Why can’t Amtrak provide assigned seats?

July 17, 2015

By F.K. Plous

CHICAGO (July 17)—Travel writer Michael Arkus asks an interesting question in today’s Huffington Post: Why is Amtrak unable (or unwilling) to assign each coach passenger a specific seat? (See Michael Arkus’ story below from The Huffington Post.)

That’s right: When you score a “reservation” on an Amtrak coach, you haven’t reserved specific space. All you’ve reserved is the right to ride in any unoccupied coach seat on that train, on that date, at the station at which you board. You do not have an assigned seat and may have to reconnoiter through several coaches – dragging your luggage with you and dodging other passengers engaged in searches of their own – before you find a place to roost.

And don’t think you can dodge the problem by booking early. An advance purchase may get you a lower fare but it will not advance your seating prospects. Everybody on the platform is equal in the free-for-all search for space.

“I recently traveled on Amtrak Train 68, the Adirondack, from Montreal to New York and it was one of the most unpleasant boarding experiences I can remember,” Arkus wrote in a story headlined: “Amtrak on the Wrong Track: Traveling the U.S. Railroads on the Looney Front.”

The unpleasantness, Arkus pointed out, started right in the waiting room at Montreal’s Central Station, “…because Amtrak has open seating even on reserved coaches there was a vast queue forming by Montreal’s Platform 17 entrance more than an hour and 20 minutes before the train was due to leave, with the gate opening a half an hour before departure – just to be able to get the best seats.”

At least the passengers at Montreal had the opportunity to improve their seating chances by arriving early and getting a space at the head of the line. Montreal is the Adirondack’s starting point, so the passengers are boarding an empty train. Passengers boarding at smaller stations down-line can only try their luck with whatever seats are still vacant.

Although lone traveler Arkus did not point it out, the most frequent victims of Amtrak’s no-assigned-space policies are families, who often must split up, with the father sitting in one seat, the mother in another and small children seated by themselves next to strangers four or five rows away. Sympathetic passengers often resolve these problems themselves by voluntarily giving up a seat so a family can ride together, but the process can be cumbersome as luggage, clothing and toys are schlepped to another location while children fuss.

Amtrak’s story

Arkus contacted an Amtrak spokeswoman to find out why the company does not assign seat space.

“First of all, very positively, Amtrak did reply – and at thoughtful length,” he wrote.

“They said that they have found from experience that pre-assigning seats is not the answer that it might appear to be. At times, it is necessary to substitute a car which is designed for a different number of passengers.” According to his Amtrak contact:

“‘Also, we generally group people together by their destinations, but we cannot know long beforehand the number of travelers going to a particular location,’ they added. ‘If a car were set aside far ahead of time for persons going to a certain city, but few people chose that destination, the car might be empty while others end up being overcrowded.’

The journalist gets analytical

“I still don’t find the answer convincing,” Arkus wrote. “Surely with computers you could easily juggle the numbers and seats without necessarily setting cars aside for particular destinations – assuming, of course, the computers don’t break down. Perhaps Amtrak should ask companies abroad how they manage without any problem. That way you could eliminate my Montreal experience.”

Coston: “Arkus is right”

“Arkus is shrewder than he realizes” said Corridor Capital Chairman James E. Coston. “At the same location where he encountered hundreds of passengers queuing up to board Amtrak’s Adirondack, VIA Rail Canada boards thousands of coach and business class passengers every day in a civilized, orderly fashion – because VIA’s standard policy is to issue assigned space. Even when VIA’s trains are full you don’t see lines of passengers forming 90 minutes before departure because all of the passengers know where their seats are going to be.”

It wasn’t always this way – even at Amtrak

Coston ought to know. When he was just out of high school in the early 1970s he started working as an Amtrak ticketing/reservations clerk and passenger services rep at Chicago Union Station. At that time Amtrak had an assigned-space policy, and it worked.

“In the early years, Amtrak’s reservations systems provided for all seating to be assigned in advance,” he said. The passengers expected it. It came with no administrative or logistical burdens. It allowed the passengers to get the seats they wanted or at least to know the seats they were getting. And it allowed the railroad a higher level of inventory control, which led to higher sales.”

