Amtrak: Step Yo Game Up

Flickr - Pandangel

Amtrak has so many problems that writing this post somewhat pains me.  I've had many great experiences with this service, but the company's absolute inability to keep costs down prevents me from riding with any serious regularity.  Unfortunately, a recent industry innovation may further deepen Amtrak's problems.

Up until last year the transportation options for getting around the Northeast had clear lines of demarcation.  Flying was situated at the top of the tier, for its perceived time savings, despite the time usually allotted to security checks, delays and transportation by cab/subway to/from the airport.  Amtrak sat one rung below. That left Greyhound, Fung Wah and Lucky Star to fight over the business of poor college students, post-grads, and middle-aged adults without cars.

Within the last year or so two new bus lines joined the market: Megabus and Bolt Bus (a Greyhound subsidiary).  These services launched offering WiFi internet access for laptop users. The connection speed doesn't allow one to download movies, but the bandwidth certainly lends itself to robust web surfing.  Currently, this offering serves mostly as a differentiator between the bus lines.  I can't imagine that too many regular Amtrak riders are trading down to the WiFi buses.

But, it's likely that there's going to be a glacial trend to the downside.  Although I don't have solid data regarding the Amtrak ridership demo, I assume that historically there's been an element of trading up from buses to trains as income rises.  Poor college students eventually get jobs, and recent grads with crappy jobs sometimes improve their lot in life.   If Amtrak never gets around to offering WiFi, I find it quite unlikely that current WiFi bus riders (for business or pleasure trips) trade up to Amtrak with the same regularity that bus passengers typically did in the past. (This worldview assumes that services such as MiFi remain expensive and far from mainstream for quite some time.)

If Amtrak does offer WiFi, however, it probably won't lead to a substantive increase in ridership - so it's a slight incremental cost without too much positive benefit (aside from staying relevant).  Still, I find it hard to believe that the cost savings of eliminating their free magazine couldn't pay for WiFi for every passenger (or at least 2-3 devoted WiFi cars).

My colleague Jeffrey pointed out that perhaps some drivers would be convinced to ride the train for certain trips if they knew that they could get some WiFi-related work done during the ride.  Though this is a valid point, I'm not convinced that drivers are malleable enough in their transporation habits to choose the train often enough to result in a tangible volume shift in this segment.

To end on an unrealistically positive note, if Amtrak could somehow find a way to decrease its ticket prices by 40-60% and offer WiFi, then I think there would be a tremendous shift in the way everyone gets around.  Until then, enjoy the Snack Car.

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