A Tale of Two Trains

Traveling by train shouldn’t suck.

In fact, if you’ve taken passenger trains in Europe, you know it can be fast and efficient and even fun.

All too often, riding the Amtrak Cascades line — between Vancouver BC and Eugene, Oregon — is none of those things.

Over the next few years, an awful lot of money (more than $590 million, to be exact) is going to be spent to make passenger rail along the Cascade Corridor a real transportation alternative. Pretty much all of that cash is being focused on heavy infrastructure: more trains, better track, fewer bottlenecks.

That’s great, and very much needed. But if passenger trains are ever going to become an everyday part of Northwesterners’ suite of travel options, the folks who design the systems for ticketing, check-in and seat assignment are going to have to take a cue from Europe …

This morning I saw my wife Ani off at Seattle’s King Street Station. She caught the Amtrak Cascades to Albany, Oregon to visit our new (and rapidly-growing) grandson Ewan. As we stood in a seemingly endless line to get Ani’s seat assignment, I couldn’t help but compare the creaky, plodding check-in procedure with the last train trip I took.

Just over a year ago, I was in Brussels on a fellowship. I took a day trip to report on Paris’ public bike-sharing system. The previous day I’d gotten online in my hotel room and bought a “ticketless” ticket to Paris on the Thalys, Belgium’s high-speed train. I’d previously registered online for Thalys’ ticketless setup, so I already had an account and a card to go with it.

Went to the station, got on the train and found my pre-assigned place (I’d asked for a window seat). When the conductor came around to check tickets, I handed him my Thalys card. He scanned it in a hand-held wireless device, got confirmation of my booking information, and I was good to go.

Contrast that with Ani’s ordeal this morning in Seattle. She’d bought her ticket online, too, but she had to stand in line at the station to get her actual ticket. Then she had to stand in another line to check her bag. Then she had to stand in another line for more than 20 minutes to get a seating assignment.

Is this anyway to run a railroad?

I admit I’m being a bit unfair here. Even in Europe, many riders do stand in line at the station to get their tickets. And at this point, even on the Thalys, most passengers are still using paper tickets. And Amtrak does have computerized kiosks at many stations where you can check in using a confirmation code and your credit card.

But if the grousing I overheard on that line this morning is any indication, a system that requires checked-in, ticketed passengers to queue up for an additional 20 minutes to get a seat assignment is not going to entice large numbers of folks out of their cars for intercity travel.

The good news is that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel here. What we want to do along the Cascade Corridor is already being done all over Europe. And even with the limits on the speed and frequency of trains on the Amtrak Cascades line (no, we’re not getting European-style high-speed rail here anytime soon), more convenient ticketing, baggage check-in and seat assignments will go a long way toward reducing the hassle factor.

It’s not nearly as sexy as laying track and buying shiny new train sets.

But it’ll sure help make trains a more attractive choice for more people in the Pacific Northwest.


2 Responses to A Tale of Two Trains

  1. Pingback: A Tale of Two Trains | Salmon Nation Euroblog

  2. Linda Audrain says:

    Nice article, Liam! I’ve always heard far more horror stories about our trains than I have stories from people who were pleased by their experience. A friend just took the train from Ashland to Seattle, a ten hour trip, and almost starved because she wasn’t aware that you had to make an advanced reservation in order to get food. Maybe that information was buried somewhere in the fine print…

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