Monday, May 01, 2006

Mayday! Amtrak Goes Interactive

We don't know if you would like to have Macromedia Flash Player (version 8) installed on your computer. We don't particularly care and hadn't thought about it until we received an email from Amtrak. The electronic missive suggested that we would enjoy shopping for our next Amtrak tickets using the new Interactive Route Atlas. Warning: Following the preceding link may result in the installation of Macromedia Flash Player.

I'm not against "high tech." But I do agree with the aphorism that says: Reject the labor saving tool if the operating manual weighs more than the tool. To paraphrase: Reject the "fun, interactive web pages" if it takes longer to load the viewer than it does to phone the call center and make a reservation.

Amtrak has had a web page for as long as we can remember. It has never been a particularly flashy web page (no pun intended), just a utility through which you can get to know Amtrak without having to deal with a call center or a live ticket agent. (Let it be known here that we have dealt with many Amtrak ticket agents and all are good people doing an admirable job under sometimes the worst of conditions. For the baseline on bad conditions, check out the current Albuquerque Amtrak station some day.)

In our opinion, there are a good many ways that Amtrak could have coded their interactive feature without making us download a player. We are going to go out on a limb and suggest that better than 50% of people logging on to the Amtrak site are not particularly computer literate. Most of them probably use their browser regularly but don't know much about plug-ins and players. We know quite a few of these folks, most of them likely Amtrak passengers, who keep their firewalls set on high and their scanners ready to block any hint of a program that may be harmful to the well being of their daily visits to the stock page or the online poker site. Having to decide whether Macromedia Flash Player is a good thing or a bad thing will not sit well with them.

Frankly, we'd be more impressed if Amtrak had done an upgrade of the entire site. While there is something to be said for keeping up an appearance, there is more to be said for improving on an already tarnished image.

Amtrak needs to spend less advertising cash on Internet advertising and email newletters and more on the kind of multiple media exposures that guys like Richard Branson go in for. Get a major celeb to ride the train, cover it on Good Morning America, and make sure they tell everyone how much elegant fun they are having. Launch a major sales initiative and get The View to comment on the comforts of rail travel. We don't think anything like this is being done, and if it is, it is not making enough of an impression. We are particularly attuned to anything referring to rail travel, and if we don't notice it, nobody is noticing it.

We hope that the people who made the decision on the shape and format of the interactive route map are not the same people who get to decide on technological upgrades for the trains. We'd be better off with steam heat and link-and-pin couplers.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com
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