Ok it’s not actually an ode as in a song…
Having spent the equivalent of a week living on Amtrak trains over the last two months, and having really rather enjoyed most of that week, I felt I should put a quick post together highlighting the best bits about travelling America by train and some hints and tips to try save money whilst doing so. I suppose this guide would be of primary use to non-Americans, but hey might be useful to y’all in the US of A too – who knows?
A quick introduction…
Like in the UK, railway growth in the US was driven by private companies building lines to such an extent that by the start of the twentieth century the railroad, as they would call it, connected seemingly everywhere. And whilst government provided support to these companies in the beginning in ways of land grants in order to promote the various trans-continental railway links, they were strictly for profit businesses. And they became hugely successful, employing huge numbers of people and earning large profits reflected in ever grander stations. Many of their business practices though, didn’t exactly endear them to the public and so few seemed to mind as governments in turn taxed them increasingly heavily, and post World War II, this combined with the rise of cars and air travel saw rider-ship plummet and the passenger services become increasingly un-viable. Eventually all the great railway companies gave up on passenger trains instead focusing on the still profitable freight network. In the 1970’s the government finally stepped in and set up Amtrak, a company to continue to run a small selection of America’s once vast passenger network, even retaining many of the names the private operators gave to their flagship services, such as Santa Fe’s Super Chief. Or at least they did until Santa Fe, upset at the severe decline in service levels on it under Amtrak, stopped them from continuing to use the name.
Amtrak, to my knowledge, has never come close to making a profit, and journey times are increasingly slower than they were 50 years ago as the private freight railroads who own the vast majority of the infrastructure have no real incentive to maintain track quality to the level required for faster passenger services and, in a complete reverse of what the situation is like in Europe, routinely stop passenger trains in sidings in order to give their own freight services priority.
The only place in the US where passenger rail does turn a profit is in what is known as the North East corridor, roughly corresponding to the lines between Boston, New York City and Washington DC. However any profits it does make here are diverted to maintaining its business elsewhere rather than in upgrading the track (which on the North East Corridor, Amtrak actually owns). As a result even taking Amtrak’s flagship “high-speed” (everything is relative) Acela Express service from New York City to Washington DC will take you longer than it took the Beatles riding the equivalent service in the 60’s… And of course it has also meant delays in rolling out newer train safety equipment, the sort of which would likely have prevented the fatal derailment of an Amtrak service just north of Philadelphia in June this year…
So…have you rushed out and brought your tickets yet?….
Ok, maybe I need to mention some of the positives…
Travelling by Amtrak in standard coach class, the cheapest tickets they offer, will get you a seat on a par with first class seats on many other railways. And it will get you so much leg room, that an entrepreneurial peg-leg salesman would be able to transport with him enough stock to outfit a whole fleet of lower limb deficient pirates. The seat will also recline a surprising amount, you get a massive stow-able, but sturdy table, loads of room for overhead luggage, with an entire luggage van for checked luggage, and power outlets to ensure all your tech can stay fully charged. And on many of the shorter distance routes, you also get reasonably fast wi-fi. Free. It beats just about any offering train companies in the UK can make…In fact take out speed and it is on a par with or better than just about any train anywhere.
Once you get out onto the longer distance services heading West, things get even better, unencumbered by the need to fit carriages through various tunnels under NYC and other bits of the rail network on the East Coast, Amtrak carriages can go big. And they were pretty big anyway, which means they can go massive. They are called Superliners, probably because they are pretty darn well super. All coaches become double-decker. They all have massive windows. Most passengers sit on the upper deck, (great views) whilst a few seats on the lower deck are reserved for those who have difficulty climbing stairs. The rest of the lower deck is taken up with a number of restrooms and even a dressing room. In most places, including the UK, using onboard facilities is something I try to put off whenever possible, the mess and smell (especially on Class 221 Voyage services) is frankly pretty awful. But, perhaps because no one can hold it for the duration of a 48 hour trans-continental journey without giving themselves a bladder infection, American trains are much, much better. I will state now that the toilet facilities on Amtrak’s long distance Superliner coaches are the nicest I have seen on any form of transit. You really can let the train “take the strain…”
However fantastic the coach facilities are though, you probably shouldn’t spend many daylight hours in them, because the pièce de résistance, of American long distance rail travel is the observation/lounge car. The windows are huge, practically floor to ceiling, and then half the ceiling is given over to windows too. Numerous chairs are set up facing the windows and the result is a space so full of natural light that the prospect you may at first dread of spending all day on a train, instead evaporates as you find yourself feeling as if you are just chilling out in some giant conservatory, watching beautiful American landscapes fly past and making conversation with your fellow travellers. The mix of people taking Amtrak services really is very varied. You will almost always see some Amish or Menonaite travellers, a mix of retired folk treating it almost like a mini-cruise, oil workers heading out to Dakota and elsewhere and other random and interesting people, like me(!) or like the guy I met who had done a good deal of train hopping in the past, a rather dangerous practice, also known as hoboing, the romantacism of which I would love to experience some day.
