Amtrak is all aboard with electronic ticketing in 2011

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Christopher Elliott

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?

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.

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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.

In spite of these challenges, Amtrak has designed a solution and is well underway in its development and implementation. We expect to be able to begin pilot testing of our solution by early summer of 2011.

So we should expect e-ticketing sometime next year?

The timeline is comprised of two major phases: First, modernizing Amtrak’s reservation system to support e-ticketing; and second, building the on-board technology solution.

The first phase, modernizing the reservation system, is largely complete. Today, all Amtrak-booked tickets — roughly 90 percent of all Amtrak sales — are built as electronic tickets in the reservation system before issuance. Partial evidence of this is the fact that tickets can now be modified or changed electronically up to the time of issuance – a function that was actually designed for e-ticketing, but we can share with customers today.

But you can’t do e-ticketing yet?

No. In spite of now having e-ticket bookings, Amtrak still needs to print conventional tickets against these bookings until phase two is complete and fielded. phase two is well underway.

Amtrak has selected the technology platform and begun development. Once the platform is complete, Amtrak will begin testing and roll-out across the system incrementally, starting with the pilot program in the early summer of 2011. The schedule to complete deployment will depend on the adoption rate of the technology across the system, but should be complete within 18 months of pilot completion.

In the meantime, does Amtrak have any plans to relax its current ticketing policies, specifically the one that says your ticket is the same as cash?

Not at this time. A ticket does have cash value to the holder. If a lost ticket is invalidated on an airline, the person attempting to use it will be stopped at the gate when the ticket is scanned or entered into their system. Amtrak does not have gate control and does not yet have technology on-board to protect those persons whose ticket are lost.

Of course, once we deploy e-tickets, we will change our policy and the current fees and restrictions will no longer apply. Customers that lose their boarding documentation can simply reprint it or reissue it themselves.

(Photo: Amtrak)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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