May 16, 2013 by seradt
Though it is comparatively easier to board and ride a Cascades train than it is to trundle early to Sea-Tac with luggage, undress for security and then proceed to wait for a jetliner departure, the experience is nonetheless riddled by procedural failures and missed opportunities that render traveling by rail dramatically more frustrating than it needs to be. This truth is made unmistakably clear when international visitors, accustomed to the efficiencies of overseas railway practices, are noticeably confused in Seattle or Portland due to byzantine boarding requirements. Sharing in the disorientation, continental passengers, too, stand noticeably disgruntled in lengthy, blockbuster lines, for many the chaotic start of a trip that had been booked to help decompress. Strike one against the Cascades as a world-class passenger rail system is, quite simply, merely getting on the train.
The preservation of the mandatory seating assignment as Cascades boarding doctrine is built upon reasoning that is well founded. Predictably, history informs us that good intentions are typical of law and regulations that have gone awry, and these ostensibly sound reasons only make it harder for their replacement. In our Cascades example, for one, the seating assignment ensures that each passenger is allocated a precise seat within a train car, eliminating the potentially arduous work that would otherwise be necessary in a train without predetermined seating. Terrific! Two, it permits the train crew to open specific doors at platform stops that cannot accommodate a train length or do not have sufficient numbers to require opening all doors, reducing manpower and the amount of passenger carry-by’s. Ingenious! Three, it provides the trip a formality that the Cascades’ planners might desire to induce for travelers, a sophistication that should please the service’s middle class, often techie demographics. Creative! Four, it appoints choice spots to those who are first in line to check-in, with a first-come, first-serve system. Fair! Initially, all of these seem to be quality points in favor of the assignment, sure, but the thorny problem with the procedure is that its execution is, for whatever myriad of reasons, poor, and the consequence of the procedure taken as a rule prevents alternative methods of boarding to become standard. The rule defeats innovation, even when the innovation could be just as effective as the seating assignment in dealing with these four operations problems, if not many others.
To be clear, I have no issue with seating assignments in theory; my contention is the lack of an electronic seating assignment upon the purchase of a ticket. The shockingly sub par process that arises in the absence of this information technology—of standing in a circuitous queue with upwards of 230 grandparents, parents, men, women, toddlers, baby strollers and businesspersons—a queue that snakes around pillars, through doorways, blocking paths and lacking definition, is in no way an acceptable boarding procedure for a modern passenger railway. If the standard information technology that allows seat assigning on railways across the world cannot be provided for the Cascades, the boarding process that currently scars the operation of these trains should unequivocally be done away with. The objective of the passenger railway is to move passengers from an origin to a destination as efficiently and swiftly as possible, and such an objective precludes the process of assigning travelers into seats via a procedure that is disturbingly reminiscent of the immigrations sorting of 1900’s Ellis Island.
The lunacy of the seating assignment is made profoundly clear in the context of the long-range plan of the Cascades service. In chapters four and five, the essential 2006 report rather painstakingly articulates a vision of what it believes is the higher speed future of the Seattle to Portland corridor—185 miles of passenger dedicated third mainline, 46 miles of passenger dedicated fourth mainline passing track, new sidings and switches, massive new bridges over the Columbia and other major waterways, new station facilities, new trains and signaling systems—saddling the region with a whopping $3.403 billion price tag in 2013 dollars for a trip time reduction of a single hour. Recall this fact throughout this piece: nearly $3.5 billion will need to be spent to shave off just one hour from a 3h 30m trip.
Yet despite the comprehensive nature of the multi-billion dollar proposal, the long-range plan makes absolutely zero mention of any modernized ticketing and boarding process (an extremely unsettling truth to point out). Furthermore, based on my own research, no official plan has been produced after the 2006 report. This compels me to believe that future passengers will still be expected to arrive at their local station absurdly early, queue before the train crew a half hour before departure, and receive a paper sticker containing the numbers of their seat before going on their modern, $3.5 billion train ride. Following the expenditure of such an enormous amount of public funds, this would be a shameful predicament. If it will cost multiple billions to shorten a single hour from the Seattle to Portland schedule, then most certainly it would be an abomination to not remove 50% more time—for free! —by discarding mandatory seating assignments and the ridiculous amount of time with which they burden travelers. Door-to-door times are equally as impacted by the check-in process as they are by any operating delay or slow curve on board the train. That WSDOT has not addressed this looming issue as part of the Cascades development plan, either at the present time or in long-range plans, is a major program defect, particularly as it encourages the public to fork over a slew of massive checks to finance the construction of new rail infrastructure. Service planners must address this critical item. Clearly, it is high time for a new long-range passenger rail plan.
The post-seating assignment era could be brought to fruition with only a few minor material acquisitions which, though costing a nonzero sum of money, would more than pay for itself through reduced manpower, less frustration and more endearment to the train service in the blessed absence of the assignment process. A rundown of an optional boarding method is perhaps necessary here:
A passenger intends to travel from Seattle to Kelso on a nearly sold-out Cascades train 501—a 7:30A departure—and approaches the ticket counter at King Street Station at 7:23A to purchase a last minute coach ticket. With a ticket in hand by 7:26A, they hurry to track five, the track from where the timetable states the train always departs Seattle. Train side, they briskly walk passed clear platform signage declaring, Portland: Cars 9 to 7, and, Tacoma / Vancouver: Cars 7 to 5, and immediately head for, Kelso / Tukwila / Centralia: Cars 4 to 3. They quickly board car 4 and find the last remaining seat, which, although not the best, is at least a spot. Of course, had the car four spot not been available, they could have chosen a free spot anywhere else in the train, though they are now aware that they are recommended to sit in either car three or four. Having left Seattle, the conductor soon scans their ticket, allowing the passenger a largely hassle-free trip toward Kelso. Eventually, the conductor announces the upcoming Kelso stop and informs passengers, much as the King Street Station signage did before, that she would be opening only the doors of business class and cars three and four. She does just that, allowing a few minutes for passengers to detrain and/or board before keying the doors closed and continuing toward Portland. At last, our star passenger is now off in Kelso following a marvelously easy journey (while, sadly, another passenger, also scheduled to detrain in Kelso, remains on board asleep. Pity for them; it is not the conductor’s error or problem and the train will keep moving).
