Amtrak is all aboard with electronic ticketing in 2011

By | September 1st, 2010

One of the most common complaints I get from Amtrak customers is about their tickets. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation uses old-school paper tickets that have cash value. I asked Matt Hardison, Amtrak’s chief for sales distribution and customer service, about the ticket troubles, and how to solve them.

What are the rules regarding lost tickets on Amtrak?

Most consumers have forgotten the days when tickets essentially had cash value. Today, there are almost no conventional tickets for the airlines anymore. Consequently, Amtrak is one of the last intercity modes of travel whose tickets still have value – what we call “value documents” – and for now our policies still need to reflect that.

What happens if you lose your ticket?

If you lose your Amtrak ticket, you need to purchase another ticket in order to travel, just as you used to do with airline tickets. You can apply for a refund of your lost ticket by filling out a form and sending it in. This form is available on or from a station agent.

How long does a refund take?

If, after five months, there is no record in the system that your lost ticket was refunded, exchanged, spoiled, or used — ticket lifted on a train or bus — we will refund that ticket, less a $75 service charge that covers our costs of processing the applications, and less a 10 percent refund fee, though the 10 percent refund fee is not charged if you repurchased the ticket and traveled.

How many tickets are lost annually?

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We get between 90 and 100 lost ticket applications monthly, for a rough volume of 1,000 annually. Of course, more than that number may be actually lost, but we can only track refund applications. By comparison, in our last full fiscal year, we had 27 million riders.

Why hasn’t Amtrak adopted e-ticketing, like airlines?

E-ticketing in a passenger rail environment is complicated by the fact that Amtrak operates an “open” system. Amtrak’s system is open in that, unlike the airlines, there is generally no single gate through which to control boarding and, even where there is, there are multiple doors on a single train through which a passenger can board or deboard. Further, many stations are not staffed at all. In other words, there is no point at which Amtrak has 100 percent gate control.

An open system without complete gate control, of course, complicates our ultimate goal of complete passenger manifests.

Of course, all airports are staffed, not just by airline personnel but also by TSA inspectors who ensure that only ticketed passengers are granted access to the boarding area. All airline systems which perform the final e-ticket inspection and ticket lift at the gate itself have wired connections to the airlines’ central ticketing system.

Because Amtrak’s final e-ticket inspection process will take place on board, Amtrak has the additional challenge of relying on wireless connectivity, such as through cellular connections, in order to synchronize data to its central ticketing system.

  • y_p_w

    I’ve just learned the joys of riding Amtrak. It’s actually not bad if you get discount tickets.

    As for destinations or routes, that may not be that much of an issue. There are plenty of places served by Amtrak. The issue is the frequency of service and reliability. Quite a few long distance rail travelers have been upset when they were delayed hours because freight trains had priority on the rails owned by the large railroads.

    I’ve wondered why there wasn’t direct rail service between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles save the Coast Starlight (aka Coast Star-Late) once a day in each direction. Amtrak would love to run the San Joaquin route all the way to Los Angeles except that Union Pacific won’t let them use their heavily used Tehachapi Loop line. Right now it terminates in Bakersfield where one can transfer to a bus to get to Los Angeles.