All aboard ... at some point

There’s an eas­ier way for pas­sen­gers to board trains, but Am­trak has not made any gains in ef­fi­ciency

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY FAIZ SID­DIQUI faiz.sid­[email protected]­

Head to Union Sta­tion any time dur­ing the busy hol­i­day season, and you’re likely to en­counter a fa­mil­iar rit­ual: scores of train pas­sen­gers shuf­fling into long, snaking lines that ex­tend past the shops and cafes, per­haps be­gin­ning at one gate but stretch­ing two or three oth­ers past it. In­evitably, a pas­sen­ger will ask whether they’re in the cor­rect line. It seems sus­pect, af­ter all, to be lin­ing up at Gate F for a de­par­ture from Gate J.

Mean­while, long train plat­forms that could ac­com­mo­date the crowds are ghost towns un­til the board­ing process be­gins — and the sud­den stam­pede of lug­gage wheels against the pave­ment sig­nals the com­ing de­par­ture.

“It’s al­ways the same ap­proach where they make every­body line up out­side of the gate, and then a few min­utes ahead of time, they open the doors, and then every­body sort of rushes the train,” said Ben Kabak, a 35-year-old New Yorker who runs the pop­u­lar tran­sit blog Sec­ond Av­enue Sagas. “In­evitably, as peo­ple are fil­ter­ing through the doors, the train ends up leav­ing a few min­utes late.”

Kabak had one such ex­pe­ri­ence in Novem­ber. In a Twit­ter thread call­ing the board­ing process “world-class dumb,” he re­counted stand­ing in line for a north­bound 7:10 p.m. train that was sup­posed to de­part nine min­utes later. At 7:13, he fired off an­other tweet:

“We pull out of DC al­ready three min­utes late due solely to the board­ing process. Amaz­ing,” he said.

Pas­sen­gers won­der why they can’t just line up on the plat­form like at train sta­tions else­where on Am­trak and even around the world — not to men­tion an­other ma­jor sys­tem serv­ing Union Sta­tion — Metro.

Why doesn’t Am­trak give rid­ers ac­cess to the train plat­forms, al­low­ing them time to choose their seats and board the train at their leisure? Such a sys­tem also would ease crowd­ing and the chaotic lines at the gates, pas­sen­gers say. Is it be­cause of se­cu­rity con­cerns? Am­trak calls it a “unique sit­u­a­tion.”

Al­i­son Si­mon, a se­nior di­rec­tor for Am­trak’s North­east Cor­ri­dor, the coun­try’s busiest line ex­tend­ing from Bos­ton to Wash­ing­ton, said the board­ing process at Union Sta­tion is not pri­mar­ily for se­cu­rity rea­sons.

Rather, be­cause the North­east Cor­ri­dor ter­mi­nates in Wash­ing­ton, many trains need to be re­stocked, me­chan­i­cally in­spected and cleaned at Union Sta­tion — along with re­quir­ing ei­ther a phys­i­cal turn­around, called “wye­ing” — out­side the sta­tion or un­der­go­ing up to an hour-long process to re­store it to ser­vice. She said the rail­road does not want cus­tomers to queue on the plat­form while those pro­cesses are tak­ing place, both be­cause of the equip­ment and the per­son­nel work­ing to ready trains for ser­vice.

“If my train is un­der ‘blue light’, which means that it is be­ing ser­viced, I can’t have cus­tomers just wan­der­ing out [there],” Si­mon said. “Then you’re talk­ing about a se­cu­rity is­sue, you’re talk­ing about a safety is­sue . . . . It’s a Union Sta­tion is­sue. We need to keep our trains mov­ing.”

Am­trak’s in­spec­tor gen­eral raised con­cerns about the board­ing process in a sweep­ing 2016 re­port. The re­port faulted Am­trak for its lack of own­er­ship over the board­ing process.

“We found that no sin­gle of­fi­cial in the com­pany is ac­count­able for en­sur­ing that de­fi­cien­cies in board­ing pro­ce­dures are ad­dressed, and that the com­pany does not have a strat­egy to en­sure that board­ing re­ceives a com­pa­ny­wide fo­cus,” the re­port said.

The re­port said Am­trak’s dif­fer­ing board­ing pro­ce­dures from sta­tion to sta­tion and its unique pro­cesses com­pared to peer sys­tems around the world can “re­sult in pas­sen­ger frus­tra­tion, anx­i­ety, and con­fu­sion.” The re­port specif­i­cally high­lighted Union Sta­tion, Am­trak’s sec­ond busiest hub, as one of two lo­ca­tions (the other is New York Penn Sta­tion) that “merit par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion.”

