28 October 2011

Amtrak Service and Fares - # 10 - Fares, basic principles

This chapter is brief, but sets out the fundamental principles that govern Amtrak fares.

Presenting these first without further explanation or nuance lets us move forward to specific examples in upcoming chapters where you'll see how they apply.

  • Each person pays a rail fare which entitles him or her to a coach seat 
  • For service higher than coach (business class, first class on Acela Express, sleeping accommodations) an accommodation charge is added on top of the rail fare 
  • Accommodation charges for upgraded seats (business class, first class on Acela Express) are charged per person and therefore per seat
  • Accommodation charges for sleeping accommodations are charged per room, regardless of whether one, two, or more persons are in the room
  • Rail fares can be discounted by passenger type (child, senior, and others)
  • Accommodation charges are almost never discounted by passenger type

The next chapter will examine the application of fares on trains in short-distance markets where the seats are sold as unreserved.

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to # 9 - Introduction to fares
Forward to # 11 - Fares, unreserved coach

24 October 2011

Amtrak Service and Fares - # 9 - Introduction to fares

In my extensive series entitled Airline Fare School, my goal was to draw back the curtain for those not in the travel industry on the underlying structure that powers how airline fares work.

From this point on in the Amtrak Service and Fares series, the goal is the same.  And what I wrote at the beginning of the airline fare series also applies here: nothing that I am going to convey is secret or something that Amtrak doesn't want you to know.  It is simply the nuts and bolts of how Amtrak fares work.

In the airline fare series, it took me twelve chapters (in addition to the introduction and conclusion) to do that complex subject some level of justice.  Likewise there will be plenty of chapters about Amtrak's fares, but I expect them to be shorter than those in Airline Fare School.

Availability, Los Angeles to Seattle, 10 November (Sabre)

As with the airline series, I will use screen-captures from a travel agency GDS (global distribution system) that look very similar to what Amtrak employees see in their own Arrow computerized reservation system.  These images help to illustrate concepts.

Toward the end of Airline Fare School I included a couple of sources where non-travel industry people could see actual tariff and availability displays much like what airline and travel agency personnel see.  However as far as I know, there isn't a mechanism that allows "civilians" to see raw Amtrak fare or availability displays.  You'll need to become friends with a travel agent that sells Amtrak in order to see those.

As always, I welcome corrections, updates, and additional information from readers.  Comment away!

First, some background.

When Amtrak began its existence in May 1971, it inherited the individual reservations offices of the private railroads that up until then made reservations and sold tickets on their own trains.  I haven't any knowledge of the chronology, but Amtrak consolidated the individual railroad reservations offices into regional call centers of which now, more than 40 years later, there are just two: one near Philadelphia and the other near Riverside in southern California.

Amtrak's first computerized reservation system, ARTS, was introduced in June 1973, but replaced by Arrow in October 1981.  Arrow remains the backbone of Amtrak's reservations and ticketing system, although two graphical user interfaces (GUI) were developed in the late 1990s to eliminate the need for employees to learn cryptic commands.  STARS is the GUI front-end system that agents at train stations use, and RailRes is used in reservation call centers.

Arrow is similar to airline systems, and it's not surprising because it was originally developed for Amtrak as a derivative of Braniff Airlines' Cowboy system.  Amtrak applies the same tools of yield management that the airlines do.  They offer multiple fares for the same product by slicing and dicing inventory, though the complexity is far less than that of their brothers and sisters in the air.  Arrow is also ultimately where reservations made on Amtrak's website (Amtrak.com) are created and reside.

Starting in 1984, Amtrak began to take part in what were then called the computerized reservations systems (CRS) used by travel agents in order to make it easier for them to reserve rail space and issue tickets.  (They now go by the more highfalutin term, GDS, but they're fundamentally the same thing.)  These four systems are Apollo, Sabre, Worldspan, and Amadeus. 

Travel agents can sell most of the same products that Amtrak can, though except for a few top-notch rail specialists, most travel agents lack familiarity with Amtrak because it represents too small an amount of their business.  As with the airlines that eliminated nearly all domestic and most international travel agency commissions years ago, Amtrak eliminated commission payments for short-haul corridor trains, but continues to pay commission for agency issued tickets on long-distance trains.

