amtrak seems determined to negate that advantage. Yesterday I boarded Amtrak’s train #364 at Union Station in Chicago, and it didn’t work like that at all. For starters, Amtrak has a too-small waiting area with several arbitrary airport-style “gates”, where while waiting you may have the additional pleasure of listening to looping security announcements and video. Fortunately, as a seasoned train traveler, I know that the station also has a spacious “Grand Hall” where I normally hang out until 20-30 minutes before my train leaves. But yesterday I had a business class ticket, and I know business class passengers are “pre-boarded”. So I showed up at the too-small waiting area about an hour before my train left, and a full 50 minutes before the train left business-class passengers were called for pre-boarding.
So I approached the “gate”, where a lady checked my ticket and then directed me to a specific seat to sit in on the other side of the gate. The pleasure of pre-boarding apparently means you lose the right to wait wherever you want. While we were waiting there, we were informed that people might be randomly pulled aside while boarding the train for a security screening by your local friendly TSA agent.
Now this was new — I had never seen TSA agents at Union Station before. Last time I traveled there were random security screenings but they were done by Amtrak police — in the good old days before that there were no screenings at all. Now let me say— security screenings at a train station ACCOMPLISH NOTHING, and let me tell you why. For starters — I could write a post about how even TSA security at airports doesn’t make much sense, but to their credit, one thing that was realized after 9/11 is that enhanced security measures would be easily skirted by the bad guys unless they were rolled out at every single airport, large and small — otherwise your bad guys will just board at the small airports with small security. But the vast majority of Amtrak stations still (thankfully) have no security to speak of — you’ll only find it at major stations like Chicago. The other issue is — airplanes are relatively safe from outside attack once they leave the airport, because they are thousands of feet high in the air. To do one harm, you pretty much have to be on the plane, so screening passengers makes more sense. Clearly trains are not so inaccessible.
Anyway, after about 20 minutes in the pre-boarding area the business class passengers were told to go board the train. I heard the lady beside me say something like “I guess we’re being herded somewhere else now…” — that’s really what it felt like. Remember, train travel should be one of the lowest stress ways to travel around, there is no reason for any of this. Anyway, we walked passed the menacing TSA agents, walked down to the platform, and boarded the train. My ticket was checked by the conductor after the train left the station! Amen.
After all this complaining, let me say that once you get on the train, it’s a great experience — all the trouble is at the station. And let’s think about it — what I’m saying is that most of the boarding staff could be eliminated. Think of the direct monetary savings from that, Amtrak, and then think of the additional money you’ll make because people are riding more often because you’ve made train travel a more pleasant experience. Seems like an obvious move to me. Let your customers board their own trains. We’re smart people.