Amtrak's move to electronic ticketing in July ended one of the bigger annoyances of passenger rail in America: the frantic search for an open Quik-Trak machine in the last few minutes before your train leaves.
But that switch also freed the government-owned railroad to join many of the airlines it competes with in bidding for a spot on your smartphone's list of applications: Amtrak shipped an iOS app in August, followed in October by a counterpart for Android.
My first thought on seeing those releases was: Why bother with an app when you can show the e-ticket PDF on your phone's screen or print out a copy? But after using the Android version to book and board a round-trip from Washington to New York, I think I see where Amtrak's going with this.
Shopping for a ticket is no more or less inconvenient than on Amtrak's site (for instance, you still can't apply a discount unless all of your itinerary qualifies for it), except that neither app lets you book with Guest Rewards points yet.
Once you've paid, a menu item adds your itinerary to your phone's calendar, something Amtrak's website can't do. That's available in more places in the Android app, while the iOS edition only offers this shortcut on the confirmation page.
The iOS app also buries its recent addition of support for Apple's Passbook feature; you have to tap the "share" icon. Some users have reported getting Passbook notifications about upcoming travel days too soon.
You can share your travel plans on social networks (outside of TripIt users, who actually does that?), and you can upgrade to business or first class from within the app. That option may yield a reasonable upside for Amtrak down the line. Canceling a trip is also easy, as I discovered when Hurricane Sandy shut down earlier plans for a run to NYC.
Once you're in or near a station, though, this app does little. It bundles less information about nearby attractions than Amtrak's regular site and repeats its omission of details about connecting transit routes. The iOS app throws in a goofy Passport feature that lets you collect virtual stamps as you visit stations; ensuring that it can display an e-ticket without a network connection would have been a better addition.
Worst of all, the app isn't set to push notifications to your phone's home screen if your train is late (Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds said that's on the to-do list). Amtrak could learn from the airlines here; United's app, for instance, will notify you if the incoming flight bringing your itinerary's plane to the gate is late.
On the train, the app's utility ends when the conductor scans the QR code on its screen with one of Amtrak's customized iPhones. But once Amtrak's got you on a train, with its app on your phone's screen, half its work is done; it's already serving as a built-in reminder of its existence as a travel option. The railroad just needs to keep plugging away at upgrading its features … something you could say about the entire Northeast Corridor.