Monday, October 31, 2011

Amtrak Joins "The Revolution"

Amtrak proclams at their Facebook page, that they soon will be offering Wi-Fi service on more of their trains than not:

Brief passage:
Responding to strong passenger interest, Amtrak is launching today a major expansion of its free AmtrakConnectSM Wi-Fi service to 12 East Coast routes. As a result, trains that carry nearly 60 percent of all Amtrak passengers now have Wi-Fi connections.

Even if I am somewhat astounded, I can't help but note how important 24/7 access to the internet appears to be to some, as with so many infrequent and first time Amtrak travelers the inquiry "is wi-fi available?" made. I have seen consternation on-board; I can't forget how aboard Auto Train this past February, I was sitting at a table in the Lounge for the pre-departure wine tasting and this Mother and teen age daughter sit down on the opposite side. The girl was "at the wailing wall' when she learned that the wi-fi was only good at Lorton and not en-route; she hustles off to their room. The Mother tells me "thank goodness you said something; she has school assignments to prepare and she must have on-line in order to get them done".

To me it sounds as if they were "expecting' that wi-fi would be available.

Personally, I could care less; to be "a day or two" without being on-line is "no biggie'. Most any hotel at which I have occasion to stay during the 21 or so nights a year I'm out of town has a Business Center or Lobby computer; sometimes you have to pay, sometimes not. But I should be prepared to accept that those younger than my age 70+ demographic, it "is a biggie' and is just as expected on-board as is working HVAC and toilet facilities.

Needless to say, the only computer I own is this Dell desktop from which I now write; so I have to ask in all sincerity, is this "need" for wi-fi as prevalent through any societal demographic or is it mostly within a young, computer savvy demographic that frequent blog sites such as here?

I of course note that Amtrak is spending "heap big wampum" to add wi-fi to its fleet. It almost seems to me that Amtrak was slow to "wake up and smell the other guy's coffee brewing' and that if they don't get their own kettle on the fire, they will lose many a potential rider.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Cash-Free Amtrak Dining Car?

As likely many of my readers here know, Amtrak is mandated under PRIIA '08 to prepare Performance Improvement Plans for each of its Long Distance routes. They have made, in my opinion, a sincere effort to comply with this provision. The Improvement Plan for all-single level trains other than The Cardinal, which was addressed in another report, has now been released.

I think this Plan, mandated under PRIIA 08, shows that reasonableness and practicality rule. There are no proposals to increase frequencies or to reroute away from existing routes. Advocates who seek an expansion of the Long Distance system will be disappointed.

The point I find most interesting is first introduced within the Report's Executive Summary:
Converting the Lake Shore Limited dining car to a “club-diner” is expectedto improve financial performance and customer service. In this pilot initiative, the dining car will operate as a cashless club-diner in which payments will be made by credit/debit cards; the diner will have extended hours for beverage service; and the lounge car menu will be upgraded to provide coach passengers wanting freshly prepared foods with an alternative to purchasing full meals in the diner. These changes will increase food service options and allow diner staff to serve customers during time now spent accounting for cash transactions. Separately, an analysis of meals served in the dining car was conducted and it was determined that one less food service employee would be required during off-peak periods.

I would think that anything, repeat anything, Amtrak could do to minimize, if not totally eliminate, the amount of cash (currency) 'sloshing" about on-board would benefit all, save the few dishonest employees "subjected to undue temptation' (I've seen that phrase within transcripts of hearings I reviewed while in Labor Relations with a Class I railroad).

The largest problem is that while the report notes that airlines have largely gone to a cash-free environment for in-flight purchases, it is a fairly safe assumption that any adult airline passenger has some kind of electronic transaction card (credit or debit); In fact, I think you need have one in order to purchase an airline ticket. The same can hardly be said of an Amtrak (or Greyhound) passenger - and these passengers have just as much "right' to purchase Food & Beverage on-board as do the others. What I fail to see addressed in the report is how to accommodate these passengers.

I would think some kind of prepaid meal arrangement could be offered definitely for the Diner and could even be implemented, even though the Report does not address such, for Snack Bar purchases. Passengers could purchase a 'gift card' prior to boarding, but I believe Amtrak would be obliged to make a ready refund without penalty of any amounts unused. The downside of this proposal is that impulse buying would be curtailed - and this would be of particular "hurt' for high margin alcoholic beverages.

While it can be easy to envision a cash free environment in a Snack Bar as well, let's address the Diner first, as unit accountability is in place for the Snack Bar inventory. The Diner is where Amtrak property can "grow legs' (much of same with railroad operated Diners as well).

All told, interesting idea that I think is long overdue.

The Report is worth a read - at least the Executive Summary.