“The goal is to eliminate congestion wherever possible,” said Robert Jordan, Amtrak’s assistant vice president for customer service and stations. “We wanted to free up every square inch of space we could.”
Amtrak has long been criticized for being slow to address problems with its boarding process. As its ridership has grown the process has become more chaotic and confusing, especially during peak travel times like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Adding to the frustration, the procedures vary widely by station.
A 2016 inspector general’s report said Amtrak lacked a coherent strategy for addressing problems with passenger boarding. The IG made several recommendations for improving the process, including designating an official who would be responsible for tackling the issue.
Jordan, a former executive at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, was hired earlier this year to take on that role and has focused his efforts on not just how people board the railroad’s trains, but their overall experience at the station.
The changes to boarding are part of a broader $250,000 effort to improve the customer experience at Union Station, Amtrak’s second-busiest after New York’s Pennsylvania Station. The railroad also has repainted the walls, cleaned the floors and improved signage so that travelers know which line leads to which of the 10 gates.
As part of the boarding makeover, Amtrak retained a line consultant to help them make better use of existing space. The fee for the consultant was included with the cost of the new line system, Jordan said. Amtrak did not provide a breakdown for the cost of the project.
To accommodate the new queuing system, officials repositioned chairs and removed railings to create more open space in the gate area. There is still seating, but the chairs have been moved to the outer edges of the boarding zones. A room that had previously been used only for special events has been repurposed as a holding area for passengers.
Officials have also made adjustments to when passengers board. Gate assignments are posted 30 minutes before departure. Customers needing extra time can board 30 minutes before departure. Priority and first-class passengers can board 25 minutes before departure, with general boarding following.
Some passengers say they have noticed a difference.
“This is a lot better than the old cattle call,” traveler Chris Padilla said recently, referring to the mad rush of passengers that used to mob the entrance to the boarding area once their departure gate was announced.
As he surveyed his fellow passengers in the line at Gate F, he nodded and smiled.
“This is a lot better,” he said.
But while waiting at Gate K to board a Northeast Regional train last week, Seline Thompson said the lines may be more organized, but they’re still long.
Indeed, the change has not completely solved the problem, largely because at gates such as J and K, (Jordan calls these “pinch points”) there is simply is not enough space.
Take a recent weekday. Even with the new system in place, the line to board the Northeast Regional train stretched from Gate K to Gate D.
“It’s not going to eliminate all the congestion, but at least it’s going to reduce some of it,” Jordan said.
Passengers at other gates, such as C, D, E and F, where officials have been able to double capacity, will notice a difference. Roughly 70 to 80 percent of Amtrak’s trains leave from these gates, Jordan said.
New “boarding conductors” have been added to free train crews for other duties. Boarding conductors are responsible for alerting crew members to any pre-departure issues and for ensuring the train is ready to depart on schedule. They also greet passengers when they arrive on the platform and help troubleshoot any issues they might have.
On one recent day, conductor John Green greeted Acela passengers boarding a New York-bound train. When one elderly gentlemen asked for help getting to his seat in first class, Green tracked down someone to take him in a motorized cart.
Jordan said more changes are on the way. New seats, which include charging ports and beverage holders, will be installed. Amtrak may experiment with assigned seating on trains. Officials are also experimenting with giving people their gate assignment via the rail service’s mobile app.