Reuters

The useful, clean, and customer-friendly service lets anyone follow how fast a train is moving at any given time.

This week Amtrak released "Track a Train" — an interactive, Google-powered, real-time-ish status map of its 300-plus daily trips. America's passenger rail provider says it created the feature because checking train status is the second most-popular action on its website, after buying tickets. Now travelers and train enthusiasts alike can see how slow fast a particular Amtrak train is moving at any given time.

Requisite snark aside, the service looks both polished and useful. (You can find it in the lower-left corner of Amtrak's main site.) The base map gives a national overview of Amtrak's service at the moment. Active trains are indicated by a blue arrow pointing in the direction they're traveling. Stations are shown as smaller white dots. A purple circle enclosing a number shows how many trains are in high-traffic areas and lets users zoom in with one click.

A status window for each individual train gives the train number, direction, origin, final destination, and speed. There's also a status flag: green indicates on-time trains; amber, late trains. One check this morning found a gray flag to indicate a route with a service disruption. The most handy feature is a scrollable history that gives the local times every arrival a train has made (or will make) on that route.

Yes, that is an Acela moving at 134 miles per hour — just a glimpse of what Amtrak trains are capable of doing when proper track configuration allows.

There are plenty of basic Google Maps features, too, including a traditional zoom feature, a search window that auto-fills for stations or route names, and a satellite viewing option. (You can't zoom in close enough to see the actual track, however, perhaps for security reasons.) There's even a nifty national "reset" button that takes you take back to the base screen that the original Google Maps would be wise to steal.

So there it is: not groundbreaking, of course, but functional, clean, and customer friendly. Amtrak's management is always being criticized for its shortcomings. That's the way it should be for a taxpayer-subsidized service, and indeed sometimes the flaws are glaring (as in the case of its inefficient food service). But Amtrak's innovations deserve some credit, too.

At times it's even been ahead of the technological curve. Amtrak has taken the lead implementing positive train control safety upgrades, and it was using mobile ticketing well before transit agencies started doing the same in major U.S. cities (if anything, it made the shift too quickly, confusing some older customers). Its WiFi service is a mess, of course, but private-sector in-flight Internet providers haven't exactly perfected that system, either.

Anyone interested in learning more about the "Track a Train" system might turn to a Q&A that Amtrak conducted (if you will) with Google Maps product manager Dylan Lorimer. It's mostly vanilla stuff, but one of Lorimer's answers is entertaining:

As you know, our trains go to a lot of places. If you could go to any of our 500 destinations, where would you go?

Remember that train robbery scene from Breaking Bad (season 5, episode 5), where they steal the supply of methylamine? Maybe there? Just kidding. For sure, I’d take the Empire Builder through Glacier National Park! I can’t wait to do that one day.

Two things. One, he's so obviously not just kidding. Two, let's just hope he doesn't hop that Empire Builder during a government shutdown. If he does, though, at least he'll be able to see whether or not he'll arrive at that closed park on-time.

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