The re­port said Union Sta­tion’s gates don’t have the ca­pac­ity to han­dle the pas­sen­ger load for most trains, with lines that “quickly spill out of the gates, build­ing down the length of the con­course, cross­ing other gates, retail en­trances, ex­its and other pas­sen­ger queues.” Peo­ple of­ten don’t know if they’re in the right line and pas­sen­gers end up cut­ting the line, it said. Union Sta­tion is in the midst of a plan con­struc­tion to dou­ble its con­course ca­pac­ity, which Am­trak says will re­lieve crowd­ing and lead to a more com­fort­able and ac­ces­si­ble cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence.

But in gen­eral, the re­port rec­om­mended a va­ri­ety of ac­tions to ad­dress board­ing is­sues across the sys­tem, among them, early board­ing and al­low­ing plat­form ac­cess as quickly as pos­si­ble.

“Al­low pas­sen­gers to board orig­i­nat­ing trains as early as prac­ti­cal be­fore de­par­ture; for through-trains, al­low ac­cess to plat­forms as early as prac­ti­cal,” the re­port said. “Ac­cord­ing to op­er­a­tions man­age­ment re­search, en­gag­ing pas­sen­gers in ser­vice-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties — for ex­am­ple, mov­ing to the plat­form or board­ing the train — gives them the im­pres­sion that their ser­vice has be­gun, which can re­duce anx­i­ety and make wait­ing more tol­er­a­ble.”

Si­mon ac­knowl­edges the process can lead to delays and frus­tra­tion, es­pe­cially pulling out of a ter­mi­nal.

Am­trak’s busiest day of the year is typ­i­cally the Sun­day af­ter Thanks­giv­ing. The sys­tem car­ried 23,246 cus­tomers at Union Sta­tion on Nov. 26, 2017, and more than 100,000 at the sta­tion the week of Thanks­giv­ing that year.

And while rid­er­ship data was not yet avail­able for this year’s post-Thanks­giv­ing rush, Am­trak re­ported sig­nif­i­cant delays along the North­east Cor­ri­dor, with on­time per­for­mance of 70 per­cent (com­pared to 80 per­cent the month of Au­gust) and ini­tial ter­mi­nal per­for­mance of 78 per­cent. The lat­ter fig­ure mea­sures how closely de­par­tures align with sched­ules, and al­lows for a three­minute buf­fer, ac­cord­ing to Si­mon. (The fig­ure is typ­i­cally above 90 per­cent.)

Alan Cole, a 30-year-old grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, was vis­it­ing fam­ily in Wash­ing­ton over Thanks­giv­ing and ended up caught in the Union Sta­tion rush. As his de­par­ture time ap­proached, he found him­self won­der­ing why pas­sen­gers couldn’t just line up on the plat­form like on other rail­roads.

“The plat­form’s just sit­ting there. It’s open. It would be a per­fectly suit­able place to stash the peo­ple who are board­ing the train and yet you wait inside the sta­tion doors,” he said. “And then in this case we waited un­til af­ter the train’s os­ten­si­ble de­par­ture time.”

In a tweet, he de­scribed the process of board­ing a 6:55 p.m. “on-time” train at Union Sta­tion.

“6:53 — a snaking line cov­ers the whole gate and spills out into the main walk­ways. No­body al­lowed through, even though sta­tus has up­dated to ‘board­ing.’ 6:57 — Door to plat­form opens. Sta­tus up­dates to ‘LAST CALL.’ ”

Cole said the process is te­dious and leads to un­nec­es­sary anx­i­ety, not to men­tion back­ups at the train doors when pas­sen­gers do fi­nally board the train.

“If peo­ple were al­lowed to spread out on the plat­form prior to the train com­ing in as they do on the Wash­ing­ton Metro, then they could en­ter all the train doors equally with­out hav­ing to rush to the back end of the train,” he said. “But it’s silly to com­pound any prob­lems with sched­ul­ing by just hold­ing the pas­sen­gers far­ther away from the train than they need to be. And have this long snaking long all of a sud­den have to jam it­self through the one par­tic­u­larly door­way that they’ve all lined up be­hind.”

Two years af­ter the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port, Am­trak has yet to ap­point a per­ma­nent of­fi­cial to over­see board­ing.

Am­trak spokes­woman Kim­berly D. Woods said the rail­road has cre­ated a position — as­sis­tant vice pres­i­dent of cus­tomer ser­vice and sta­tions — whose re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­clude cus­tomer stag­ing and board­ing, in ad­di­tion to over­see­ing ar­eas such as sta­tion clean­ing and sig­nage.

Un­til an of­fi­cial is per­ma­nently hired, the job falls to Am­trak’s vice pres­i­dent of trans­porta­tion, she said.


Union Sta­tion is un­der­go­ing a facelift that will add con­course space, but more space isn’t the only an­swer to Am­trak’s board­ing woes.

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