LIKE MANY PEOPLE who live between Boston and Washington, I ride Amtrak. So when I got a call a few weeks ago asking if I would participate in a focus group for riders, I quickly agreed. The eight people in our group were a pretty standard slice of what you see on the train – a couple of middle-aged businessmen, a few younger women who travel to New York for meetings or to visit a boyfriend on the weekend, and a retired woman who travels to visit friends. (We didn’t have any of those college students you find sprawled out across two seats with headphones on, either sleeping or faking it, you can never be sure.)
To no one’s surprise, folks had a few suggestions for how to improve the “Amtrak experience.” There was broad consensus that bathrooms should be cleaner; the café car should be outsourced to a fast-food restaurant chain; the Wi-Fi should work more consistently; there should be a plug for every seat; passengers should be able to choose an assigned seat; and boarding should be less chaotic. Only one participant made the obvious, sad, comparison to European train travel. She was quickly countered by another’s account of travelling India’s railroads. So let’s call that one a draw.
What was somewhat surprising was that, over all, our expectations were so low. No one dared suggest more frequent, or faster, trains. No one expected nicer cars, or more modern locomotives. No one complained about cost.
Perhaps prompted a bit by me, because it’s a huge pet peeve of mine, there was some discussion of the boarding process – specifically, boarding in New York. As soon as I raised it, eyes rolled and hands went up. For myself, this is the sole reason to pay extra for Business Class – to know that there is only one car I need to worry about, and that I’m more likely to find a seat.
Anyone who has tried to board the train to Boston at Penn Station knows exactly what I am talking about. Fellow travelers constantly glancing at the giant status board hanging over the waiting area; warily checking each other out, trying to guess who looks “Boston” and therefore getting on the same train; nonchalantly drifting toward the escalator where passengers are emerging, furtively asking any of them who looks approachable – are you coming from DC?
As departure time draws nigh, the individual decisions begin to coalesce into small group movements, like schools of fish, anticipating which escalator the announcer will call. When the gate is announced, passengers from all over the vast waiting area surge toward it en masse, jockeying for position, squeezing onto an escalator to be carried, single file, down to the platform and the waiting train.
I am usually travelling to and from New York alone to visit friends in the city. I travel light and I’m able-bodied. But pity the family traveling with small children, the elderly, the disabled, or just the poor inexperienced passenger who is new to this bedlam. Every time I go through it, I can’t help but think: “This is what it must have been like when Castro took over Cuba.”
Once safely on the train, the search for a seat can often be daunting even for me, as a single person. If I were travelling with family, or trying to escort an elderly or disabled person and needed adjoining seats, I’d be out of luck on most of the crowded trains I’ve been on, or would have to rely on some good soul to switch seats for me. There must be a better way.
Simply assigning seats would calm the whole mess down. And the cost seems minimal – some tweaking to the electronic reservation system and labelling the seats. I understand that trains may sometimes be oversold for stretches along the Northeast Corridor, and there might not be a seat for me for some part of my travel, but even knowing that is the case, and at what stop my seat will become available, would lessen the negative experience of having to stand (or sit in the café car) for a while. And in these times of heightened security, when we know precisely who is in what seat on every plane in the sky at any given moment, it seems archaic, unnecessarily chaotic, and even, perhaps, unsafe, to continue with this “festival seating” arrangement.
Amtrak wants to know: What can we do to improve the experience of train travel overall? Let’s make it an easier question: What can we do to improve the experience of train travel, without making large investments in infrastructure and rolling stock (since these are unlikely in the foreseeable future)?
How about this? Let’s let everyone know where they’re going to sit ahead of time, and make boarding a train in Penn Station less like fleeing Havana in 1959.
Peter O’Connor, former deputy secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, is a Boston lawyer and development consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.