Travel on Amtrak

by Philip Brewer on 11 June 2008 38 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

With each move by the airlines to claw back a bit of the profit that has vanished into the twin maws of competition and higher fuel prices, and with each move by the government to increase "security," air travel has become a little more dreadful.  I'm glad we have a rail alternative.

The town where I live has Amtrak service.  (This is not purely a matter of luck.  Although my wife and I each moved here for ordinary reasons--job opportunities and personal connections--Amtrak service is a non-trivial part of the reason that we've stayed here.)

Since, for a lot of trips, rail travel is more appropriate than air travel anyway, I'm pleased to report that Amtrak service is pretty good--especially when compared to air travel.

All the things that have become most dreadful about air travel are better on the train:

  • Security is minimally intrusive--they checked our photo IDs when we picked up the tickets the day before the trip, and we didn't need to dig out our drivers licenses again after that.  There were no x-ray machines and no hand searches.  We kept our shoes on the whole time.
  • The seats are wider, recline further, and have more leg room.  The luggage racks offer space for five or six times as much luggage as the overhead compartments on a plane.  The aisle is wide enough to squeeze past a person coming the other way.
  • I wasn't trapped in my seat by the "please fasten seatbelts" sign--there was no such sign.  (There weren't any seatbelts, either.)  I was not only free to "move about the cabin,"  I was free to walk a few cars ahead and buy a snack in the lounge car.
  • I didn't need to get to the station an hour or two before my train departed.  We like to get there a bit early, but 20 minutes was plenty of time.
  • Multiple entrances made getting on and off the train quicker and easier.
  • Tickets were cheap.  (With two people traveling, it probably would have been slightly cheaper to travel by car.  Flying, if one were insane enough to fly such a short distance, would have been four or five times as expensive, athough admittedly a bit quicker.)
  • We weren't delayed by the weather, even though there was considerable thunderstorm activity.
  • At both ends of the trip, we ended up right downtown at the train station, rather than way out at the airport--very handy for the people taking us to the station and picking us up.  (As a bonus, the Kalamazoo station and Union Station in Chicago are beautiful old buildings, and the Champaign station is a beautiful new building.)

Everybody has their own preferences.  Traveling by car may be cheaper, especially if there are several people traveling together.  Traveling by plane may be faster, especially if you're going more than a few hundred miles.  Personally, I find the trade-offs favor rail travel, if Amtrak goes where you're going.

Of course, this last is a key point.  From Champaign I have good service to Chicago to the north (and several towns in between), and good service to New Orleans to the south (and several cities and towns in between).  But if I want to go east or west, then the train is a pretty poor choice, unless it makes sense to change trains in Chicago.  (There is good bus service.)  

I'm sure readers from Europe would laugh--train service in the US is a pale shadow of what it should be--but it does exist, and where it provides service, the service is great.  if you haven't tried it, you really should.

[Written on the Illini, enroute from Chicago to Champaign, June 8th, 2008.]

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Guest's picture
srah

I think train travel in the US would improve if more people were using it. As it is, the trains tend to leave at really strange hours and freight trains seem to take precedence over Amtrak on the tracks (I don't think I've ever talked to anyone who arrived at their scheduled arrival time). I think it's also more expensive than you would expect such an unpopular service to be (although I guess they have to charge that much to keep operating). But I guess if you're not in a hurry to get where you're going, Amtrak is a nice change from the hassles of city driving or airport security.

It would be nice to see a US system that was as reliable, clean and regular as some European rail systems.

Philip Brewer's picture

Our trip had four legs.  One ran about 30 minutes late and one ran about 20 minutes late.  The other two both departed and arrived within 5 minutes of their scheduled time.

As I understand it, Amtrak has priority on the track, but only when it hits its scheduled window for each section of track.  If it ever gets delayed, then it looses its priority and has to yield to freight traffic for the duration of the trip--which can add up to huge delays for one of the long-haul trains.

Of course, there are horrifying delays on planes as well--an officemate once told me of spending 4 hours sitting on the runway after reaching her destination, before they got the plane to a gate so they could get off.

I've ridden trains in Europe.  One I remember in particular was business-class service from Berlin to Stuttgart--smooth, fast, and quiet.  (The train compartment was literally quieter than my living room.)  The Amtrak train was quiet--much quieter than an airliner--but nothing like that train in Germany.

Guest's picture
AJ

Great article. I am planning a trip this summer to Washington, DC and would love to take the Amtrak with my family since it could provide for a fun experience but there's one problem. The tickets (as they stand now) cost more than plane tickets.

