Adventures in Awful Application Design–Amtrak

Published On: 2019-06-10By:

I was going to New York last weekend from my home of Philadelphia. We were running late for the train, and for the first time ever, I had a booked an award ticket on Amtrak. For reasons unbeknownst to me, you can not make changes to an award ticket on their app (I didn’t try the website). Additionally, when you call the standard Amtrak line, the customer service reps can’t change an award ticket, unless you have defined a PIN. This PIN is defined by telling an awards customer service rep what you want your PIN to be. (Because that’s really secure). While this is all god awful business process, that is exacerbated by crappy IT, it’s really down to bad business processes.

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The bad application design came into play, when the Awards rep, tried to change my ticket, and she asked “do you have it open in our app? I can’t make changes to it if you have it open.” My jaw kind of dropped when this happened, but I went ahead and closed the app. Then the representative was able to make this change. We had to repeat the process when the representative had booked us into the wrong class of service. (The rep was excellent and even called me back directly).

But let’s a talk about the way most mobile apps work. There are a series of front-end screens that are local to your device, and most of the interaction is handled through a series of Rest API calls. The data should be cached locally to your device after the API call, so it can still be read in the event of your device being offline. If you are a database professional, you are used to the concept of ACID (Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, Durability), which is how we ensure things like bank balances in our databases can remain trusted. In general, a tenant of most databases applications is that readers should never block writers–if a process needs to write to a record someone reading the record should not effect that operation. There are exceptions to this rule, but these rules are generally enforced by the RDBMS in conjunction with the isolation level of the database.

Another tenant of good database development is that you should do what you are doing, and get the hell out of the database. Whether you are reading or writing, you should get the data you need and then return either the data or the status of the transaction to your app. Otherwise, you are going to keep your transaction open, and impact other transactions, in a generally unpredictable set of timings. That’s the whole point of using the aforementioned Rest API calls–they do a thing, return your data, or that you updated some data, and then get the hell out.

What exactly is Amtrak’s app doing? Obviously I don’t have any backend knowledge, but based on that comment from the CS rep, opening your reservation in the mobile app, opens a database transaction. That doesn’t close. I can’t fathom why anyone would ever design an app this way, and I can’t think of a tool that would easily let you design an app like this. At some point, someone made a really bad design choice.


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One response to “Adventures in Awful Application Design–Amtrak”

  1. Kevin Boles says:

    Truly bad stuff.

    I would put my money on their mobile app flagging the record as being read, as opposed to having a transaction open. There would be application logic that prevents updating a record where the IsBeingRead flag is true.

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