Now that you know some of the background, let's see what we're going to cover.  As with Airline Fare School, we'll build this brick-by-brick:

- Basic principles
- Coach (unreserved)
- Coach (reserved)
- Business class (non-Acela Express trains)
- Business class (Acela Express)
- First class (Acela Express)
- Sleeping accommodations
- Auto Train and bikes
- Passenger type discounts
- Through fares/connections/stopovers
- Rail passes and multi-ride tickets
- Purchasing tickets - Amtrak.com, 800 USA-RAIL, travel agencies

Stay tuned for the first chapter about basic principles!

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to # 8 - Service
Forward to # 10 - Fares, basic principles

17 October 2011

Rail - Amtrak's 40th anniversary train comes west

Since early May, a special train has been circulating around the country offering a free public exhibit celebrating Amtrak's 40th anniversary that took place on 1 May.

The passenger cars and locomotives will sport Amtrak liveries from the past four decades.

Between now and mid December the train will make six stops in the Pacific coast states:

Seattle - 22-23 October
Portland - 29-30 October
Sacramento - 5-6 November
Oakland - 12-13 November
Bakersfield - 19-20 November
San Diego - 3-4 December
Los Angeles - 10-11 December

For details click above on a city name.  If you don't live in one of these cities, but nearby along one of Amtrak's routes, why not consider taking a train ride to and from the exhibit?

I will probably try to take in the exhibit either in Sacramento or Oakland.

Amtrak has a website dedicated to the 40th anniversary that includes information about the exhibit train, as well as a great deal more about the company's history.  Whether you are able to see the exhibit train or not, you'll probably find something worthwhile on the anniversary website if you're at all interested in Amtrak.

I dug around a bit in the "Archives" section, and chanced upon a link to The Museum of Railway Timetables.  This is not curated by Amtrak itself, but rather by two gentlemen associated with the Amtrak Unlimited discussion forum I've mentioned before in my ongoing Amtrak Service and Fares blog series.  It's entertaining (well, for me at least) to look at timetables that chronicle Amtrak's history.

Related link:
- my post noting Amtrak's 40th anniversary on 1 May 2011

04 October 2011

Amtrak Service and Fares - # 8 - Service

Amtrak has extensive online and print resources for learning more about their onboard service so this post will be concise and without photos.

For Amtrak's own resources, start with this page on their website for detailed information about onboard service.

And if you want to peruse non-Amtrak sources take a look at the posts at Amtrak Unlimited, an online discussion forum that consists mostly of guys passionate about trains.  You can pose questions, too, though you need to register as a member in order to do that.  My guess is that someone there will take a stab at your question if you don't find the answer first by searching through the existing topics.

For years Amtrak has produced what it used to call the Travel Planner, but now simply calls Amtrak America.  It has always been one of the best travel industry print resources I've seen, and you can order a copy at no charge.  Online information is handy, but I think a printed format is more useful for leisurely research.  Go to this page on Amtrak's website to order Amtrak America, and other useful print publications including a system timetable and Amtrak Vacations (package tours) brochure.

For the full story consult the resources I've suggested above, but I'll provide some basic information below.


Seating is 2 seats on either side of the aisle.  Amtrak does not preassign specific seats for coach travel, but unlike when you fly, there isn't any chance on Amtrak that you'll get a middle seat because they don't exist.  No other amenities are included, but most short distance trains have offer some form of meal and beverage service for purchase.  (For travel on Auto Train only, meals are included in the price of a coach ticket.)

Coach is sold both as reserved and unreserved.

Reserved coach seating can be considered similar to how Southwest Airlines operates.  Seats are never preassigned, but Amtrak only sells the number of seats that are actually available on the train.  When you board you pick your own seat.  (On some long-distance trains conductors will direct passengers to specific cars depending on the destination.)

Unreserved coach seating is sold on high-frequency short-distance routes including Harrisburg-Philadelphia, Chicago-Milwaukee, Los Angeles-San Diego/Santa Barbara, Sacramento-Oakland-San Jose, among others.  No actually count is maintained of seats sold so in theory it is possible there could be standing passengers.  In practice it happens seldom because Amtrak tries to gauge demand from historical patterns and supply enough equipment to meet that demand.  Still, during busy holiday periods these trains can be very crowded and have standees.  On trains such as the Pacific Surfliners where unreserved coach and reserved business class are offered, it would be wise to pay a little extra and be assured of a seat.