Guest's picture
Lucille

Four tickets on Amtrak were the price of one plane ticket the last time I checked rates. This is probably due to our being in a less used air fare area.
The downside is that the two closest Amtrak stations are 3+ hours away, but so are the closest major airports. Unless I had to be somewhere on a tight schedule I would pick Amtrak over flying. The extra time on the trip is far preferred to the awful state of flying. Having an Amtrak station is also a major factor in our short list of places we are willing to move to when we do so in a few years.

Guest's picture
KM

I absolutely wish Amtrak, or rail in general, were a legitimate option in the Northeastern coridor, but every time I've checked over the last couple years, it is as or more expensive than air travel.

Add to that the frequent stops most of the trains make, and the picturesqueness of rail travel disappears. Plus, it is significantly longer (DC to CT) than a plane is, which would be fine if it were cheaper, or even markedly more pleasant.

I will admit, though, that when I go into NYC (my parents live in eastern CT), I always take the train. Driving in would be insane, and flying is clearly impractical. Those trips are fine. But the longer DC-CT trips, nowadays flying is almost always easier, faster, and cheaper.

Guest's picture
CB

No security and no seatbelt safety? Sounds awesome... for terrorists.

Philip Brewer's picture

Terrorists have been known to attack trains (most notably, the multiple train strikes in Madrid).  Even so, trains aren't a popular target--mostly because they don't fall down.  Their only attraction is that there's a bunch of people reasonably close together, something that can be found in any crowded place.

Personally, I loath the security at airports.  It's almost all pointless--something Bruce Schnier refers to as "security theater."  The one really useful bit of added security was the reinforced cockpit doors.  The rest of it is largely an annoying waste of time.

Guest's picture
Kat

Try checking out the Drive $marter Challenge (www.drivesmarterchallenge.org). You can enter your specific vehicle data and figure out how much money you can save my taking six fuel-efficiency steps. They also provide other fuel-efficiency tips to help you save on gas costs.

Guest's picture
Amy

I agree that going east or west is pretty difficult with Amtrak, at least in my area. I live in south central Michigan and though there is a station not too far from my apartment, a trip to my hometown in Ohio (usually a 3.5 hour drive) would take twice as long to get me to somewhere that is still 20+ minutes away. It would also cost more, even with gas prices and the turnpike toll.

My boyfriend is thinking about making a trip to Washington D.C... maybe Amtrak would be a good choice for that.

Guest's picture
Tracy G

Thanks for that review, Philip. We have Amtrak service, too. Hastings, Nebraska took its name from railroad contractor Col. Thomas D. Hastings, in fact, at its founding in 1872. I feel more secure knowing that I live in a railroad town.

I've never personally taken the train, but I think I will the next time I visit my family in the San Francisco Bay Area. It's a pretty direct route, and everyone I've asked says it's more pleasant than flying. It's certainly more environmentally friendly.

Guest's picture
Edgar A.

Great strides were made in improving Amtrak service during the two years David Gunn was president 2003-2005, before he was fired by the Bush administration. Gunn's Six Myths of Amtrak is still worth reading.

A substantial percentage of Amtrak trains run pretty close to on time except when delayed by freights. The last few years have seen several new trains added, unlike airlines where the trend has been toward canceling flights that don't fill up, or eliminating the flight altogether. Number of riders on Amtrak are up over 10% for the current fiscal year, and ridership for the past month is up over 13% compared with May 2007.

A first-class passenger railway system at least on a par with most of the developed nations of the world should be a matter of national pride. The need for it as part of a sensible comprehensive transportation system ought to be clear to anyone after the problems following 9/11 and in preparation for the energy crisis, which is really just in its early stages.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration has recommended a 40% reduction for Amtrak in its 2009 budget.

Sarah Winfrey's picture

I grew up traveling by train--my dad loved trains and we took them everywhere. I have lots of good memories of sleeping cars and dining cars and observation cars and looking out the big windows. It's definitely an experience--I think most kids would love it, at least for a shorter trip.

Philip Brewer's picture

Faster I'll grant you--unless the trip is quite short, the plane is faster (although the advantage shrinks quite a bit, once you take into account getting to and from the airport and getting there early enough to be sure of clearing security).

Cheaper depends a great deal on the exact route.  Champaign to Kalamazoo would have been four or five times as much by plane as by train.

But easier I don't believe.  Maybe if your origin and destination happen to be right by the airport.  Maybe if the travel time by train would be more than 8 or 9 hours.  Otherwise, in my experience, by rail is the easier choice.

