Like many Americans, I flew our nation’s fine airlines this holiday season. While I was waiting for my five hour-delayed, two-and-a-half-hour flight to Houston, I thought one simple thought: _this is a business model?_ “Ten thousand lost bags”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A25814-2004Dec25.html? All flights on Christmas Day “cancelled”:http://www.cnn.com/2004/TRAVEL/12/26/flights.canceled.ap/? I want my vacation to start as soon as I leave the door. And, Amtrak, it’s time for you to help me out with that.
It can be good business for Amtrak to make travel pleasant — happy customers are repeat customers and bring friends and family and colleagues along. Rather than a languishing system with a few successful commuter routes, Amtrak can become Big Business by making travel a pleasant, special occasion again. Our country’s train monopoly needs to target three audiences:
* Couples on romantic vacations
h3. Core Message
Amtrak can offer a core set of services and tune some outward-facing aspects to each of these audiences, building loyalty and delivering, at last, a real alternative to the drudgery of air travel. The core message is “Start your vacation (or business trip) the minute you leave your front door.”
h3. Competitive Advantage
Because it’s a less busy mode of transport, because train stations are invariably located in the downtowns of cities, and because of the inherent attributes of travel by train, Amtrak has advantages over airlines in several areas:
* Easy check-in, especially in these days of the TSA
* Keep your luggage in-hand throughout your trip
* Spacious commuter cars
* Amenities throughout the train
* Less hassle getting to and from train stations than airports
These need to be supplemented with features and messages that cater to the specific demographics mentioned above.
Just moving a big family around is hard — geting five or six people in the car, dealing with children of different ages and genders, handling the hyperactive ones and the quiet ones. Airports and airplanes make the whole project worse, because they’re loud and hectic and boring. Trains aren’t. You can walk up and down train aisles, there are real cafes on trains, and there’s “the internet”:http://www.netstumbler.com/2004/06/16/amtrak_boston_to_baltimore_goes_wifi/ to keep those surly teenagers occupied. A family can reserve a compartment, so there’s no need to keep track of several kids in several different rows of an airplane, and worry about what kind of people they’re sitting next to.
* Spacious compartments
* Snack bars
* Easy group check-in
Airplane flights are in no way romantic. There are no candlelit dinners, everybody’s pressed up against you, and it’s loud inside a plane. Trains have private compartments, real restaurants, full bars, and a great view of the countryside as you pass by. Couples can even take overnight trips and stay in a sleeping compartment.
* Cozy compartments
* Sleeping compartments
* Fine dining
Flying for work is a hassle. To take an hour meeting in another city, you leave three hours early to wait in line 45 minutes to get a boarding pass to wait in line for security for 45 minutes to wait in line 20 minutes to take your seat and park your bag — containing your $5000 LCD projector — in an overhead compartment five rows away. Then, everyone’s in a different row so you can’t work together, 1/3 of your flight disappears because it’s not permitted to use electronics during climb-out and landing. Finally, when you land, you wait inside the plane for 30 minutes, hunched over below the overhead compartments, and then fight to get your $5000 LCD projector, hitting someone over the head with it as you get it down, then grab a $60 cab downtown.
Trains can beat this easy. They already drop you off downtown, so it’s a quick trip to the client. But trains need more business-oriented features. How about a Business Car (like a Sleeping Car)? This would have larger, reserveable compartments featuring:
* Ethernet hook-ups
* Conference call phones, possibly using VOIP
* Whiteboards (also useful for projecting presentations)
* The car could also have a larger washroom, suitable for primping
In addition, Amtrak can offer express business check-in, with a lot of the up-front work completed over the Internet.
All of these, together, offer a compelling suite of services on both short- and long-haul operations. I know that I would happily spend a few extra hours on a train in return for a pleasant trip. Wouldn’t you?