Amtrak ridership up almost 6%, revenue up 9%

Okay, you know how much I like the Acela, so I’m not at all surprised to see that Amtrak has shown solid growth through the 2010 fiscal year, which ended on September 30. More than 28.7 million customers rode the rails, a year-over-year gain of 5.7 percent. Ticket revenue surged 9 percent to $1.7 billion, and Acela ridership, indicating growth in Amtrak‘s upscale offer.

Nonetheless, Amtrak did rely on our tax cash. We chipped in $1.49 billion to cover the railroad’s $3.5 billion in expenses, not to mention another $1.3 billion from the federal stimulus program. The stimulus payout went to finance work on tracks, cars and train stations.

[photo by cliff1066 via Flickr]

Five reasons why the Amtrak Acela Express is far superior to flying

There are four basic ways to travel among Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. You can fly, drive, ride a bus or take a train. Every traveler has his preference, but having played with all four options, I’ve found that hitting the rails is the right one for me, an increasingly popular position. I hate to be behind the wheel (a side-effect of living in Manhattan), and buses do tend to be slow, uncomfortable and unpleasant (though incredibly inexpensive). Flying … well, flying is everything a bus is only more expensive, a little bit faster and still slower, usually than driving or taking the train.

Usually, my decision on how to travel these routes comes down to flying versus rail. There’s no choice any more. Last weekend, I took the Amtrak Acela Express on a Boston-to-New York round trip, my second this year, and I was thrilled with every aspect of the experience.

Here are five reasons why the Acela is far, far superior to air travel in the Bos-Wash corridor:1. Save time up front: whether you’re in Boston or New York, you don’t have to leave the middle of the city to get to your transportation, and the same holds when you arrive at your destination. In New York, you get on at Penn Station, and in Boston, you can choose either South Station or Back Bay Station.

2. Save more time up front: the track isn’t announced until around 15 minutes before your train departs. So, don’t worry about having to get there an hour early or longer. I know, I know: for the Delta Shuttle, you don’t have to get to Marine Air Terminal an hour early, either. If you’re flying at a peak time (think Friday at 5 PM or Monday at 7 AM), you really do need to get to the terminal more than an hour ahead of time. They’re “peak” for a reason.

3. Stretch your legs: business class is the minimum on the Acela Express, and I won’t even begin to fantasize about what first class is like. Everything is comfortable, from being able to recline (and have the person in front of you do so) to the clean, spacious bathrooms. It can be difficult to get up and walk around when the train is moving at its top speed, but you are free to do so – with no “fasten seatbelt” light to slow you down.

4. Service with a smile: several of the announcements on the ride came with the simple yet highly effective suggestion, “Have a positive day.” It worked. I’ve hear similar announcements on planes before, but not often and not with the same voice (this guy was good). The food options weren’t great, and you do have to pay for them, but again, there was that smile involved.

Note: I have no problem with airlines charging for food and think they should have moved to this model a while ago. A la carte just makes sense to me. The differentiator for the Acela is the service that puts it into your hands.

5. There’s no dehumanizing security process: first, there’s no reason not to feel safe, and there are security measures in place to protect Amtrak’s customers. That said, you don’t have to squander your youth waiting to get wanded by someone from the TSA. You just carry your bags on board and take your seat.

[photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr]

New England is barrier to high-speed trains

Nothing was more exhilarating than hearing the announcement on the Acela Express last weekend: we were traveling at the train’s top speed of 150 mph. I was comfortable, and I was moving quickly. I was also pretty psyched about the incredibly friendly service (airlines, you could learn plenty from the Acela). So, I’d love to see more high-speed rail travel, not to mention a greater number of faster stretches on the existing Acela routes.

An increase in triple-digit time seems unlikely in parts of New England, despite the feds are committing $8 billion in stimulus cash to put more high-speed trains on the rails nationwide. According to the Associated Press:

But in populated areas of New England where city streets and railroad tracks intersect and trains must negotiate curves, hills and tunnels, travel at speeds as high as 150 mph are out of the question.

