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House GOP bill would force Amtrak to rethink its insane boarding process

Commuter rail in Berlin. Just go to the track!
Commuter rail in Berlin. Just go to the track!
Sean Gallup

Sandy Johnston at the Itinerant Urbanist blog found something very interesting lurking in a House GOP bill that would cut Amtrak subsidies while advancing various policy reforms — a review of the dread boarding procedures.

Here's the legislative language:

10 (a) REPORT.-Not later than 6 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Amtrak Office of Inspector General shall transmit to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a report that (1) evaluates Amtrak's boarding procedures at its 10 stations through which the most people pass; (2) compares Amtrak's boarding procedures to- (A) commuter railroad boarding procedures at stations shared with Amtrak; ( B) international intercity passenger rail boarding procedures; and (C) fixed guideway transit boarding procedures; and (3) makes recommendations, as appropriate, to improve Amtrak's boarding procedures, including recommendations regarding the queuing of passengers and free-flow of all station-users.

To state the issue clearly and with a minimum of snark, the issue is that at its most heavily trafficked stations (DC, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc.) Amtrak has passengers form a single-file line before heading to the track where their train will board. By contrast, commuter rail operators normally just announce a track a bit in advance and let people wait there. Most foreign intercity rail operators (and indeed Amtrak itself) use the free-boarding method.

Amtrak's queuing system appears to be modeled on the standard international process for boarding airplanes. The difference, however, is that airplanes only have one door so a queue is inevitable. As trains have many doors, this is unnecessary and the free-boarding system plainly works. Here, for example, is a photo I snapped on vacation last week at London's Paddington Station before boarding an intercity train to Cardiff. You just walk to the platform:

Paddington Station

Free-boarding at Paddington Station in London (Matthew Yglesias)

The bill is very unlikely to pass this Congress, but as everyone expects the GOP to retain their House majority presumably their train-policy ideas will live to fight again in 2015. And this one proposal, at a minimum, is a very good idea.