Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Traveler Experience of Trains and Train Stations

As a result of the frustrations that travelers experience or anticipate with air travel, when feasible, many are turning to trains.  For the most part, train travel offers an easier travel experience but some issues could make it an even smoother, more seamless user experience.

In this post, I explore some of the strengths of the rail travel experience and opportunities for improvement, both from the perspective of the station and the train itself.

The Traveler Experience with Central Train Stations
Train stations address many of the issues that arose in my critique of airports.

  • Reasonably priced food and trinkets.  In Canada and Europe, prices for food at airports seems far more reasonable than it did at airports.  At Montreal’s train station, for example, many people working in nearby offices eat lunch at the train station’s food court.  (That a significant investment in the ambience of the food court was made probably persuades lunchers; it’s the nicest food court in the area (in my humble opinion)). 
  • Reasonable distances from arrival to taxis and car rental stations.
  • Clear directional signage.
  • Excellent shopping in several train stations, offering practical items like groceries, office supplies, magazines and newspapers, and personal care and pharmacy items.  
  • In Europe, transfers among trains are a snap.  Some only provide 2 to 3 minutes between trains, and the connections are so easy that passengers can make the transfers with time to spare.  (Not that I trusted these short changes, but they are surprisingly smooth.)

Where train stations fall short is in the link to certain ground transportation options.  Links to  buses seem to be inconvenient; it seems that, in many train stations, they’re located in the most distant corner of the station.  (That said, bus links with the central train station in Enschede, The Netherlands is seamless.)

More significantly, links to metro systems seem to be clunky. In Toronto, Paris, and Montreal, the link between corresponding subway stations and train stations do not seem to be designed for travelers with luggage.  All involve winding pathways, and walks up stairs (with no options for escalators or elevators).  Most of the turnstiles in subway stations are not designed for people traveling with even small suitcases, much less large ones.  The problem is especially serious in Paris, where the make shift solution doesn’t always work.  

The Traveler Experience on Trains
With stress free boarding procedures (even those trains requiring security checks seem to handle them more quickly than airports), wide seats—even in coach  class, leg room, electrical outlets at most seats (once again, even in coach), and spacious on-board wash rooms, trains are, as Canada’s VIA Rail advertises, a “civilized alternative.”

In first class, passengers even receive a meal—with complimentary wine.

And, as train stations offer a less stressful, more pleasant experience, so trains themselves offer a less stressful, more pleasant experience, for the most part.

But, as train stations have room for improvement, so do trains themselves, little things that affect the user experience.  Consider these.

Clarify the value proposition of a a Eurail pass. When I first traveled on a Eurail pass, in the 1980s, it provided unlimited travel within a period of time, few requirements to make reservations, and rarely a reservation fee.  In 2010, a Eurail pass basically seems like a discount voucher.  Reservations were required for all rides, all reservations involved additional fees (sometimes as high as 100 euros) and we were limited in the amount we could travel.  In the end, even with ground transportation fees, traveling on Air Berlin would have been a more cost- and time-effective solution.  (Admittedly, this is a Europe-only issue.)

Eurail passes used to have a reputation as a good deal, but the reality seems at odds with the reputation.  That could catch up to the European national railways.

Provide room for luggage on European inter-city trains.  Although checking luggage isn’t an option on most European trains, they also do not provide room to store luggage.   The overhead bins aren’t good for much more than a handbag or computer case.

Canada’s VIA Rail might have older trains (and, in many cases, used ones from other countries), but they have plenty of room for luggage.

Watch the timetable:  On the one hand, Northern European trains run so closely to the time table that travelers can set their watch to them, and VIA Rail usually follows its schedule closely, even in bad weather, Amtrak in the U.S. is a different story.  Except on well-traveled routes (like the Boston-Washington corridor), schedules are merely a suggestion and actual arrival and departure times can occur hours after published schedules.

Additional thoughts: The review of train stations focused on central stations.  Suburban and rural stations offer a significantly different experience.  Because I rarely use them, I could not comment on them.

Compared with the number and scope of issues with the user experience that airlines and airports need to address, those the challenges facing airlines and airports, the traveler experience of trains and train stations is significantly smoother and more pleasant.  That may result, in part, from the differences in the number of passengers airlines and airports must process, as well as the significant difference in travel conditions and challenges.

In the scheme of things, these are minor issues.  But the value and luggage issues in Europe, and schedule issues in the US, still have the ability to annoy passengers.
Next post:  The Travel Experience on Subways.  

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