October 31, 2011, 3:28 PM

Riding the mobile commerce rails

Amtrak’s first mobile app includes ticketing and train status checks.

Lead Photo

Travelers can buy tickets, check train status among other functions via the rail service's mobile app.

Amtrak, the national passenger rail service, has taken the lessons learned from operating its mobile-optimized web site over the past five years and applied them to its iPhone app, released in August.

The lessons are many, but the big ones are that consumers often need to buy train tickets while they are away from their computers and they want a quick way to check on a train’s status, says Arthur Agin, the manager in charge of Amtrak’s mobile strategy and development.

Development time for the app, built in-house and with a vendor Agin declines to name, was greater than the time it took to construct the mobile commerce site, developed with m-commerce vendor Usablenet Inc., because of Amtrak’s desire to offer more than a ticket-purchase app, an Amtrak spokesman says.

Like the m-commerce site, the app enables consumers to buy tickets, check a train’s expected arrival and departure times, view station information and read schedules. However, the app offers numerous other features, including the ability to locate a nearby station via GPS technology, save stations in a favorites section, tap on any station to bring up station details including a link to maps, and gain access to Amtrak’s Guest Rewards loyalty  program accounts and a Hot Deals center.

“Getting into mobile commerce made a lot of sense because our customers are mobile,” Agin says.

Buying a ticket via the mobile app starts with tapping the Buy Tickets button. On the next screen, the consumer selects one-way or round-trip travel, departure and arrival stations, time and date for each travel segment, and the number of passengers. Consumers can check the status of a train by train number or by selecting the stations the train is traveling between.

Consumers dislike waiting in lines, Agin says. “Mobile fits in because it’s an element of how people live today,” he says. “We are going to the customer as opposed to forcing the customer to come to us.”

Agin says Amtrak is working on an Android app, but it has no plans for a tablet app, as its conventional site looks fine on an iPad. Amtrak’s e-commerce site does not use Flash technology, which is incompatible with Apple Inc.’s iPad. “Our full site is fully functional on the iPad,” he says.

Agin declined to say how many mobile travelers visit Amtrak’s mobile site or the volume of ticket sales via the m-commerce site and app.

In the past few years, Amtrak consolidated three call centers into two partly because travelers are able to take care of much of the Amtrak business on their own via mobile technology, Agin says. He would not disclose the cost to Amtrak of a self-service ticket purchase made via the mobile app or site, compared with a ticket bought with an agent’s assistance.

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