And this was well before today’s sophisticated computers and algorithms that permit dynamic pricing, Coston said.

“Back then, every seat cost the same regardless of when it was booked,” he said. “If Amtrak had an assigned seat policy today it could gain a better understanding of passenger preference dynamics and price the seats for the highest possible return. People will pay a premium for a particular seat they prefer. You can’t even establish that premium – much less collect it – without an assigned-seat policy.”

Coston said even with the primitive computers Amtrak had in the 1970s it was not particularly difficult for Amtrak station agents and crews to assign space – and even re-assign space at the last minute when one car type had to be substituted for another.

“In the mid-’70s we’d assign seats on the 18-car, sold-out Broadway Limited at two check-in desks on the concourse at Chicago Union Station,” he said. “We were able to accommodate and re-accommodate with 100-per-cent efficiency using paper diagrams even though Amtrak regularly had to bad order one or both Slumbercoach cars and had to re-accommodate the passengers on the fly in coaches and standard sleepers.”

Why did Amtrak drop assigned seating? Who knows?

Coston said Amtrak’s claim that car substitution makes assigned seating impractical sounds particularly feeble in the case of the high-speed Acela train sets the company runs on its Northeast Corridor.

“You can’t substitute cars on the Acela,” he said. “It’s a fixed-consist train set with exactly the same number of cars and exactly the same number of seats in each car type in each train,” he said.

“I remember back in 1999 when our firm was helping a client win the $820-million financing package for the Acela procurement and the high-horsepower electric engines for the regional trains,” Coston said. “The Acelas were designed to integrate the rolling stock with the reservations system so that a conductor using a hand-held device could see every passenger’s assigned space and could sell additional vacant space en route and assign it to new passengers boarding downline as vacant seats opened up.”

Digitally driven seat assignment had a strong potential to maximize seat revenue, Coston said. But for some reason Amtrak never installed it on the Acela and abandoned the assigned-seat policies it had been using on other coach trains.

“Even today, executives and lawyers in pin-striped suits stream down the platform at Penn Station to jockey for the best seats on the Acela because even though they are paying the highest per-mile railroad fares in North America they cannot reserve their space in advance,” he said.

Coston said it’s not even necessary to have powerful computers to give passengers their choice of seats.

“When I was president of the Twentieth Century Railroad Club in the 1980s we had no computers at all, but every passenger on our chartered excursion trains got an assigned seat,” he said.

“Our member-volunteers took reservations by mail and by telephone, and they had nothing to work with but paper tickets and paper seating diagrams,” Coston said.

“But even the last-minute passengers who had very little choice of remaining seats still got an assigned seat when they showed up at the station,” he said. “And they were very relieved to know where they were going to sit.”

More than just a “civilized amenity”

Coston said if Corridor Capital is selected to provide rolling stock and train management – including ticketing and reservations – for a state-supported passenger-train corridor, assigned seat space “definitely will be part of the package.”

“When our club offered assigned seating in the 1980s it was a civilized amenity,” he said.

“And it still is – but today it’s a lot more: Thanks to computers, assigned seating can be used to increase the trip’s value to the passenger and the seat’s value to the state that pays the bills. Assigned seating can sell more seats at higher fares and help the state reduce its cost of running passenger trains.”


The Huffington Post:

Amtrak on the Wrong Track: Travelling the U.S. Railroads on the Looney Front

By Mike Arkus

Why does Amtrak insist on not giving a numbered seat to passengers who reserve? I recently travelled on Amtrak Train 68, the Adirondack, from Montreal to New York and it was one of the most unpleasant boarding experiences I can remember.

OK, so it wasn’t Calcutta’s Howrah station where millions invade the tracks as soon as the train appears, swarming all over both the insides and outsides, hanging out of windows and doors, and balancing on roofs until you can no longer see either carriages or engine for the masses of humanity.

But because Amtrak has open seating even on reserved coaches there was a vast queue forming by Montreal’s platform 17 entrance more than an hour and 20 minutes before the train was due to leave, with the gate opening a half an hour before departure – just to be able to get the best seats.


Read the full story from journalist Mike Arkus at The Huffington Post by clicking here.

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