Amtrak's Unpersuasive Response on Boarding Procedures

A blog about business and economics.
July 17 2013 2:45 PM

Amtrak's Unpersuasive Response on Boarding Procedures

ROCKAWAY, NY - NOVEMBER 4: Commuters exit the Long Island Railroad platform at Penn Station November 4, 2012 in New York City.

Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Last week I wrote about Amtrak's strange boarding procedures at New York Penn Station and Washington Union Station and today, mysteriously enough, they have a post on their All Aboard blog asking "ever wonder why the boarding procedures in our big stations work the way they do?"

They offer three bullet points, none very persuasive:

1. It’s the law
Security is super important to us and to the TSA. We work with lots of agencies and commuter partners like LIRR and NJT in New York City and MARC and VRE in Washington to ensure you’re safe when you ride our trains. Making sure there’s one ticket per passenger is an important step in that security process.

If it's the law, it's the law. There are lots of dumb laws in America. I phoned and emailed Amtrak media relations asking which law they're referring to, since the link doesn't actually explain. The notion that checking tickets before boarding is important to security in general doesn't make any sense to me, though. I've boarded Amtrak's Northeast Corridor trains at BWI, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trenton, and New Haven, and they don't pre-check at those stations, so there's no general security problem.

2. It keeps you safe
We adjust our boarding procedures at stations with narrow platforms like New York Penn Station and D.C.’s Union Station. Those efforts mean we can help board customers who need special assistance and that passengers don’t experience over-crowded platforms when trains are coming and going.

This seems to be the crux of the matter. If people waited on the platforms rather than in the waiting area, then the platforms would be more crowded and the waiting areas would be less crowded. But this is just another way of saying that if you let people go to the platforms and wait there if they wanted, then you'd have less crowding in the waiting area and less queuing up. The advantage of doing it my way is that boarding would happen faster. I'm not exactly sure what the disadvantage would be. Major European train stations seem to do it this way. What's more, major U.S. commuter rail and mass transit trains do it that way, too. I used to take the 4/5/6 NYC Subway line from Union Square to go to high school, and while it would get pretty crowded on the platform, we managed to survive.

3. There are lots of people
Thanks to our record-breaking ridership, our busiest stations host tens of millions of people a year. In fact, 650,000 people use New York Penn Station everyday and trains are dispatched at a rate of one every two minutes. To keep Amtrak travelers, commuters and our employees safe, we limit the number of people allowed on the platforms at a time.

I don't really understand this math. According to Amtrak, in FY 2012 there were 9,493,414 Amtrak boardings and alightings (PDF) at Penn Station. New Jersey Transit says (PDF) that in FY 2012 they had 80,000 Penn Station boardings on an average weekday. If you figure 250 business days in a year, that means 20,000,000 New Jersey Transit boardings over the course of the year. So if you completely ignore weekend and holiday service NJ Transit is twice as busy at Penn Station as Amtrak is, and they manage to not use the Amtrak-style boarding procedure. To get to its 650,000 riders a day figure, Amtrak appears to be adding its own (relatively modest) Penn Station traffic to the NJ Transit and LIRR commuter rails and even throwing in the 170,000 or so subway riders at the station. But none of those other services use Amtrak-style boarding.

Long story short, the only persuasive answer here is that they do it this way because (allegedly) it's the law. If it really is the law, then Amtrak has no alternative to following the law, just as they must follow the law forcing them to use excessively heavy, slow, and expensive locomotives. But there does not appear to me to be a bona fide safety or logistical problem with operating the Penn Station and Union Station Amtrak platforms the same way the MARC, VRE, LIRR, and NJ Transit platforms at those very same stations operate. Hopefully someone from Amtrak's media relations team will get back to me with a statutory citation, in which case if this really does turn out to be legally required I'll redirect my complaining to Congress.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



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