As early as this decade, passengers will instead board trains moving at between 65 mph and 80 mph. That’s slower than true high-speed trains.

This should be sufficient to cut driving, though, which is the main objective. Hey, it’ll also give us another alternative with flying, which I’m pretty happy about.

[photo by Mr. T in DC via Flickr]

Sex over service? Airlines try vixen pitch with passengers

It’s no secret that airline customer service is generally perceived to be as pleasant as a root canal. I was thinking about this over the weekend, as I walked home from Penn Station, after catching Amtrak’s Acela back from Boston. I had a fantastic trip (up and back) and was hung up on the contrasts to air travel.

Later that night, I met a friend for a glass of wine and talked through the issue, particularly the airline side of it. It feels like most of the major carriers aren’t making an effort to repair public exception, with notable exceptions like JetBlue. In almost any other industry, routine public perception being so low would trigger a crisis-caliber response.

Not the airlines, though …

I got my answer today, with a story that passed through my Twitter stream: sex sells. Instead of trying to build and maintain a solid image, an airline could just give up, and try to win new passengers the old fashioned way. And indeed, it is the old fashioned way, as anyone who remembers National Airlines’ 1971 commercial with flight attendant Cheryl Fioravente’s invitation: “Fly me.”

[Image credit: Flickr/Rachel Kramer Bussel]

Cathay Pacific isn’t going to that extreme, but it is making an effort to seduce passengers with shots of eye-candy that has yet to hit The Big 3-0. The flight attendants, uniformly hot in uniform and not, pose alongside quotes that could read from a customer service manual or a personal ad: “I just like to listen more than talk” and “Nothing beats a smile for turning strangers into friends.”

Who wouldn’t want to hear that at boarding?

The Wall Street Journal notes that this is a departure from the advertising of the past few decades, in which airlines have sacrificed the sensual in favor of the practical: “comfort, convenience, low fares and fine in-flight dining.”

Of course, that approach hasn’t really been working too well, especially the comfort and convenience aspects. In addition to dealing with an abysmal image, the industry has to contend with tighter market conditions as a result of the post-financial crisis recession. There isn’t as much disposable income to go around, and passengers have to choose between flying and other forms of recreation. Business travelers can be more discriminating, when destinations permit.

Cathay Pacific isn’t alone: Air France has headed into sexier territory with its latest ad campaign, which the WSJ describes as having a “blonde model wearing a pink corset, its strings apparently being loosened by a miniature plane taking off.” The U.S. carriers aren’t there yet, but the overseas trend nonetheless makes me wonder if the approach should be on their radar.

It’s pretty clear that something needs to change for an industry that struggles to make a right move in the public’s eye, even in cases where such ire is unwarranted. Maybe it is best to stop trying to look good … and focus on superficial beauty instead.

Amtrak offering double Guest Rewards points through Dec. 12

If you are one of the two people who are members of Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program, (hey, you and I can form a club!) then start riding those trains between now and the end of the year. Any Amtrak travel through December 12 will earn double the normal number of points, which works out to four points per dollar spent on train travel, or 1000 points if you travel on the high-speed Acela Express between Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston. To enroll for the extra-point-earning opportunity, log into your account at and click on the “Register” button for the bonus offer.

Contrary to my previous verbal jabbing, the Guest Rewards program is actually very popular among business travelers along the DC-NYC-Boston Northeast Corridor. You can earn points through Amtrak travel, staying at a number of popular hotel chains, and through the associated Chase credit card. Guest Rewards points can also be redeemed for (besides Amtrak travel) hotel nights, car rentals, and gift cards to a variety of restaurants and retailers. Unlike the increasingly-stingy airline frequent-flyer programs, a mere six Acela trips (or three if you take advantage of this bonus offer!) will earn you a free unreserved coach seat on any non-Acela Northeast train. Also unlike airlines, Amtrak does not restrict the number of award seats on a particular train. If a seat is available, you can reserve it with points. Not too shabby.