In the U.S., the same people who navigate the nation's air transport system without a second thought are sometimes clueless when it comes to rail travel, particularly if they live outside the Northeast, California's Capitol Corridor or other areas where rail commutes are commonplace.
So in designing the latest incarnation of its Web site, Amtrak put a lot of thought into answering questions raised by the uninitiated. It offers a primer for first-timers.
"One of our metrics for customer satisfaction is the number of e-mail queries we get," David Lim, chief of Amtrak's marketing and sales promotions, said.
In June, Amtrak received 3.5 e-mails per 100 bookings, down from 3.8 in June 2005.
"That's an 8% improvement," Lim said. "Our rationale is that fewer e-mails indicate that people are finding what they need on the site."
The site's share of total sales is now 38.3%, up 144% from 2002.
Lim, who is responsible for national advertising, e-commerce, loyalty marketing, industry relations and field sales, said, "We have surpassed our goals every year."
Revenues from tickets sold on Amtrak.com on are track to exceed $500 million this year, out of a total of $1.3 billion. Amtrak.com has come a long way from the very basic, rather clunky site of a few years ago. Lim gives a lot of credit to Kathleen Gordon, senior director of e-commerce, for its improvements. Among the niftier features is the new interactive atlas that "graphically illustrates how you get from Point A to Point B," Lim said. "Before, there was no way for mere mortals to figure out a route." It doesn't hurt that the atlas is fun to play with.
In February, Amtrak launched a Spanish-language version of Amtrak.com. While many travel sites offer foreign-language content, Amtrak also introduced a Spanish-language booking engine.
Most recently, Amtrak enabled access to the site via Treo, Blackberry or Web-enabled cell phone.
Lim said Amtrak is believed to be the first transportation company in the U.S. that has enabled both booking and cancellation via a PDA. The need for such capability is greater for Amtrak, whose customers are less likely to be shoppers and more likely to simply want to hop on the next train.
The train status feature is likely to result in a significant drop in call volume in heavy commuter areas.
A "small but important" addition to Amtrak.com is the ability to buy 10-trip commuter tickets, which previously had to be purchased at Amtrak stations. Amtrak also figured out how to present its small-group rates, called Share Fares, in an easily understood way. The site is now the most popular channel for booking the fares.
Last month, Amtrak.com added the ability for customers outside the U.S. to purchase USA rail passes; previously, foreign visitors had to wait until they arrived in the country to buy them. Lim said the international market holds a lot of promise for Amtrak. Europeans are used to train travel, he noted, and the company plans to introduce a site in a third language.
Later this year, Amtrak.com will offer interactive demos with tours of onboard features on Acela trains and on long-distance trains. "A lot of people don't really know what they are buying," Lim said.
It will also launch "Whistle Stop," a section of the site that is "meant to engage our own customers" by allowing them to share their experiences about their rail trips.
Amtrak also is looking at offering its vacation packages online in conjunction with Yankee Holidays, the operator.