- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 30, 2000

Amtrak introduced a frequent-traveler program yesterday as it began selling tickets for the high-speed Acela train service along the Northeast Corridor.
The program, called Amtrak Guest Rewards, awards riders points that can be redeemed for hotel stays, car rentals and train and airline tickets. The awards are modeled after airline frequent-flier programs.
"It will encourage greater loyalty on the part of Amtrak travelers," Amtrak President George Warrington said during a ceremony yesterday in Union Station.
Amtrak is working under a federal mandate to become financially self-sufficient by the end of fiscal 2002. Otherwise, Congress has threatened to cut off federal subsidies and possibly sell off parts of the national passenger railroad system.
"Acela Express is a cornerstone of Amtrak's corporate turnaround strategy," Mr. Warrington said. "It will boost Amtrak's share of the travel market between Washington and Boston. It is expected to generate net revenues of $180 million in its first full year."
Acela's first run with paying passengers is scheduled for Dec. 11.
The District's Democratic congresswoman, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, said Acela could help curb urban sprawl and revitalize downtown Washington.
"Acela Express will attract more riders for Amtrak, and that means more people passing through Union Station and our downtown area," Mrs. Holmes Norton said. "It means more businesses will consider locating downtown, where they have quick and easy access to other cities and our regional transit system, instead of locating in the distant suburbs."
The Guest Rewards program applies to Amtrak routes throughout the country. Passengers earn 500 points for enrolling in the program and two points for every dollar they spend on an Amtrak ticket. As an incentive to travel by train instead of airplane, Acela Express and Metroliner passengers receive 500 points per segment for trips they take between Washington, New York City and Boston. Among the rewards available are free tickets on United Airlines, Continental Airlines and Midwest Express Airlines.
One-way Acela tickets between Washington and New York City will cost $120 to $143 for trips that take 2 hours and 44 minutes. In comparison, a typical ticket to New York on the Delta Air Lines or US Airways shuttle costs $202.50 for an hourlong flight.
Instead of using the airlines' system of awarding points for miles traveled, Amtrak awards points for dollars spent on tickets and awards tickets based on a three-zone system. A trip from New York City to Washington travels through one zone. Round-trip for a reserved coach seat between Washington and New York would earn at least 5,000 points. A trip from Chicago to Los Angeles would go through two zones and bring 7,500 points for a round-trip ticket.
Points expire if passengers do not ride Amtrak trains in any three-year period.
Last summer, Amtrak introduced a satisfaction guarantee program that grants free travel to passengers inconvenienced by delays or other service lapses.
Guest Rewards represents Amtrak's second attempt to win customer loyalty with a frequent-traveler program. The railroad discontinued its first frequent-traveler program in the mid-1990s for its Northeast Metroliner service after it failed to produce the desired results. Amtrak officials said Acela is reviving their hopes for a successful frequent-traveler program.
Tom Till, executive director of the Amtrak Reform Council, the federal commission that oversees Amtrak, said the Guest Rewards program could build brand loyalty among customers who only occasionally use the rail system. "There's no downside to having that kind of program," Mr. Till said.
Other partners that allow Amtrak points to be redeemed or exchanged include Hilton Hotels, Marriott International, Starwood Resorts and Hotels, and Hertz. Participating retailers include Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Eddie Bauer, Barnes & Noble, and Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants.

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