Guest's picture
Dar

I would not get too optimistic about increased train travel options nationwide. People may be looking for more travel options as the price of gas goes up and flying becomes more and more of a hassle, but the tracks that Amtrak uses belong to private freight railroads. Freight is their bread and butter, and freight will continue to be a higher priority than passenger traffic.

I wouldn't be surprised if more freight switches from trucks to the rails too because of gas prices. Rail isn't as convenient as door-to-door truck delivery, but it can be much more economical. If freight traffic on the rails increases, there's going to be even less room for Amtrak on BNSF, UP, NSC, and CSX lines.

It certainly would be nice to see more ridership on the existing Amtrak routes, since we're already subsidizing it with our tax dollars (Amtrak is government funded--the private railroads were more than happy to get out of the passenger traffic business decades ago). However, unless we have dedicated passenger traffic lines there's not much room for more passenger trains.

Guest's picture
Train fan

Perhaps these are obvious, but just in case they're not. . .three important tips to keep in mind when trying to travel Amtrak on a budget:

1) Unlike airplane fares, which can change wildly from day to day, Amtrak fares only ever go up as the date of the trip gets closer. Buy the ticket the moment you know you want to take the trip; don't wait a month to see if it will go down. It won't.

2) Unlike airplane tickets, Amtrak tickets are fully refundable/exchangeable for no extra fee. (Exception: if you have already had your paper ticket printed and want a cash refund, you will only get 90% back.) Even if you don't know exactly when you want to take the trip just yet, buy the ticket. You can always exchange it.

3) Amtrak publishes lots of discount codes, generally in the 15-20% off range. Check the Internet to see if there's a discount for your route before purchasing.

Note that the above only apply to "regular" tickets. Sleepers act according to different rules, and I believe the auto train may as well.

Guest's picture
Lucille

Another benefit is that in some cities having your car with you can be an expensive pain in the backside. The last time we were in Chicago it cost us $75 a day to keep our car in the hotel parking garage. I could have parked it in a city garage 4 blocks away but there is less security watching the car and I would have had to hike 4 blocks back to the hotel and again if we forgot something in the car.

I also heard on CNN last night that some foreign investors is trying to buy controlling stock percentages in CSX. Some members of Congress wanted an investigation. There were concerns about having a foreign interest basically owning a large section of our rail network and possibly jacking rates sky high or worse. I can see how something like that could really deal Amtrak a bad blow.

Guest's picture

Every time I've been overseas (3 in total - twice to Italy and once to Australia) we used the trains there quite a bit and I loved every minute of it. Not only do you not have to worry about helping to drive but I find the swaying of the car to be really soothing and I tend to spend a lot of my time asleep. Not to mention the fact that the noise of a train car is about 1/16 of the noise you have to endure on an airplane.

My friend and I want to go to Chicago for a weekend sometime in the future and we are considering taking the train rather than spending our own money on filling up a gas tank.

I wish that we had a train system in the US like they do in Europe. I am sure that my family and I would use it all the time.

Guest's picture

Union Station! I have an almost identical photo of the exact same spot!

Guest's picture
Margo

I've found that Amtrak is almost always as expensive as flying, except when your route includes small towns served by just 1 airline. Plus, it takes so much longer! For me to get from NC to DC, it's 4.5 hours by car, 3.5 by air (1hr flight + parking and security time), and a whopping 6.5 by rail.

I wish the rail lines south of DC were faster. I could walk to the station and avoid the hassles of both driving and airport parking! But, until then, it's not worth the extra 3 hours to save just $20.

Guest's picture
Zannie

When I was in college and didn't have a car I would use Amtrak to visit my mom. It was pretty universally awful. During my school breaks (which of course are heavy travel times, being arranged around Christian holidays) the trains were so packed that sometimes people were standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisles. Once it took over eight hours for what would have been a three and a half hour drive, AND they lost my luggage.

I have taken Amtrak once in recent years, and my experience was markedly better. However, train stations out here in the west don't tend to be right downtown. Some are still walkable to downtown if you're fit and travel light, but some not so much. Cities here didn't become big until after trains had been largely deprecated, so we have no "Union Station" type train stations.

Guest's picture
Mary

I would love to see the railroads flourish again in the US, and especially would love to see more freight going by rail than by truck. But since a lot of right-of-ways have been given up, I don't know if it's possible for the railroad to grow anymore.

Guest's picture

Amtrak is one of those things that’s great for a few, horrible for most, and will remain a government money pit until it’s privatized.

