17 November 2011

Amtrak Service and Fares - # 12 - Fares, reserved coach

In markets served by its long-distance trains, Amtrak uses a yield management system under which coach travel is sold at four different price levels depending on availability.

While similar to the system used by the airlines, the number of fares is far fewer, and the complexity of the fares far less.

Let's take a look at an example for travel between Seattle and Chicago for travel on 18 December.

First, here is a fare display:

Four different levels of coach fares appear.  In ascending order of price (top to bottom in the display), they are $156, $205, $267, and $347 one way.  Under the class column ("CL"), is the respective inventory code that must be reserved for each fare: YD, YB, YA, or Y.

This is Amtrak's tame alphabet soup recipe for coach travel.  By comparison, the airlines use a bewildering array of inventory codes and fare basis codes with rules that go on and on.

So in this market (or pretty much any market served by long-distance Amtrak trains) four fares apply for coach travel.

Using the fare on line 1 as our first example, the fare basis code is DOF1, it is $156, it's a one-way fare, it must be booked in the YD inventory code, it's valid for a year, etc.

The next lowest fare is the BOF1 at $205, booked in YB.

Then after that is the AOF1 at $267 booked in YA.

Last of all is the full fare coach YOFC at $347 booked in Y.

Amtrak uses a convention similar to that of the airlines when it comes to its fare basis codes: the first letter of the fare basis denotes the inventory code that must be booked.  Amtrak also uses the Y inventory code for full fare, while the most deeply discounted is booked in YD (as in DOF1), the next lowest fare is booked in YB (BOF1), and the next fare up in YA (AOF1).

Now let's look at an availability display, to see what the lowest fare that could actually be confirmed for travel from Seattle to Chicago on 18 December.  Remember that we need a YD seat to get the lowest price.

To begin with, what you see above is one train (train 8, the Empire Builder) on line 1 that operates directly from Seattle to Chicago, while on lines 2 and 3 is a connection via Portland, Ore. (PDX).  The arrival time for train 8 in Chicago has a +2 after it, meaning that it arrives 2 days later.

Let's look at line 1.  (Note: this is a detailed view of only coach seat availability.  It does not show the availability of sleeping accommodations.)

The highest level inventory appears first: Y.  There are 8 (or more) seats in Y inventory available to sell.  Next comes YA, of which there also are at least 8 seats available.

But YB and YD are not available.  (YE and YF are inventory codes for which fares are seldom if ever published.)

The result of this is that the lowest coach fare available to sell on this train is $267, the fare that corresponds to the YA inventory code or bucket.

Here's how a reservation would look for one seat sold in the YA inventory code for Linda Test on 18 December:

And here is how it would look to a consumer booking through Amtrak.com:

Let's look at another example to make sure the point is clear, and then introduce another concept.

Here's a fare display between Chicago and New York for 13 March.

And below is the availability display.  (There are two direct trains - the one with the longer elapsed time on line 1 is the Cardinal, the train that makes a more circuitous journey.)  Looking at the train on line 2, train 48 (Lake Shore Limited), you see that YD seats are available, so the lowest price, the DOF1 at $97 per person one way, can be sold.

We sell two YD seats to create an itinerary for Jack and Jill Test, which will result in a total price of $194 ($97 x 2).

And then how it looks to a consumer using Amtrak.com

Now is a good time to introduce the concept of passenger type discounts.  Amtrak is far more generous in giving discounts than airlines are.  Right now let's consider two of these discounts: seniors (age 62 and above) and children (ages 2-15).

Seniors get a 15% discount off of coach rail fares, and accompanied children get a 50% discount.

Two children may receive the child's discount for every one adult.  Thus two children traveling with one adult would both get the children's discount.  Or four children traveling with two adults would get the child's discount.  However if there were three children traveling with  only one adult, the reservation would be priced as two adults and two children.

Let's see what happens to Jack and Jill Test's reservation when it is priced for two seniors.

$194 less 15% = $164.90.

Or for an adult and a child.

$97 for an adult + $48.50 for a child = $145.50.

In Amtrak.com these same scenarios would appear respectively in the following ways:

As a reminder, in the initial chapter about basic principles I laid out that passenger type discounts are only for coach rail fares; they do not apply to the additional charges assessed for business class service and sleeping accommodations.

Speaking of those additional charges, in the next chapter you'll get your first taste of how Amtrak applies accommodations charges as we look at pricing for business class service.

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to # 11 - Fares, unreserved coach
Forward to # 13 - Fares, business (non-Acela Express)

07 November 2011

Rail - Amtrak's 40th anniversary train in Sacramento

In a recent blog post I reported on the schedule in California for Amtrak's 40th anniversary exhibit train.

This past Saturday I went down to Sacramento to see the exhibit train, which was on display next to the California State Railroad Museum.

