20.7.13

ALEXANDER CASSATT'S LEGACY.

Boarding processes are for livestock and airline passengers.  Slate's Matthew Yglesias suggests Amtrak can do better by its passengers.
At [Washington] Union Station there's a bizarre process where they list a gate instead of a track. The gate is a door and the door is closed. Outside the closed door there is a long snaking line. You wait in line, and then eventually the door opens. Then everyone shows their ticket to an agent, walks through an ante-chamber of some kind, and only then do you reach the platforms.

The ticket-checking is completely superfluous because you could walk to any platform once you're out there. But it's also unnecessary because conductors check the tickets on the trains anyway. But then you walk to the appropriate platform and board the train that's waiting for you.
I wonder what Mr Yglesias would make of Chicago, where they list a boarding area, then a track, and tickets must be shewn to pass from the general waiting area to the gate, beyond which there are all sorts of ushers shepherding passengers to their track and only their track. I'm not sure about ticket-lifting. Sleeper passengers have their tickets scanned in the Metropolitan Lounge. On the other hand, sometimes passengers on the St. Louis trains have their tickets checked multiple times.

He followed up his complaint about excessive complexity in boarding trains with a description of an old ferroequinologist's dodge at New York's Pennsylvania Station.
I wrote about the bizarre boarding process that Amtrak uses at Union Station in Washington, which naturally prompted many people to comment to me about the situation at Penn Station in New York, which is also weird. But something a lot of people don't know is that at Penn Station there's actually a loophole that lets you avoid some of the terribleness of Amtrak. What people normally do is stand around in the holding pen depicted above, waiting for their train's track number to be announced.
The "holding pen" is yet more space carved out of the main concourse.


Slate photograph, no photographer credited.

Before The Pennsylvania Railroad sold the air rights over Penn Station to stave off the creditors for another five years, the holding pen looked like this.



The benches in the picture had to be relocated from the waiting rooms to provide space for the reservation computer servicing the ticket clamshell in the Great Room.  The iron railings gave way to the shatterproof glass as part of Amtrak's efforts to make the rats' maze look more contemporary.

The ferroequinologist's dodge is the same as it was in the days when arrival times were chalked on a blackboard on the arrival concourse.
But what you actually want to do is go down the staircase that's just sitting there in the middle of the holding pen, where you'll find some very old CRT screens displaying track information.
Those old CRT screens, for the use of redcaps awaiting incoming Florida trains, and the few intrepid souls going Pullman on the Lake Shore, replace a small Solari board that replaced the blackboard. The ritual is the same.
This puts you on an intermediate level between the tracks and platforms and the mainstream waiting area. And if you wait here for your track to be announced, you'll find that you can proceed directly to a platform entrance with no crowds and no line.
Amtrak may have responded to Mr Yglesias's gripes about mindlessly imitating the airlines, or the drovers, and he's less than impressed with their response.

The usually sensible Jim Loomis offers a defense of Amtrak's big-city station rigamarole that's less than sensible.
But can we not agree that there are those out there among us who, sadly, cannot match what I’m willing to concede are Yglesias's superior intellectual standards? Consider, for example, a not-so-hypothetical elderly woman -- frail, a bit unsteady, and wearing a hearing aid. She speaks several languages fluently, but minimal English. She knows it’s close to her train’s departure time, but she's confused, fails to hear or understand the boarding announcements, and goes down the wrong escalator. She ends up dazed and panicky … and on the wrong platform.

Thankfully, an alert Amtrak employee spots the confused woman, checks her ticket, and determines that her train is close to departing, but on another track. He speaks briefly into his radio, then escorts the woman up an escalator, across the concourse, and down another escalator to her train.
So to reduce the frequency of misdirected passengers, we inconvenience everybody?  It's only at Penn Station that a passenger can get to a train from the arrival concourse without shewing a ticket.  And our hypothetical elderly woman has to somehow wind up on the Long Island, rather than the Amtrak, level of the station in order to go down to the wrong track.

It, by the way, does not get any easier for passengers at Galesburg.
There may be no problem in letting 14 passengers walk out onto the platform to wait for the Southwest Chief in Galesburg, Illinois, but quite another if it’s in Penn Station and 184 people are waiting to board an Acela high-speed train headed for Washington.
Under current Amtrak operating practices, those boarding passengers still have to shew tickets to the conductor or collector at trackside, and the station staff is insufficient to handle more than one train at a time.  That led to an interesting situation on the September 23 trip of the Nebraska Zephyr.  A number of passengers booked tickets to Galesburg on the excursion, returning on Four.  The excursion was running late, Four was close to time, and it took some negotiating by the Amtrak conductor on the Zephyr to get it into the station first, in order for the Chicago passengers to make their return connection (rather than wait for 384 around seven that evening).  And with all the disembarking and boarding passengers for the Zephyr, we'd best hope that hypothetical elderly lady holding a coach ticket on Four wasn't too baffled by the herd of photographers, spectators, and passengers surrounding that time machine.

No comments: