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There’s an easier way to board trains, so why doesn’t Amtrak do it?

Travelers line up at the gate before boarding their Amtrak train to Boston at Washington’s Union Station last month.
Travelers line up at the gate before boarding their Amtrak train to Boston at Washington’s Union Station last month. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
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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.

Amtrak cars separated during Thanksgiving eve trip

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.

Amtrak says new focus on safety will make rail travel safer for all

“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 makes financial gains but safety issues persist

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 on-time 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 three-minute 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.