Amtrak’s unfortunate trip planner

Hi, Brendan here. I’m Trillium’s data engineer and I love working on this side of transit, the side that figures out new ways to make using public transit a convenient joy. Being able to use the bus or train even if you primarily use other forms of transportation can be a freeing experience. Which is why I’ve found Amtrak’s trip planner to be so frustrating.

Recently, I tried to plan a trip to Seattle, WA from Portland, OR. I typed in “PDX” as my origin and “Seattle, WA” as my destination and filled in the dates. The screen below was what I got as my result.

Search results for query "PDX" to "Seattle, WA"

At first I thought that there were no trips available that day.  This would most likely lose some users who were not committed to taking the train and had other transportation options.  After clicking around a bit more and searching through the Amtrak national station list, I realized that there are two stations in the Seattle area and the one that returns when a customer searches for “Seattle, WA” is not served by the Starlight or Cascades routes, two of the most popular in the area. After choosing the other Seattle station, the trip returned fine, but Amtrak just added multiple customer-losing steps between a potential train rider and their ticket.

It seems like a major oversight, and it is, but it is not the only time that this has happened with the Amtrak trip planner.  It’s even worse with the San Francisco Bay Area, which has more stations than Seattle.  It seems like common sense to show a customer all the possible trips for their query area, as nearly all trip planners, from airlines to Google Maps, do.  Amtrak doesn’t do that, though.  What Amtrak ends up doing is providing a great example of the problems an organization creates and the revenue it loses when they design a customer interface without the customer in mind.