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Amtrak seeks a tech edge

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Traveling by train is so retro. Or maybe not.

Tech-savvy Amtrak riders can call up video games and DVDs on free media players and, through a special website, use mobile devices to buy rail tickets. On board, the train's staff processes charge cards at wireless terminals.

Just this month, the corporation that runs the nation's passenger trains tweaked its website geared to PDAs and smart phones, www.amtrak.mobi, so that users can access it directly without going through its main site, www.amtrak.com.

When it comes to mobile technology, "Amtrak is certainly at the forefront " of the travel industry, said Henry Harteveldt, the San Francisco-based vice president and principal analyst for travel research at Forrester Research..

"If only they'd run the long-distance trains on time," he added wistfully.

Some of the company's recent initiatives:

Portable bookings: Amtrak is among only a handful of U.S. travel suppliers, including a few airlines and hotels, that provide websites geared to the small screens of PDAs and smart phones, Harteveldt said.

Such sites, known as "mobile optimized," are stripped-downed versions of regular Web pages, with a few simple text functions such as viewing reservations and checking arrival times.

Amtrak's year-old version is unusual because it also lets customers buy tickets, Harteveldt said. "It's a smart move," he added, that gives Amtrak an edge over airlines serving the same cities, especially along the busy East Coast.

(At least one other travel company, InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, lets you make reservations through its mobile-optimized website.)

Media players: Through the end of summer, customers who rent sleepers on Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which runs between Los Angeles and Seattle, will be able to use portable media players for free.

The devices play on-demand audio, video games and recent DVD releases such as "Dreamgirls" and "Happy Feet."

During this pilot program, sleeping-car passengers can either show their train tickets at special kiosks in stations, where available, before they board to obtain the media players or get them on the train, said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham.

Coach passengers can rent them at the kiosks or on board, she added.

Wireless terminals: These devices, which made their Amtrak debut last year on the East Coast's Acela Express service, help the staff process credit cards faster for food and beverages bought on the train.

Instead of writing ticket and passenger information on paper forms, employees swipe the credit card through the terminal to obtain electronic authorization for the transaction. The process can take less than 20 seconds, saving everyone time, Amtrak says.

By the end of the year, the terminals should be in all the company's trains.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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