Jun 19 2018

Coding Amtrak’s collaboration with US Customs and Border Protection

We’ve received and posted the latest installment in a continuing trickle of responses to a Freedom of Information Act request  we made in 2014 for records related to Amtrak’s collaboration with US and foreign law enforcement and “border control” agencies.

The most recent batch of records released by Amtrak consists mainly of email correspondence between Amtrak IT staff responsible for supporting ticket sales through travel agencies  (most of which occur through computerized reservation systems), programmers with Amtrak’s in-house ARROW  reservation system, and Amtrak’s technical contacts at  the four major CRSs used by travel agencies: Sabre, Apollo, Worldspan, and Amadeus.

Most of these exchanges relate to Amtrak’s decision in 2005 to start feeding information about all passengers on cross-border (USA-Canada and Canada-USA) Amtrak trains to US Customs and Border Protection, and to require all passengers on these trains to provide Amtrak with passport or travel document info to pass on to CBP.

This was not required by any US law or regulations,  but was a voluntary decision by Amtrak. Some travel agents complained about this, but we’ve still seen no indication that they were given any answer about why Amtrak was doing this or what travelers or travel agents who didn’t want to provide this information could do. Amtrak’s own programmers were falsely told that this was required by order of CBP.

The messages we have received show that requiring travel agents to enter names and details of ID documents in PNRs for Amtrak travel created in the CRSs, and getting this information to flow through in standardized form to ARROW records and transmissions to CBP, proved more difficult than had been expected.

Until this new requirement was unilaterally imposed by Amtrak, there were no standard formats for entry,  transmission, or storage of identifying information in ARROW. Reservations for infants and members of groups, among other passengers, could be made without any names, and names in ARROW PNRs didn’t have to match IDs. ARROW codes for types of ID documents didn’t match those used by airlines or CBP.

At the same time, Amtrak a poorly-planned effort to require entry of a last name and a first name of at least two letters for each passenger.  The intent, apparently, was to stop travel agents from entering only first initials rather than “full” first names. But some people have only one name, while others have single-letter first names. Programmers often get this wrong, and Amtrak’s bungling appears to have been typical. If you have only one name, or a single-letter first or last name, and have traveled on Amtrak (especially on a cross-border train) since 2005, what name was shown on your ticket, and what happened?

Amtrak estimates that it will provide us with the next installment in this FOIA soap opera on Sptember 28, 2018

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