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.”
Amtrak Uses Google Maps to Build Real-time Train Maps
In the future, Amtrak wants to add even more useful information to the interactive train maps, including weather information, tourist attraction details, restaurant and retail shopping ideas, hotel information and more, said Alexander. “Right now, it’s focused on the train and that’s the most important thing right now. We’ll build upon it when we have more information to put out there.”
Amtrak is getting the word out about the new service by sharing its presence on Twitter, Facebook, the train company’s blog and lots of word-of-mouth discussion, said Alexander. “We’re building the foundation. We’re laying the groundwork for growing this out.”
It took Amtrak developers about three to four months to create the code for the project, after several months of planning and research.
Google is always improving and expanding its Google Maps offerings. In July, Google Maps unveiled a new maps layer for developers so that they can better integrate their data with images in Google Maps. The innovative DynamicMapsEngineLayer gives developers the abilities to perform client-side rendering of vector data, allowing developers to dynamically restyle the vector layer in response to user interactions like hover and click, according to the company. The new maps layer makes it easier for developers to visualize and interact with data hosted in Google Maps Engine.
In June, Google for the first time released its Google Maps Engine API to developers so they can build consumer and business applications that incorporate the features and flexibility of Google Maps. With the Maps API, developers can now use Google’s cloud infrastructure to add their data on top of a Google Map and share that custom mash-up with consumers, employees or other users. The API provides direct access to Maps Engine for reading and editing spatial data hosted in the cloud, according to Google.
Google unveiled innovative updates for Google Maps at its annual Google I/O Developers Conference in May, including a more interactive look and feel for Maps. The new Google Maps takes a novel approach to how people use online and mobile maps, gaining the ability to instantly respond to user inputs, making recommendations on places to visit and highlighting information that matters most during a map inquiry. The new generation of the Maps service essentially creates maps that are unique to each user and his or her needs, based on the input from the user.