In my area all routes start with a 4 hour (without delays) trip to Chicago. If I was to drive to Chicago it would take about 3 hours and I’d break even on the gas versus ticket cost. More than one person makes driving a no-brainer. Going further than Chicago means long trips (longer than driving) and prices that are usually more than airfare or driving.

A passenger rail service that can’t beat cars for price or time nor beat flying for price cannot be expected to succeed.

Philip Brewer's picture

It bugs me when people talk like Amtrak gets huge subsidies, when the fact is that car and air travel get much larger subsides than rail travel does.

If the US government diverted one-tenth of what it spends on air travel, it could triple what it spends on Amtrak.  Just one percent of what it spends on highways could double what it spends on Amtrack.  (Numbers from this page on US transportation subsidies.)

And that's just subsides at the federal level.  States and cities also spend huge amounts of money:  on roads, bridges, airports, traffic signals, traffic police, traffic courts, snow removal, drainage improvements, and so on--all subsides to car and plane travel.

Some of that money comes from specific taxes on gasoline or plane tickets, but a lot of it doesn't.  (Most local spending on things like roads and bridges for example, comes from property taxes.)

Guest's picture
Edgar A.

Good response, Philip. I was about to post something along the same line, but yours is better.

Equity in government support for transportation could be achieved in various ways. Governmental subsidies could reduced, up to the extreme of eliminating all government subsidies (many obvious but some a little more subtle such as the federal government paying for airport security and railroads not even being exempt from property taxes on their rights of way).

Surely no good libertarian could object to letting the airports, the highways, as well as the rail-lines shift for themselves.

But I suspect that not all of us would like what our transportation system looked like in a couple of years.

Guest's picture
Guest

Yes, we must contract Halliburton to run Amtrak. Privatization is always better because privatization is better. To expand train service the government should pay Halliburton 500 billion Euros and see if service improves. If it doesn't, the government should continue to give them 500 billion Euros per year until it does. In order to further encourage Halliburton's investment in infrastructure, it should be exempt from taxes. No taxes and large subsidies until we have the best train system in world!

Guest's picture
Lucille

Every time I hear a comment about how we should privatize all of our infrastructure I have to giggle. It sort of exposes someone who hasn't really looked at the issue. Very few needed services that we depend on to actually keep the country running work well as privatized entities. The more critical the worse it is.

Then again I hear people saying we should privatize everything including roads, police & fire.

Rail here isn't perfect because it has been under funded for decades. We are playing catch up and you need to put money into it for it to improve.

Guest's picture
Guest

Just as cheap, albeit a little longer due to short 15-30min stops
every 30-50miles for pick ups and drop offs. But in planning a trip to enjoy the end destination, most buses can travel a bit faster for a longer stretch than rail until Amtrak or a private service
builds tracks for high speed or near and past 55mi/hr.

Took a 130 dollar round trip for 12hr each way from DSM to Toronto, with the worst annoyance being twice passported, grilled as to why of trip leaving US and Canada coming in. When returning passport just customs grilled again, claim any items, TSA bag scanning and then you're back home. Multipassenger transport saving gas and if you pack light and carry everything on or one overhead, no chance of lost luggage or stolen/swapped.

Guest's picture
Guest

"Every time I hear a comment about how we should privatize all of our infrastructure I have to giggle. It sort of exposes someone who hasn't really looked at the issue. Very few needed services that we depend on to actually keep the country running work well as privatized entities. The more critical the worse it is. "

ITA
People like that have never really taken an economics class and understood the concept of public goods or services that can't be made profitable if it is to be something made available for everyone and not restricted in supply to garner higher value.
If they knew the true history of healthcare, fire and police they know the disaster and shambles it was when in the 1800's fire groups were fighting each other to make money on putting out fires and starting fires to make money. Health was a serious shyster witch docter system with no real certification until professional schools started growing and creating organized hospitals and then women started the socialized nursing for the vast poor in the early industrial towns not unlike a third wolrd shanty town with poorly treated and paid workers. That's where the 8 hour days were fought for and prevention of child labor.
Modern conservatives try to paint it a a wonderland and lie about how we've gotten to the 'civil'ization we have now and aren't like places in Mexico, Guatemala, Bangledesh or Indonesia factory workers...yet.. cause we have it TOO GOOD they say and should compete globally by taking substandard pay and benefits and human rights all for a vibrant economy to reward the few getting over on the backs of the rest.

Guest's picture
Guest

Sigh....

