Amtrak Looks to Boost Revenue and Wi-Fi

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Amtrak is looking to boost its revenue as well as improve and upgrade its onboard wi-fi service. High demand, along with spotty and sometimes slow response time, has generated criticism of Amtrak wi-fi offerings on the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which is one of the national rail carrier’s most popular and profitable service routes. The railway service has also been hampered by service gaps occurring at relatively remote locations along the NEC right-of-way. In addition to boosting its wi-fi service, the transportation behemoth is also implementing amenity cuts in order to increase revenue.

Rail travelers loved and will fondly remember the free amenity kits supplied on Amtrak’s popular Empire Builder line, which provides service from Chicago to Portland and Seattle, as well as the Coast Starlight route, which travels from Los Angeles to Seattle, that disappeared last week. More accurately, the amenity kits themselves have not vanished, but they are no longer gratis. Instead, Amtrak is now charging a premium of $8 for the kits, which include an inflatable pillow, blanket, and other sleep kit accessories.

Amtrak is also looking to boost its revenue and wi-fi via other small-scale rollbacks, such as removing pillows from its coach sections and eliminating the “free” glass of wine in dining cars. The railway service has warned customers, however, not to expect a price break anytime soon. Amtrak contends all the changes are necessary in order to reduce costs, increase revenues, and preserve passenger rail service across the United States.

Similar to when the major airlines rearranged their airfares, so they could start charging passengers for the first checked bag in 2009, these cuts are intended to help improve the troubled transportation behemoth’s bottom line. Amtrak reportedly lost nearly $73 million on food and beverage service alone last year.

Rail travelers have mixed feelings about these cost-cutting measures. A chief concern among travelers is that Amtrak is acting more like an airline every day and many feel it is not a good transition. While some passengers agree the cuts, while painful, are necessary. For those who travel on the moneymaking routes, many feel the cuts are good for the passengers and Amtrak’s bottom line. Amtrak is a constant target for budget-cutters, however, it is also a very eco-friendly form of transportation and reduces congestion on the most crowded roads in America. Other frequent rail commuters will miss the old amenities offered, especially those who commuted long distances and were offered added perks. These additional amenities included not only the amenity kits, but on the Empire Builder, the attendants would offer champagne and chocolates, as well as afternoon wine tastings.

As part of Amtrak’s plan to boost its wi-fi, the transportation behemoth is soliciting bids for a proof-of-concept project that could pave the way for fast and reliable wi-fi across the entire 457-mile NEC. The Northeast Corridor runs from Boston to Washington DC, while making stops in major cities including New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Amtrak said it will use the proof-of-concept project to assess whether reaching that scale is a feasible goal–both in terms of technology and financial commitment. However, frequent travelers familiar with the pain of Amtrak’s current wi-fi, which is unreliable and shoddy, the proposed plan comes as a welcome change. The bids for the wi-fi expansion concept are due July 28.

With Amtrak looking to boost its revenue, many travelers are left wondering how to hold onto remaining amenities and keep the train dignified. Here are some tips to retaining traveling perks on the rails. First, stick to riding the profitable routes, which have escaped most of the cuts because they continue to make money. These are the routes with the best service and amenities. Second, provide Amtrak with feedback. Customer feedback is the best way to let the national rail carrier know how it can improve, what turns its customers off, and what aspects will make them return. Third, do not be afraid to get involved. Travelers should let Congress know about their experiences. Congress subsidized Amtrak at a rate of $1.4 billion this year alone. If passengers report negative experiences to their representatives, it could make a big difference. This could prevent Amtrak from becoming a railway version of JetBlue.

Some passengers view Amtrak looking to boost its revenue and wi-fi as a possible warning sign of things to come. Will this shift at Amtrak lead to further streamlining and downsizing? Could Amtrak be abandoning its tradition of dignified and civil travel in favor of money,  in the vain of an “ultra” low-cost airline? Could Amtrak’s proposed expanded wi-fi become one of its only remaining amenities? Only time will tell, but the alarm bells seem poised to ring.

By Leigh Haugh

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