Amtrak series: Pick good metrics and stay on track, if it matters

As I mentioned, this weekend I came from Sacramento to Provo by Amtrak train. I flew to Sacramento on Southwest Airlines, buying a one-way ticket so I could decide later whether to depart from SAC or San Francisco. But at the last minute I instead decided to indulge my long time desire to ride a train. (I had long talked of hopping a train with my college roommate, but we never learned if it’s a misdemeanor or a felony and I didn’t think want to risk the latter.)

The ride took 21 hours, which afforded lots of time for reading, listening to music and talks, and taking pictures. I also met several people: a guy moving with everything he owned to start a new life in Denver, an artist-musician couple vacationing (the wife said Steve Case, founder of AOL, asked her to high school prom but she turned him down), and a guy from Wisconsin who’s been in the military for 24 years and thinks we should have gone to Darfur long ago. All very different and interesting stories.

The price for this trip, not including dinner in the dining car, was $74.00 or $3.52/hour. Compare that with my Southwest flight which cost a whopping $37.92/hour.

But when did the price per hour of a trip ever matter?

If you want to accomplish something, you must measure it:

If you don’t measure something, you can’t change it. The process of leadership is one of painting a vision, then saying how you’re going to get there, and then measuring whether you’re actually getting there. Otherwise, you risk only talking about great things but not accomplishing them. (Source: Mitt Romney)

I like the idea of using metrics to incent the right behavior. For example, “cars with realtime MPG usage displays tend to make people more efficient drivers.” (source, also) If you keep track of how often you read important books or go to the gym, or how meaningful your time is with your family (even in a subjective sense), those things are sure to improve over time. Pick your own metrics and stick to them.

More on metrics: High resolution mistakes by Seth Godin and Domino Rally business models by Paul Allen

So what could possible be meaningful about a trip with a low price per hour? That metric could only incentivize inefficient, slow-paced trips with no regard for urgency or schedule. Or in other words, I was just in this one for the ride.

6 thoughts on “Amtrak series: Pick good metrics and stay on track, if it matters”

  1. Richard,
    My roommate and I went to Colorado Springs on Amtrak. We took our bicycles and stayed at a hostel. We also went to a cave and the hot springs. Pretty fun trip. However, I can never get comfortable on the seats and the train is almost always late. I’ve never tried a sleeper car but I should.
    When I was married, two of my friends came to the reception by hopping a train. They got into hopping trains for a few years. Only one woman would go with them. She stowed away when the train was stopped. Seemed awfully dirty and loud to me.
    I like a scenic shorter train ride just fine, like the Heber Creeper. Also, watching trains is pretty fun, as long as you’re not in a car.
  2. There is absolutely a difference between price and cost.

    Price per hour to travel was cheaper, and the time was much longer. You also got to spend time doing other things while you travled. Then there’s the opportunity cost. Sounds like it was way fun. I just might have to try it.

  3. Yeah, its nice to think about taking a nice easy slow trip but when you’re traveling with a baby and a pregnant woman, you want to get there as soon as possible so you don’t have to sit in the car anymore. Not to mention the frequent bathroom stops…
  4. Often our traveling is done in a fast paced fashion. This isn’t always the best way.

    Indeed. How often do we stop to smell the flowers? Take a photo of what we’ve done? Sit and ponder things a bit? I think technology has only worsened our collective desire to get things done quickly and move from point A to point B in the quickest possible fashion. It’s not always bad, but we need some moderation at times.

    Maybe I’ll go on a vacation by train sometime.

  5. “…slow-paced trips with no regard for urgency or schedule.”

    I agree. I have only traveled by train a few times, but had great experiences. My favorite was going through Glacier National Park in Montana.

    Often our traveling is done in a fast paced fashion. This isn’t always the best way.

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