Amtrak is using Google Maps to offer its first-ever real-time, interactive train locator maps for mobile users so they can check train arrival and departure times on the run.
So far, the early version of the maps Website is aimed at Android and iPad tablet users because of the larger screens on those devices, but smartphone-based versions are expected in the future, Steve Alexander, creative director in Amtrak's e-commerce group, told eWEEK.
"It's been an idea that we've had for quite some time," said Alexander. "We've been laying the groundwork over the last few years."
Amtrak serves some 31 million passengers a year, while running about 300 trains a day across the country to and from some 500 stations. The new maps site lets customers see exactly how the trains are doing on their routes. That's useful information for travelers who are heading to Amtrak stations to catch their trains or for visitors who are picking people up on arriving trains.
"It's a very big system," said Alexander. "We want to be able to visually show customers where the trains are" at any given point. Customers have been asking for such capabilities, he said. In fact, users who are checking the arrival and departure status of trains continue to be the second-most common activity on Amtrak's main Web page, right behind ticket purchases.
"That tells us that people really want to know what's happening with the trains," said Alexander.
The new real-time Amtrak train locator maps, which use the Google Maps Engine, went live on Sept. 30 for users. Alexander unveiled it with a guest blog post on the Google Enterprise Blog, where he described it as a major upgrade for users who previously could only see a text list of train status and station arrival times on the Amtrak Website. "The station map we launched for our customers last year had already shown us how compelling a visual representation of train information could be—and that led us to expand our use of Google Maps Engine for our latest map," he wrote.
Using the new train locator map, users can look at all the active trains across the country, or zoom in on a given region or station. When a user hovers over a train on a map with a mouse pointer or fingertip, a pop-up window appears showing whether the train is on time or late, and when it's going to arrive at the next station.
"We get the near-real-time data from GPS devices on each of our trains; as a train passes by sensors near the tracks, the location information is pushed into Google Maps Engine, along with station data from our content management system," wrote Alexander.
And while the early version is Web-based, which works easier for tablets, the company is working today to determine how it will provide similar information to smartphone users in the future using apps that are built for smaller device screens, he said. Alexander couldn't give any timeframe for when those accommodations might occur, but said it will be part of the second phase of the project.
The data provided on the new maps has a five-minute delay, so that the information can be gathered, processed and disseminated to the maps engine as quickly and accurately as possible. "The beauty of working with Google is that the Google Maps API just works" as designed, he said. "And now the work will be focused on making them easier to read on smartphones."