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A review of Amtrak rail travel in the United States

Article created: Jan 13, 2008
Article by: Jeremiah Faith
Summary: The US rail system, operated by Amtrak, is an underutilized and comfortable means of transportation. Although it lags far behind European rail lines in its modernization and route coverage, you can still reach a lot of destinations pretty cheaply on Amtrak. I prefer Amtrak over the airplane for train trips that are 5 hours or less. With all of the hassles of security and getting to/from the airport, the train can be almost as fast as the airplane for these shorter journeys and much more comfortable. Amtrak travel can vary widely from region to region, so I discuss the regions I've traveled by train: the Northeast Corridor (Boston-DC), the Pacific Northwest (Seattle-Portland), and the Southeastern Coast (DC-Savannah).

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In Europe, where major cities are often only 200-400 miles apart, trains are an extremely common form of transportation. When you take into consideration the amount of time to go through security and then retrieve your baggage from the baggage claim, trains can be as fast as airplanes without all of the security check hassles. Plus, trains almost always drop you off in the heart of a city, while airplanes almost always drop you off outside the city, leaving you with an expensive taxi fare or long public transportation ride into the city.

The Amtrak passenger rail service in the United States is nowhere near as extensive in its coverage or as modern in its trains and services as European trains. However, this underutilized form of US transportation is increasing in popularity as airline delays become more frequent and airport security gets increasingly complicated (I think I’ll never get used to throwing my water bottle away and buying a new one when I make flight connections; what a waste). Although the distances between US cities makes rail travel less practical in many situations, I always choose a 4 hour train ride over a 1 hour plane ride (plus arriving 2 hours early for security, plus adding an additional hour for retrieving baggage from the baggage claim and taking a taxi into the city).

US rail travel on Amtrak can vary greatly from one part of the country to the next. Below I’ll describe the general positives and negatives of US rail travel. Then I’ll discuss some of the unique features of the routes I’ve taken thus far, so you can know what to expect when you travel by rail in these regions.

Positive Aspects of US rail travel

Compared with air travel, the train is:

Negative Aspects of US rail travel

Useful US rail information

You can see schedules, fares, and book tickets at http://www.amtrak.com/.

The same information is available from Julie . Amtrak’s automated telephone system (1-800-872-7245). This phone number is particularly useful to check if a train is on time. At smaller stations, Julie knows more about train status than the local train employees.

Northeast Corridor

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The Northeast Corridor is by far the most advanced and highly used region for US rail travel. It encompasses the route from Boston-DC, though most passengers only ride half of the route (i.e. Boston-NYC or DC-NYC). The Northeast Corridor is the only Amtrak route that has a high-speed train. The ticket price for a 4 hr trip in this region (e.g. Boston - NYC) is higher than a similar length trip in other regions (e.g. St. Louis - Chicago), because Amtrak is trying to prove to the federal government that they can operate the Northeast Corridor free of government subsidies. A bus between Boston and NYC can be more than 3/4 cheaper than the train. The plane and the train between these cities cost similar amounts.

For me the train is the most comfortable way to travel in the Northeast Corridor for a 4 hour trip (e.g. Boston - NYC or NYC - Washington DC). Traveling the entire length of the route (e.g. Boston - DC) makes for a long trip (unless you take an overnight train), and it’s probably cheaper and certainly much faster to fly the Boston-DC route.

The three big cities stops along this route are in central locations (Penn Station NYC, South Station Boston, Union Station DC). Since the route is highly used, the trains are quite frequent, so you have plenty of choices. The travelers on these trains tend to be business travelers, so the number of cell phone conversations can be excessive. However, the high speed Acela trains have a quiet car where cell phone conversations are not allowed. As far as the high-speed Acela vs the non-high-speed Metroliner, I find there is little difference in speed and a huge difference in cost. The Acela arrives little more than a half an hour faster. If they’d take out some of the stops, perhaps the train would be more deserving of its designation as an express train. The Acela trains are certainly newer and more comfortable . you get a huge amount of leg room, the seats are very nice, and I think every seat has a plug for your laptop. However, the regional Metroliner train is not bad either, and I take it over the Acela when I’m traveling on my own money (i.e. non-business travel).

As far as the scenery goes, this route is beautiful. The Boston - NYC route follows alongside the Ocean for quite a while. On the return trip to Boston from NYC, you travel through Queens and have a spectacular view of Manhattan.

Pacific Northwest

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I’ve taken the train from Seattle to Portland, and I found the service and trains to be similar to the slower Metroliner service on the Northeast Corridor. The travelers on this route seem to be predominately tourists and locals with only a few business travelers. The route from Seattle to Portland is very beautiful; you ride alongside mountains and water for a large portion of the trip (I took the photo to the right from the train window). The train stations in Portland and Seattle are both downtown.

One annoying thing about this route is that the seat assignment process seems to be the same one they had in 1940. You wait in a long line and at the end of the line is a person with a piece of paper from which they decide the seats to assign you (the photo to the right is the line in Portland).

Southeastern Coast

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The Amtrak routes along the Southeastern Coast extend from NYC to Miami, FL. That’s one long ride in a train! I’ve taken the train from DC to Savannah, GA with a stop in Charleston, SC. All of the trains I took on this route had very nice seats to help you sleep . there is a lot of leg room and the seat has a recliner-style seat rest to hold your legs up (see the photo on the right). They have sleeper cars too if you prefer to have a more comfortable bed. The distance between cities on this route can be quite long. However, the longer trips aren’t too bad if you take an overnite train (a 12 hour train ride where you sleep 8 hours is actually quite nice). On the overnite trains the attendant normally provides a pillow and records your stop, so they can wake you up in time for your stop. In Europe, this level of personal service is only provided if you purchase a bed in a sleeper car. On Amtrak, even the cheap seats get a free personal wake up.

One big draw back of this route is that the train stations in these Southern towns have few amenities (you’ll probably find only a bathroom and a candy machine) and tend to be outside the city. And since most of these towns have little public transportation, you have to find a taxi to the city. In Savannah, GA, the taxi ride is actually quite short and cheap. In Charleston, SC, the station is further from downtown. There is a local bus near the train station in Charleston that goes downtown, but it’s not in the best area. In addition, the trains are very infrequent in the South, so don’t miss your train!

Finally while the train stations in large Northern cities often have a place where you can store your bags (for a fee), the smaller stations often have no such system. Whenever I asked however, their Southern charm came out and they always found a reasonable safe room in the station where I could stash my suitcase for a while.