Me and my new friend, circa 1970s
I spent about an hour going through the exhibit, which took a mostly chronological approach to Amtrak's four decades of existence since 1971.

Since Amtrak's inception in 1971, I've been very familiar with it as a rail enthusiast, former Amtrak employee, and member of the travel industry.  Still it was fun to see artifacts that the public saw (uniforms, timetables, brochures, etc.) as well as things seen primarily by employees (bulletins, manuals, and so on).

Because my position at Amtrak involved working with travel agents it was very interesting for me to see a letter that went out in January 1972 (less than a year after Amtrak's founding) announcing a standard commission policy for all Amtrak service.  Prior to Amtrak each railroad had its own commission policy, if in fact, it paid commissions.

If you live near one of the remaining cities that the exhibit train will visit, I would recommend taking it in.  For those who have followed Amtrak's 40+ year saga, it will be a pleasant trip down memory lane.  (The train's next stop is Oakland Jack London Square, 12-13 November.)

Here are a few more photos I took in Sacramento.

02 November 2011

Amtrak - Wifi coming soon to trains in California

Amtrak announced that it has expanded wifi to nearly all of its trains in the Northeast.

Previously only the premium Acela Express service offered wifi, but now the standard Northeast Regional trains, as well as most others that operate outside of the Boston-New York-Washington spine will also offer wifi.

Even better news for Californians, is that all three of the short-distance corridors in California are slated to get wifi by the end of 2011!

That means the Capitol Corridor (Sacramento-Oakland-San Jose), San Joaquin (Oakland/Sacramento-Bakersfield), and Pacific Surfliner (San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo) riders will all soon have access to wifi.  Presently the service is free on the east coast, as it will also be in the Golden State.  The superb Cascades regional service in the Pacific Northwest (Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver) already provides complimentary wifi.

Yet another reason to leave the car at home and ride the rails.

For more info see Amtrak's October 2011 press releases.

01 November 2011

Amtrak Service and Fares - # 11 - Fares, unreserved coach

We'll begin our look at Amtrak fares with unreserved coach. Though unreserved coach pricing is rather basic, this chapter will be where we start looking at Amtrak fare and availability displays.  It's a good entry point to begin using tools you'll see throughout the series.

As previously described in the "Service" part of this series, unreserved coach is just that.  Amtrak does not actually keep a count of the number of seats sold on a particular train.  To the best extent possible, Amtrak tries to gauge the amount of business using historical models and then provide enough coaches, but there is in fact no guarantee of a seat when a passenger has an unreserved ticket.  At busy times such as over Thanksgiving, "standee" conditions can result, i.e. passengers without seats.

Tickets sold for unreserved trains do not actually show a specific date or train, but rather just the city-pair, for example: Los Angeles to San Diego.  A benefit of this for passengers is that if they decide they want to travel on a different unreserved train they can.  Because there is no actual reservation and the ticket merely shows the city pair, they can use it on a different date and/or different train without further ado.

Let's look at an Amtrak fare display for travel between Los Angeles and San Diego on 10 November.  It's a good example because all of the trains that operate here are sold as unreserved for coach travel.  (They also offer business class on most trains, but we'll get to that in subsequent chapters so what you're going to see is edited to keep the example clean.)

Remember that here we are merely looking at an Amtrak fare display; nothing appears showing availability or schedules of trains.

Two fares are shown in a vertical presentation, similar to how airline fares are displayed.  (To see an airline fare display, here is the relevant chapter in my Airline Fare School series.)

Let's use the first fare on line 1 as an example.

1          the line number - used when more detailed rules are required
UOB1   the fare basis code - always 4 characters)

From here on out, information appears under column headers.  Let's see what each column header references and then we'll  go back and look specifically at what is in the fare display above.

AMOUNT  self-explanatory
FT           fare-type
CL           class of service when selling space for a reservation
MAX         the maximum validity in number of days
LSTTVL    last date of travel
R             refundability
AR           advance purchase requirement

The foregoing is what the column headers symbolize.  Here is what usually appears in these columns, and what it means.

The fare type is always OW meaning one-way.  Amtrak used to publish both one-way and round-trip fares, but no longer does.  All point-to-point fares are one-way in nature, meaning you do not need to buy a round-trip in order to get a discount.  Amtrak also offers a couple of pass-type products, and what are called multi-ride tickets (meant for commuters), though these do not appear in travel agent displays and are not useful for most trips.  (We'll take a quick look at passes and multi-ride tickets near the end of the series.)

The class of service (inventory code, also called a "bucket") really applies for reserved trains and the different levels of coach fares offered.  In this instance it is empty, but when we look in the next chapter at reserved long-distance trains you will see this column contains a specific inventory code that must be reserved in order to get that price.

The maximum validity typically is 365 days (one year), unless it is a very short-term promotional fare.

