What Metro-North can learn from Amtrak

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Enjoying a speedy (148 mph) ride to Boston recently on Acela, I started thinking about the differences between Amtrak and Metro-North.  Both are railroads, but each has a different mission.  Still, there are a few things Metro-North could learn from its national counterpart.

QUIET CARS: Amtrak invented the concept in 2000 and it’s been a big success.  The cars are well marked and the “library-like atmosphere” rules are explained and enforced, both by conductors and passengers.  But on Metro-North, the “QuietCalmute” concept didn’t happen until 2011.  The cars are not marked and the rules are seldom enforced.

WI-FI: Here again, Amtrak was an early adopter offering free Wi-Fi in 2010.  The response was so great that the “tubes” were quickly clogged, forcing a major tech upgrade.  Today on any Northeast Corridor train (not just Acela) the Wi-Fi is fast and dependable, allowing passengers to be productive all through their journey.  Metro-North says it has no plans for Wi-Fi.

FIRST CLASS: For those that want it, first class seating is available on Amtrak complete with at-seat dining options.  The upgrade from coach isn’t cheap, but highly popular and the cars are usually full.  When the New Haven RR ran our trains, there were private parlor cars on some commuter runs.  Given the demographics on MNRR, I’m pretty sure a premium seating option would be quite popular. But none is planned.

DYNAMIC PRICING: Book an advance seat on Amtrak and you’ll find three different ticket prices, the cheapest akin to airlines’ no-show / no-refund pricing, and others with higher fares giving you more flexibility.  Because Metro-North doesn’t book seats, they only offer peak and off-peak fares.  You can walk up and grab a ride anytime on Metro-North.  But on Amtrak you usually must have a reservation and be pre-ticketed.

REFUNDS: Once I was on an over-booked Acela with literally no empty seats.  After arrival I contacted Amtrak and was given a full refund for being a standee for 3+ hours.  On Metro-North your ticket only gets you a ride, not a guarantee of seating.

REWARDS: Amtrak has a great Amtrak Guest Rewards program where your loyalty gets you points toward upgrades and free tickets.  Last year I went from Chicago to LA (in a private bedroom, meals included) for free, just using points I’d earned riding Acela.  There’s also a co-branded credit card where everyday purchases earn you these perks.  On Metro-North, no points, perks or rewards.

NEW CARS: To its credit, Amtrak has already ordered the next generation of its popular “high speed” Acela trains long before the current rolling stock has worn out.  On Metro-North the railroad and CDOT waited until 2005 to order the new M8 cars to replace older cars that were 25+ years into their 20-year life expectancy and were being held together with gaffers tape.

ON-TIME PERFORMANCE: If your train is running late on Amtrak, they’ll text or e-mail you, just like the airlines.  On Metro-North, they only Tweet or e-mail if several trains are affected.  On Metro-North trains are considered “on time” if they’re up to six minutes late, so the railroad’s 90+percent on time record is dubious.  Still, it’s better than Amtrak where even Acela, the pride of their fleet, is on-time only 74 percent of the time (even including a 10-minute leeway).

Apples and oranges?  Sure.  These two railroads are quite different.  But Metro-North has a monopoly while Amtrak must compete with everything from discount buses to the airlines.  Maybe that’s why Amtrak is better?

Reprinted with permission of Hearst CT Media. Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

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