19 June 2006

It's All About the Experience

For Father's Day we decided to take a road trip down to visit my folks in Vancouver, WA. It was a great weekend and spur of the moment we decided to let the kids and Mom stay with the family for a few more days while I took the train back to Seattle. I've never taken the train anywhere. Purchasing the ticket online was a breeze and the Vancouver depot is old and just darling. Right after I got on the train and we started pulling away, I looked back to see the bridge the train just came over rotating on its center to allow boats through, and that was just the beginning of the picturesque trip I am now experiencing. I'm in Business Class which means I paid the extra $13 for an electric outlet I can use to power my laptop during the 3 hour trip. It's quiet, and pretty smooth once you get used to the rocking from side to side. There's a sign, in the front of each car that says, "Using a cell phone? Please be considerate of others." And if someone has a long, loud conversation they take it to the enclosed vestibule in-between each cabin car. It's quiet and comfortable. There are wide isles! I'd have to really reach in order to touch my neighbor across the isle. Also, I didn't have to be at the station 2 hours early like for an airplane trip, and there are no lines! (Incidentally, there was no security check of my bags at all! I guess trains are not as big a security risk as airplanes? I don't know...)

I'm half way through the ride as I type this and all I can say is if AmTrack is not growing, it's simply because they haven't figured out how to improve and sell the experience of classic train travel. I could easily envision luxurious lunch appointments, private booths, full Wi-Fi internet access and large windows. They could have family cars for longer trips, where children don't have to be strapped to a car seat, or confined to coach class seats on an airplane. No more road trip bathroom stops. There would be constant access to excellent food, time and access to movies, board games and always a dynamic and beautiful view. This is to say nothing of having your young child gently rocked to sleep. (As I look around right now, there are already 5 adults asleep.) If I were in-charge of AmTrack I'd remake it into a posh, elite experience that people could look forward to and remember as the calm, peaceful way to travel, a level above cars and planes. It's not the destination, it's the journey when you are on a train. When you are paying for a commodity, you are destination driven, but when you are paying for an experience, then you can charge a premium, and this is exactly what Apple sells, but Amtrack hasn't figured out yet. It's all about the experience. On top of all that, who wouldn't pay more to have every kid, in every car, at every intersection or passing park wave at you?


Nik Fletcher said...

Here in the U.K., it's a similar story in First Class. I travel to London fairly regularly, and I cannot work in standard. No power socket, and no included food and drink. Plus, my legs are almost too long to comfortably sit in standard for a couple of hours. As soon as hi-speed data is included on the Manchester - London line (it's a cell-phone deadzone!), my travelling time will simply be working time. Albeit at 125mph!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a really American view... come to good ol' eirope and do a nice Interrail trip through the countries and you'll see a lot of train and find out that all these things you describe are already aavailable.

The only difference: Make it cheaper so that people stop using $%&?! airplanes. They just pollute. Trains for the mass-travelling!

Train-experienced greetings!

Anonymous said...


Not really.

See, there's an awful lot of the US that's Wide Open Spaces, as opposed to the EU.

The distance from Paris to Berlin, for instance is 874 km miles, with all kind of cities in between.

The distance from Seattle to Las Vegas? 1393 km (as the crow flies, which doesn't include any concessions to terrain, which would likely add distance). With basically a lot of NOTHING in between (Eastern Oregon and Nevada are not big population centers- there's Reno and that's it).

Even a train averaging 300 KPH is going to take over 4 hours. A flight takes 2.

Now, multiply that Seattle to Las Vegas by Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City...and you see the problem. (A train trip from Seattle to Florida would likely take a couple of days, even using high-speed trains...simply because you'd have to transfer at least once.)

You Europeans have it nice with small countries, as far as trains go. Doesn't scale out well to a country that's got 1/3rd less population than the entire EU (290 million to 450 million) in about a third more space (3.7 square miles to 2.5 million). ;)

I would note, however, that Amtrak DOES get usage in areas where there are corridors that have urban density similar to the EU- the Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest between Vancouver and Eugene, and Boston through Washington... because it scales well there.

Nate said...

I live in Vancouver, WA and Amtrak to Seattle is a lot cheaper than flying. The cheapest fare I could find for today (June 20) is $174.30. Amtrak will get you there for $32.00.

It takes only slightly longer (once you factor in the hassles at the airport) and it drops you off right by the stadiums instead at SeaTac.

It's amazing to me that more people don't use it.

Connie said...

Now I want to go on a train ride. I booked a trip to Washington DC but had to cancel. I will have to go at a later date. Thanks for the info. Sounds like fun.

Jesse said...

There's a great littlr train that runs from Victoria, BC up the coast of Vancouver Island (E & N Railway). If you're there visiting, I highly recommend it for a day trip - spectacular views.

The trip I've always wanted to take is the train between Vancouver (the other one) and Edmonton through the Canadian Rockies. It's supposed to be quite beautiful in the winter.

paul said...

I grew up in the Puget Sound area and went to college in Indiana. After three years of driving across the country in the fall and spring and flying home over christmas break, my wife and I decided to take the train for christmas break our senior year. Someone told us that if you wait until you are on the train and ask the conductor about sleeper cars, you can get a steep discount (and we did--booking a sleeper car for two would have been $600 extra for three days, and we got it for $120 from the conductor). This includes three meals a day in the dining car (or two meals a day and breakfast in bed if you have a great porter in the car like we did!), beds, a private room, etc.

We loved it and I am hooked on train travel. Problem is, in our American culture, everything is FAST and NOW, which goes against the train experience. With a plane, you can get there NOW and do it TODAY and maybe even come home TONIGHT. As you said it, on the train it's all about the experience.

But that particular train trip was one of the best experiences of my 33 years so far, and that's just the actual travel. Can't say that about a single plane trip I've ever taken. I agree with your post and I highly recommend trying an extended (overnight) trip sometime.