The last date of travel is a dynamic response based on the travel date specified.  Because we asked for fares for travel on 10 November 2011, it calculated that the last valid date for travel would be 8 November 2012 based on a validity of 365 days.

Under the refundability column appears either a "Y" for yes (though with conditions), "N" for no, or "P" for prior to ticketing.  Most Amtrak fares are refundable, though usually with some very reasonable conditions.

The advance purchase requirement normally shows "0", because hardly any Amtrak fares have a rules-based advance purchase requirement, unlike most discounted airline fares.  As of the writing of this series, there is one significant exception to that in the Northeast Corridor where a 14 day advance purchase fare is in effect on Northeast Regional (non-Acela Express) trains.  Not to be confused with the rules-based advance purchase requirement for a specific published fare, is the ticketing deadline Amtrak assigns (typically 7 days unless travel is soon) to all reservations booked through ticket offices, its reservation call centers, and travel agencies.  (Reservations booked through Amtrak.com must be ticketed at the end of the transaction.  They cannot be simply held for purchase later.)  And certain passenger type discounts, AAA being the most common, require a minimum 3 days advance reservation.

Following the information that appears under the columns is free-form information that is useful to someone such as an Amtrak reservations or ticket agent, or a travel agent.  This is convenient, because it can save the chore of viewing the entire rules display.

Now let's look at the Los Angeles-San Diego fare display again.

Only two fares appear, the UOB1 at $36 and the UOF1 at $45.  Without having to look at a complete rule, the free-form information to the right of each fare makes clear what the difference is:

The UOB1 has blackout dates coming up of 22-24 November 2011 and again 26-28 November.  (Peak Thanksgiving dates, of course.)  Additional blackout dates will apply further out, which one could view if needed via the complete rules display.

The UOF1 on the other hand reads "no blackouts".  Keeping in mind the blackout dates for the UOB1, if you traveled in unreserved coach on 21 November you'd pay $36, but on the 22nd you'd pay the higher UOF1 fare of $45.  (In some markets including L.A.-San Diego, trains that normally are sold as unreserved operate as reserved trains during peak periods such as Thanksgiving in order to reduce the likelihood of standees.)

OK, let's look now at an availability display between Los Angeles and San Diego for 10 November.  (This is from the Sabre system.)

The first line of the availability is an Amtrak Thruway bus.

The second through fifth lines of availability are all trains.  (There are more that leave later in the day.)

Using line 4 for our example, here is what this represents.

4             line number that one would sell from in order to book space.
2V           Amtrak's carrier code, like AA is American, UA is United, etc. (Note 1)
566         train number
JU8         inventory code "JU" (business class), 8 or more seats available (Note 2)
U8           inventory code "U" (unreserved coach), 8 or more seats available  (Note 3)
LAXSAN   city-pair
830A       departure time
10NOV    departure date
1120A     the arrival time
RMB         codes that denote various services available ("B" means checked baggage)
TRN         train (vs. BUS or occasionally LCH for ferry/ship)
2.50        duration of trip (2 hours 50 minutes)
9             number of en route stops (9 is the most shown)

Note 1: Amtrak can book and ticket certain non-Amtrak services when it is contained in a PNR ("passenger name record", the travel industry term for a reservation) in conjunction with Amtrak rail space.  For example, Pacificoach, a bus service in British Columbia can be sold and ticketed through Arrow, as can service on the Victoria Clipper between Victoria, BC and Seattle.  It is very convenient.

Note 2: We'll look closely at business class fares in a subsequent chapter

Note 3: "U" for unreserved coach will always show 8, because Amtrak does not track the number of seats sold.  The only reason that the trains appear in availability is so that PNRs can be created for ticketing.  Even when a train segment is sold in U inventory, the customer does not truly have a reservation, and as noted earlier, the ticket will not show a specific train and may be used on other dates or trains.

We'll go ahead and sell one seat on the 8:30 a.m. departure (train 566), give it a name (Jonathan Test) and price it as one full adult fare.  This is how it looks in the Sabre system, which is almost identical to how it looks in Arrow.

Notice that it priced at the $36 UOB1 fare, because travel does not take place over the Thanksgiving blackout period.

Here' is exactly the same thing as a consumer would see it when using Amtrak.com.

Now look at a reservation for the very same train but for travel on 22 November, over the blackout period. See how it prices at the higher UOF1 fare of $45.

And below is the same thing at Amtrak.com.  The reason it prices the way it does is neither arbitrary nor as a result of yield management; rather it is because of rules that apply to fares for unreserved coach in this market over the busy Thanksgiving period.

The next chapter will look at Amtrak's long-distance trains, where a more complex system of yield management produces four different levels of coach fares.

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to # 10 - Fares, basic principles
Forward to # 12 - Fares, reserved coach