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

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