Seatbelts are on planes because of unexpected turbulence, not because it will do anything for you in a crach. Trains don't need seatbelts because there's no turbulence and they won't do any good in a crash.

Trains in the northeast corridor travel at over 100 MPH. They also travel above 70 MPH in most other places.

There is just so much room on a train, it's not even close to traveling in a car or plane. You can play with the kids, relax in the bar (club car), whatever you like to pass the time. It's not just sitting squeezed in a seat until you reach your destination - it's like taking a relaxing break while someone chauffers you around. You arrive feeling refreshed, not worn out or sore from sitting all cramped up the entire journey.

The delays have greatly improved recently. I frequently take the capitol limited from Chicago to DC, and in the past a delay of several hours was normal. But in the last year the train has been on time or early every single time I've checked it.

Train travel isn't for everyone, but don't dismiss it based on some innacurate comments made here.

Guest's picture

I hate traveling with Amtrak. They have one of the worst reputations for being delayed or having problems on the track.

I traveled with Amtrak a couple years back and they were four hours late getting into the station. Not only this, but it was an overnight train trip to New Mexico. We were supposed to arrive at 10 in the morning. We arrived 8 hours after our scheduled arrival even with the four hours extra included. This was an awful experience that did not make my experience worth while. Granted I did go a couple of years ago. It could have changed since then.

I would travel short distances on Amtrak if I didn't have to worry about time. I would not suggest cross country travel.

Philip Brewer's picture

I have done some long-distance trips on Amtrak, and agree in part:  Amtrak is great for a long-distance trip, if the train ride is part of the fun.

When I travel by air, I try to ignore the actual travel part as much as possible, because it's so miserable.  If you're going to do that, traveling by train is a poor choice--it takes too long and costs too much.  But, if you're a "getting there is half the fun" sort of person (or are on that sort of trip), then Amtrak is a great choice.

Amtrak can sometimes run behind schedule, but so can airplanes.  I've been 4 or 8 hours late many times when traveling by air--twice I've been very nearly 24 hours late.

Guest's picture
easternabeille

Well, I have to go down to Tampa (I live in Baltimore) for a job interview. I thought I'd see how much Amtrak tickets are....it was cheaper to fly Southwest than to book on Amtrak! So sorry, I had to book the flight, I just cannot afford to travel by rail if it's more expensive than a flight.

Guest's picture
Jerry

My wife & I have talked about taking a train ride for awhile; we are taking a cruise that leaves from Long Beach, CA. So we decided to give it a try.
We will be on the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles.
I sure hope we enjoy this ride because it was very pricey compared to just buying four airline tickets, at least $700 more!
I know that includes the beds and meals but I was a little shocked it was that big of a cost.
Most of the stories I have read on here were for short runs has anyone taken a long trip like this one?
Better yet has anyone ridden this particular train either way?

Thanks

Guest's picture
Kevin

We just booked a amtrak trip for my wife and I to go visit family for the holidays. For a trip from Houston, TX to Cleveland, OH we saved almost $1000 ( between the two of us) compared to the best airline rates we could find on "priceline" "travelocity" ect...
Plus we havent taken a train trip in the US before...
Wish us luck!

Philip Brewer's picture

I hope you enjoy the trip!

Guest's picture
Guest

I have just taken the Amtrak train from Homewood, Illinois, to Champaign. It was on time and a great, relaxing ride. Tomorrow I'm taking it to Union Station in Chicago and hope the same. Also I hope there is food service because it's such an early train, and the hotel I'm staying in doesn't serve breakfast until 6:30, which is half an hour after our train leaves, and boy do I need coffee in the morning to get me going. I've taken trains in Europe---Italy, the UK and France, and yes, they are perhaps superior in some ways to ours, but Americans are spoiled with thinking air travel is so much more luxurious. That just isn't true. Trains are relaxing and you are right about the leg room---I had to pay $39.00 on United to upgrade to Economy Plus on a trip back to Chicago from NY, and the extra leg room was minimal. It would be great if train travel in this country became popular again, then perhaps the airlines would drop their ridiculous prices for domestic flights. One can fly to the Far East cheaper than from Chicago to LA.

Guest's picture
Ingrid

remembering the train trip i took in Germany about 45 years ago, i have chosen to take the train from Chicago to Portland OR. since this will be a two day journey i am wondering if i will be able to charge my electronic en route? i have purchased a coach ticket.

Philip Brewer's picture

The last couple of Amtrak trains I've been on had electric sockets for charging laptops and other such devices, but I don't know if they've all got them now or not.