By Noel T. Braymer
Even the busiest passenger train lines don’t have full trains all of the time. More passengers on trains translates into more support for improved rail passenger service. It also brings in more money which is always needed for passenger rail service. So how can rail passenger providers fill up trains that would otherwise have empty seats? The same way that airlines and now bus companies fill up their empty seats: with online discount reserved ticketing.
Behind most modern transportation ticketing is what is called eTicketing or paperless ticketing. Most if not all airlines tickets today are “paperless”. What you get today is a Bar Code with a link to access your reservation or “ticket” on your carrier’s computer. Your Bar Code can be printed at home on a computer printer or saved on a your “smart phone”. These Bar Codes are scanned before you board your plane or bus.
On-line reservations and ticketing allows for very flexible fares. On-Line ticketing is used around the world for train travel. But here it is largely unknown. The point of online ticketing is to fill up seats that would otherwise go empty by discounting tickets on specific trains, planes or buses for a specific day, route or time while getting top dollar when demand is high and seating scarce.
Intercity Bus service ticketing in this country is now largely sold online. This reduces overhead by eliminating many staffed bus station with modest bus stops. Megabus is best known for this and their advertised $1 dollar seats. Rarely is there more than one, $1 dollar seat on a given bus and these go very quickly. But the prices for Megabus tickets (and Greyhound) vary depending on the time of day of the trip and time of the year. This is also true of most airlines when ordering tickets. Also ordering early usually saves passengers money over ordering at the last minute. This also improves the cash flow for the carriers. Since bus companies have introduced online ticketing their ridership and revenues have jumped up after years of decline.
This year Amtrak changed over to eTicketing. As routes changed over to eTicketing conductors received a smart phone with a bar code scanner. This simplified the on-board “paperwork” on the trains. The North County Transit District (NCTD) of San Diego County offers online ticketing for round trip tickets now on their Coaster Trains. However so far NCTD doesn’t offer discounted tickets online. They have sold day passes on-line for special events such as trip for baseball games. Amtrak has had a few “sales” on line but doesn’t regularly offer online discounts. For years Amtrak has raised prices on sleeping cars which are always in high demand.
In California on-line ticketing can increase ridership and revenues on local Amtrak, Metrolink, Coaster, ACE and Caltrain trains. What is particularly exciting is this can be used to attract more first time and occasional riders. It will also reduce the lines and confusion for first time or occasional riders trying to use station ticket machines which can be confusing and stressful for novices, particularly if your train is almost ready to leave.
Just as exciting is online ticketing will make it easier to sell tickets with transfers between carriers. Connecting trips could be ticketed on-line between Amtrak to ACE or Metrolink. Online ticketing would be useful for trips between Coaster, Metrolink and Amtrak. Ticketing online could provide easy connections to almost anyplace by rail and connecting buses in California.The airlines have done this now for years to gain passengers.
The biggest impact from on-line discount ticketing will be on trains that have the lowest ridership. Discounts make no sense on crowded or sold out trains. But by increasing ridership on the trains that have empty seats this can lead to increasing frequencies which will encourage more people to ride the trains to more places. Increased frequencies will mean better equipment and personal utilization and lower costs per passenger as revenues increase.
No wonder such ticketing is used by Airlines, Buses and most passenger Trains around the world, except here.