It took nearly ten years from when the U.S. Congress authorized a Northeast high-speed train service to when Amtrak was ready roll out the Acela.
The idea was to develop a train service that could match the speeds and efficiency of other countries’ rail service, including the Japanese Shinkansen (Bullet train) known for silently snaking between Tokyo, Kyoto and other cities at speeds of up to150 mph.
Rail travel in the United States has had a history of adventure, romanticism, financial scandal, monopolist control, and labor exploitation, while also serving as the catalyst for settling the West by connecting the two distant shores. Rail travel of the past is the stuff of lore, but by the 1980s it was a chore; it was unreliable.
This was a time when commuters could rely on airlines to shuttle them back and forth between Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston, for $50 each way. There were always two carriers competing for its share of these commuters. And passengers would choose by walking up to the airline’s gate and buy a ticket for a guaranteed seat. While prices stayed the same between the two carriers at any given time, the airlines dueled it out with frills, such as breakfast snacks and newspapers in the morning, and beer, a piece of fruit and newspapers in the afternoon.
In comparison, Amtrak was having difficulty filling its trains, and many mid-continental routes traveled with just a handful of passengers. Under any other circumstance, Amtrak, a for-profit, would have been long gone. But Congress picked up a portion of Amtrak’s its annual costs to maintain at least one national rail in service. The cost was estimated at roughly $1 billion a year, amounting each ticket subsided by approximately $5.
Amtrak leadership looked to the launch of Acela as an opportunity to cast off its suffering reputation and to rebrand. For the launch, they hired service designers from IDEO and C+CO, likely with neither party knowing quite what to expect as an outcome. It’s more than likely Amtrak was open to any ideas for a refresh.
The designers began by attempting to capture the experiences of passengers. They relied on observations to figure out what transpires when passengers travel the rails, including their decisions, actions, reactions, and behaviors. The designers also put diaries in the hands of some to try and get a read on their thinking throughout the experience.
When they presented their findings to Amtrak, the designers broke apart a service experience into a series of stages. In this way, they were able show where and how to improve the ride. The stages also demonstrated a larger picture of a passenger experience, which they pointed out as beginning with “learning” that occurs before the passenger buys a ticket, and “continuing,” which service designers will recognize as the period of time after a service outcome. The designers called their presentation a journey map.
The designers recommended redesigned platforms, new signage, reconfigured seating and updated bathrooms.
Nowadays, it’s pretty safe to say that journey maps are the most popular service design technique.