Monday, October 1, 2012

Amtrak in the Twenty-First Century

At long last, Amtrak is entering the twenty-first century!  Here are some of the changes that have occurred over the course of the last six months:
  • Electronic ticketing and mobile boarding passes are now available for use on all rail routes and most Thruway bus routes.

  • A new refund-and-exchange policy went into effect in August, which allows passengers canceling reservations to receive electronic vouchers or payment credits as follows:

    • Sleeper Travel:  If canceled 15 or more days before scheduled departure, refund fee applies. If canceled 14 days or fewer before scheduled departure, but before the scheduled departure, ticket is not refundable but the value may be applied within one year toward future travel. If not canceled before scheduled departure (“no show”), entire amount is forfeited.

    • Acela Express First Class and non-Acela Business Class:  If canceled before scheduled departure, full refund without refund fee. If not canceled before departure (“no show”), ticket is refundable with a refund fee.

    • Reserved Coach and Acela Express Business Class:  If canceled more than 24 hours before scheduled departure, the ticket is fully refundable. If canceled within 24 hours of departure or not canceled a refund fee applies.

    • Unreserved Coach:  Refund fee applies at all times.

    • Advance Booking/Purchase Fare:  Refundability is based on the rules applying to the particular fare. Some advance booking/purchase fares are not refundable

      (When more than one type of travel is in a trip, the refund policy is applied to the entire trip based on the primary travel type in the trip which is determined in the order shown above.)

  • Free wireless Internet access (Wi-Fi) is now available on many routes in the Northeast Corridor, along the West Coast, and many Amtrak stations.

In addition to these service improvements, Amtrak has been testing Acela Express trains at speeds of up to 165 mph along sections of Northeast Corridor track.  These tests are intended to find the sustainable limits of the existing infrastructure.  In the longer term, there are plans -- some might call them "dreams" in their present form, but I digress -- of an infrastructure that could handle speeds of up to 220 mph.  At that speed, taking into account all of the commuting and boarding times, it becomes consistently faster to take the train between New York and D.C. or even Boston than to fly.

There is still talk within Republican circles of privatizing the rail system (though one should always say "re-privatizing," in memory that Amtrak exists precisely because the private passenger rail network was insolvent by 1970).  Increasingly, however, people are coming to recognize the extent to which commuters depend on rail and viewing its development in economic rather than political terms.

With Amtrak, the future is always uncertain.  For the moment, however, rail in the United States appears to be... well, on track.