This scenario’s method requires the end of seat assignments at stations, which is absolutely free, and investing in signage on each platform to indicate which cars are softly reserved for particular stations. Clearly, this is a method that is easily implemented and readily understandable. Though the minor investment in signs would cost a nonzero amount of money, its expense would be hugely outweighed by the benefits of a new boarding system that eliminates an assignment process that needlessly increases trip time, and which bothers every train crew with a worthless task at a critical time in the journey. All this for a dramatically simplified boarding of trains that provides a clearly understood succession of travel steps—ticket, board and go!
The positive features of the method are numerous:
It would permit trains to stop on short platforms and open specific doors, as is done today. Of course, the optimal solution would be to lengthen Cascades platforms so they can accommodate a trainset, and a rebuild to ensure that level boarding is achieved. This would allow all doors to be opened and for passengers to sit anywhere they would like; it would also eradicate any necessity for platform signage. A basic 101-class necessity for modern passenger operations, such progress is effectively forbidden here as a consequence of freight railroad and Washington State law (and a subject to be covered by a future post). Despite that, it remains critical that platform lengthening and level boarding be achieved anyway, and this is true even if the current, poor boarding procedures were to remain in effect. What is suggested in the case study is an acceptable second-best solution for the time being.
It would allow passengers to board their train right up until doors close at departure time, an expectation of any modern rail system worldwide (and a feature currently forbidden on the Cascades by up to five minutes, a frivolous rule that should be done away with the day seating assignments are summarily discarded).
It would allow passengers to board the train right when it is made available to board—which should be immediately upon completion of seat turning and car cleaning—to claim their seat. This does two things: one, it prevents 250 people from boarding at once, allowing passengers to trickle into the train, and; two, allows for passengers to select available spots, providing plenty of time for negotiating if necessary. Additionally, this would be a truly fair seating system, unlike today’s assignment process, where the most agile people clamor to form a line of “best-seat recipients” immediately upon sight of an approaching train crew, denying the opportunity to be first to others who were present earlier. Those unable to race to the check-in desks at the wildly inconsistent times that a crew arrives are often elderly or disabled individuals, or others who simply did not or could not see the train crew. With the new system, these individuals would already be seated on the train in their preferred spot, relaxed and engrossed in their books, dissecting gossip magazines, chatting, tapping toes to music, or dreaming.
It emphasizes passenger responsibility when boarding and detraining, removing any penalties a conductor might be confronted with should they have a carry-by on their trip. Though Amtrak policy expressly forbids carry-bys (chapter 7, page 1), and though some conductors have been led to believe Washington state law forbids them from carrying passengers beyond their destination, carry-by’s are a natural byproduct of moving people and cannot be wholly prevented. What this means is that the rule is incomparably silly as serious policy, and it should have no bearing on the Seattle to Portland corridor should standard procedure for a station stop be followed; additionally, I could find not one state law supporting the no carry-by railroad statute. In other words, train crew should only be attentive to train movements and other serious job responsibilities, not this or anything else.
It allows passengers to define the quality of their experience. Traveling by train in the United States is by nature of its rarity a unique experience. We do not need fanciful seat assignments to make that clear.
It is inherently flexible. Have a large group (20-plus) that wishes to sit together? Arrive at the station early. Have a large group boarding at a down-the-line station? Then you have the option of reserving with Amtrak one week or more in advance the saving of a group of spots—otherwise, you have what you can find on board. Don’t care about where you sit? Then you have train-full of seating options. The flexibility of a no seating assignment train would become especially advantageous once a system is implemented that removes the requirement of the conductor to personally scan each ticket, allowing passengers to negotiate and trade spots during the journey, or, say, if a passenger chooses to sit with friends elsewhere instead of remaining in their initial seat.
No matter the method of boarding used by the Cascades in the future, it must do away with the bafflingly awful procedures that currently thieve too many precious minutes from hundreds of daily passengers. This transition away from mediocrity should be square one in the progression of the Cascades from a fringe transport service between two hub cities, to an efficient, high-capacity railroad that becomes the natural mode selection for anyone going anywhere on the I-5 corridor.
A little anecdote: for preparation of this posting, I made multiple forays into King Street Station to ask those in line for their opinions of mandatory seating assignments. Despite the complaints I frequently overhear or read of about the boarding process for a Cascades train, I was gobsmacked by what became a relatively consistent vocalization of support, with, of course, the occasional opposition. I wondered to myself how this could be, so decidedly a slap to the face it was to my prediction of public opinion. Shortly after posing the question, I realized I had been most frequently asking those at the front of the queue. Many standing even before crews had arrived, some thirty to forty minutes before their scheduled departure, they are perhaps those with the most to lose following the implementation of a more egalitarian boarding process.