Ever since my first trip to Europe and my first experience with viable, extensive, intercity rail, I’ve always had a soft spot for train travel. My experience with the shinkansen bullet trains in Japan cemented my love for rail travel. But I’d never taken anything other than local light rail and subways here at home until this past year.
Over the last 10 months or so I’ve taken three medium-long rides on Amtrak. I took the Northeast Regional from New York City to Boston, the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo, and the Southwest Chief from Flagstaff to Los Angeles. I’m here to tell you that Amtrak is not nearly as bad as you think and, under the right circumstances, can be quite enjoyable.
(For those who don’t know the exact deal with Amtrak, it is the government-owned corporation tasked with operating passenger rail in the United States. It was created in 1971 to ensure that some form of accessible passenger rail continued after virtually all the private railroads ceased passenger operation due to declining ridership. It is federally subsidized and virtually all of its routes outside of the Northeast Corridor operate at a loss.)
Of course rail’s big disadvantage when compared to air travel is simply it takes a whole hell of a lot longer on a train. But, when compared to automobile travel, Amtrak begins to stack up more favorably and, on multi-day trips, it can be a better option. For instance, a train ride from LA to Chicago takes 43 hours as opposed to about 30 hours of driving. But, unless you plan to drive straight through, you’ll have to spend the night somewhere on the road, whereas the train just keeps going, making the trip duration more or less the same. A one way ticket on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train from Los Angeles Union Station to Chicago Union Station is $166 which means, given the price of gas right now, it’s cheaper for two people to take the train than to drive (figuring 8 tanks of gas at $40/tank).
It’s a misconception that the trains themselves are slow. In fact, Amtrak trains (without even including the high-speed Acela) can reach speeds of up to 75mph or 90mph, depending on the speed rating of its tracks. And in the wide-open American west (unlike the crowded, winding NE Corridor) the trains routinely have opportunities to travel at these speeds. However, because Amtrak operates over freight rail lines, freight trains have priority and Amtrak trains frequently have to stop to allow for freight traffic, making their average operating speed more like 50-55mph (including stops).
The main benefit of train travel over automobile travel is the simple fact that you have a lot of space on the train. You can get up and walk around as you please. Long distance trains all have lounge cars with large observation windows and tables for playing games and socializing. The coach seats themselves are comparable to business class or older first class seating on airlines, with 110v outlets, plenty of leg room, large tray tables, foot and leg rests, and the ability to recline to a comfortable sleeping position. I’ve never been able to sleep on a plane but I was able to sleep moderately well for seven hours on my overnight train trip from Flagstaff to LA. Additionally, although still rare, more Amtrak trains are being outfitted with WiFi.
(I’ll also note that you can travel with two large carry-on bags as well as a briefcase or purse and you can check up to three pieces of luggage for no additional charge, all stored up and out of your way, not crammed between the kids in the back seat. This helps bring Amtrak more in line with air travel in terms of cost if you need to travel with baggage.)
(I’d also be remiss not to mention that private sleeper rooms are available on all long-distance Amtrak lines if you want more space and privacy. They’re an indulgence, to be sure, but on certain routes still quite affordable and include all meals. Some routes also have private parlors and other amenities for sleeper car passengers. I’ve never done it, but I’m curious.)
Dining on Amtrak is better than economy options on airlines, comparable to what you’d find roadside on the Interstates, and the hot meals from the full-service dining car are quite good, all things considered. And unlike driving, you have access to fully-licensed beer, wine and cocktail service from either the dining or the lounge cars. While you don’t have the option to stop whenever you want to like you do in a automobile, the train routes are very scenic and in most cases of point A to point B Interstate travel, I never stop other than to eat, refuel or use the bathroom anyway. Amtrak bathrooms, while not great, are cleaner than most rest areas and gas stations and much bigger than airplane bathrooms.
A last small, but significant, perk of train travel is that train stations in major cities served by Amtrak are typically in the city centers and very well-connected to local public transit options, leaving you without having to pay for bridge tolls, parking, or expensive ground transport. For instance, Amtrak takes you directly into Penn Station in Manhattan as opposed to a flight into JFK, where you’re still an hour plus $50 town car ride away.
It would be nice if our passengers railways were more efficient. The Western US, with its widely spaced population centers and long, straight rights-of-way, is ideal for next generation passenger rail. Modern trains (the current Amtrak trains definitely look their age) on dedicated rail lines would provide a mode of transportation that is more practical than automobile travel and more energy efficient and environmentally responsible than air travel. I believe that if our trains could be 20-30% faster (which could be achieved without high-speed trains) with fare rates comparable to what they are now, train travel could eclipse automobile travel on certain routes and provide an intriguing alternative to air travel for the right people in the right circumstances.
I’m fortunate to have a job where, as long I can answer my phone and send emails, I can afford the extra time train travel takes. I’m also fortunate to live less than two miles from Los Angeles Union Station, one of Amtrak’s main destinations. Despite all that, I’ll still be driving and flying way more often than taking the train.
Nevertheless, I now always consider Amtrak when looking at my travel options and encourage those of you who live near an Amtrak route to do the same.