Business class

Business class is offered on Amtrak's Acela Express service in the Northeast, the Northeast Regional service, some other trains in the East and Midwest, the Pacific Surfliner service in southern California, and the Cascades service in the Pacific Northwest.  The amenities vary from route to route, but can include (though not always) more legroom, a newspaper, and some kind of beverage or snack service.

On the Cascades service only, the business class eating configuration is 2-and-1 on either side of the aisle, so single travelers can enjoy both more legroom and a seat by themselves.  In all other markets the seating configuration in business class is 2-and-2 as in coach, though in some markets the pitch (the space between seats) will be greater in business class.

First class

This is akin to first class in the air, and is offered solely on Amtrak's higher-speed Acela Express service in the Northeast between Boston, New York, Washington D.C., and intermediate cities.

Seating is configured on a 2-and-1 basis, providing individual travelers with the opportunity to enjoy a seat by themselves.

At-seat meal and beverage service (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) is included in the price of the ticket.

In Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., first-class passengers have access to the ClubAcela lounge before departure or after arrival.

Sleeping accommodations

Amtrak's overnight trains all offer sleeping accommodations.

On trains west of Chicago the double-decker Superliner equipment offers four types of sleeping accommodations:

- Bedroom   (upper level)
- Roomette   (upper level - rooms 1-10; lower level - rooms 11-14)
- Family Bedroom   (lower level)
- Accessible Bedroom   (lower level)

Most eastern long-distance trains have single-level Viewliner equipment, which includes

- Bedroom
- Roomette
- Accessible Bedroom

Some of the adjoining Bedroom accommodations on both Superliner and Viewliner equipment can be combined to create a two-bedroom suite by removing an interior wall.

On both Superliner and Viewliner sleeping cars, the bedroom has a toilet, sink, and shower within each room.  Both Superliner and Viewliner accessible rooms have a toilet and sink within the room, though only the Viewliner accessible rooms have a shower.

Superliner roomettes do not have a toiler or sink in each room, but the Viewliner roomettes do.  Family bedrooms do not have a toilet, sink, or shower.

On the upper level of Superliner cars, there is a small bathroom with a toiler and sink for the passengers in upper level roomettes, and on the lower level are several bathrooms and changing rooms, as well as a bathroom with a good size shower for the use of all sleeping car passengers.  Viewliner sleepers have a shower for the use of passengers in roomettes.

Rooms are made up for night occupancy by the each sleeping car's attendant, who also sets up coffee and orange juice in the morning for his or her car.  In the morning, bed linens are replaced, and the room remade for day occupancy by the attendant.

All passengers in sleeping car accommodations have their regular meals (not including alcoholic drinks) included in the price of their tickets.  Most passengers take their meals in the dining car, but the sleeping car attendant will also bring meals back to the car on request.  (Sleeping car passengers on the Coast Starlight also have the option of eating in the Pacific Parlour Car, the lounge car unique to this train and only for first-class passengers.)

Sleeping car passengers are allowed access to the ClubAcela first-class lounges in the Northeast, and the Metropolitan Lounge located in Chicago and Portland, Ore.  The lounge in Chicago is especially useful, because this is the only point where long-distance trains from the east and the west make same day connections.  It's a very busy train station, so it's nice to have a quiet place to wait between trains.

If you have never seen Amtrak's sleeping accommodations and are considering a long-distance excursion by train, I recommend that you experience them or at least see them on a short, daytime trip.  The rooms, even the larger ones like the bedroom, are quite small.  By investing a small amount of time and money on a quick reconnaisance trip, you will  be far better prepared for that big overnight or cross-country journey.

For example, if you live in Seattle, then take the train to Portland for the day or a weekend.  Or if you live in the Bay Area, take the California Zephyr to Sacramento or the Coast Starlight to Salinas.  Even though it's not overnight, you could book a sleeper and it might not be that expensive (remember it includes meals), or if you traveled coach you could ask an Amtrak employee if he or she could show you the sleeping accommodations.

It would be money well-spent, not to mention an enjoyable small trip just by itself.

With that I conclude the first part of the Amtrak Service and Fares series.  You should now have a basic understanding of Amtrak's history, routes, and service, so we can move forward to an explanation of how Amtrak's fares work.

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to Routes - #7 - Short-distance corridors - Western (Pacific coast)
Forward to # 9 - Introduction to fares