So whilst there is no getting away from the fact that travelling by train is almost always significantly longer than by plane, it is clearly infinitely more comfortable, and more comfortable than taking the bus for any sort of long distance journey. You also get a much greater connection with the American landscape, it’s often beautiful, and even when it becomes repetitive, from the comfortable environment of the observation car it is a hypnotic backdrop, rather than the monotonous one it might appear from the driving seat of a car. In essence it is a really enjoyable experience in itself, and it was these very same rail lines and the journeys made on them that effectively linked up the United States into one functioning integrated economy – so you really are seeing an important part of America’s past and present. If you are on a severely limited time budget, it’s probably not for you, but if you are travelling for two weeks of longer, have a look at the train options and think of the journey as merely part of the holiday.
Finally, adding slightly to the exoticism of the whole thing, the trains all have pretty cool sounding names, many linked to historical names going way back to the nineteenth century. I ended up travelling on the:
Sunset Limited, The Crescent, The Adirondack, The Maple Leaf, The Lake Shore Limited, The Empire Builder, The Cascades, The Starlight Limited, The Pacific Surfliner, The South West Chief, The Missouri River Runner and The Palmetto. With the exception of The Palmetto which sounds like a rejected name for an ice-cream I think we can agree they all sound better than the <nasal tone> “16:44 Arriva Cross Country service to Birmingham”.
Top Amtrak Tips…
So, hopefully this has made you want to think about taking an Amtrak journey, in which case, here are my top tips for making the best of it and getting the best deals.
As with everything, being flexible about when you travel as well as securing that travel in advance can save you money. The best way to do that is to look at the prices currently on offer over a range of dates you would be free to travel using this website
Simply put in where you want to go from and to, and put in a range of dates you are willing to travel between. The website will then show you the range of fares on offer for those dates. You can now pick the cheapest one without having to manually try multiple combinations on Amtrak’s own website.
On the Amtrak website, its also worth looking at their special deals. On Tuesdays through Fridays Amtrak’s website offers a number of small discounts on selected services on selective dates in the near future. You never know, you might spot something that will save you $$$.
If you are a non-US citizen, planning on taking several trips, sign up for Amtrak’s equivalent of a frequent fliers programme, called Guest Rewards. It’s actually quite a generous scheme and through my travels I was able to use it to get two train tickets for free saving about $90. If you are an American citizen you should sign up even if you only use it once, as you can transfer the points to a number of other schemes and might be able to change existing points from other schemes into Amtrak points. In fact if you are an American, you can get some awesome deals by signing up to some credit card reward schemes. I can’t claim to be an expert on this, but a quick google of people who are suggest several cards which, assuming you can afford them, might be worth looking into as they come with very generous sign up bonus that can be put towards Amtrak travel points that could pretty much pay for a cross-country journey straight away.
All Amtrak services have a cafe, and the long distance ones have a dining car. It is worth brining some of your own food along too though, as sometimes if you are travelling in coach, the dining car reservations fill up with all the sleeping car passengers before they get to you. And on services where there is a diner, the choice of stuff on offer from the cafe does seem to be poorer. Food is also quite expensive on the train, although not that bad. I cannot claim to have eaten extensively from the diner, but the meals I did have I really rather enjoyed.
If you are posh and have brought a sleeping berth ticket, then all your meals are included.
Free drinking water is available throughout the train so you shouldn’t die of dehydration. Technically you are only allowed to drink alcohol you have purchased on the train (unless you have a sleeping compartment) However this seems to not always be enforced, and subtlety should get you by if it is. Don’t worry about keeping your drink cold, you can get ice for free from the cafe car.
Seating isn’t assigned when you buy the ticket. Instead when you board a long distance train, the carriage attendant will give you a seat number as you get on. They will make great pains to try to fit groups together and if it’s not possible at the outset will try to move you back together later in the journey. Best not to wander too far away from your seat if you are coming up to your stop, especially at night, as the stations aren’t announced during he night, and if you aren’t in your allocated seat the attendant can’t wake you and let you know its time to get off.
You can take two pieces of carry on per person, and any extra luggage can be carried as checked luggage. In short, you can take an impractically large amount of stuff with you if you really are so inclined.
If you cannot afford sleeping accommodation you have to sleep in your seat. This isn’t the most comfortable of places to sleep, especially if you end up with someone sitting next to you (although often you might find you have two seats to yourself) Whilst the seats are comfortable to sit in, the headrests are completely flat so it probably is a good idea to bring a neck pillow or something to support your head a bit more. It also gets quite cold at night what with all the air-conditioning. Indeed it can get quite cold during the day! If you do get too cold though, one of the rest rooms on the lower level should be slightly larger than the others and come with space to get changed in. If you really are too uncomfortable, or are unhappy enough to find yourself next to a very drunk alcoholic as I did once (I should emphasise for the benefit of my mother, that I was next to the alcoholic, I was not the alcoholic…) than an alternative is to go to the lounge car and try to sleep on the slightly curved row of seats facing the windows. Or alternatively, on the lower level of the lounge/observation car, there are some long bench seats near the rest rooms where you can lie flat. Just remember if you aren’t in your seat and you are due to arrive at your destination before 7am, there will be no annoucments and the attendent won’t be able to tell you when you have arrived…
Trying to sleep in coach seats is perhaps the worst bit of Amtrak, but its doable, and the cost of sleeping accommodation is a significant extra, especially if you are travelling solo although as the cost for sleeping accommodation is the same for one person or two people sharing and does though include all meals in the dining car, it might make more sense if you are travelling as a pair.
The trains will make slightly longer stops every now and then to change crews, load fuel/water etc. On these occasions passengers will be allowed off for a few minutes to have a smoke, stretch of legs etc. So this should help if you think you might go stir crazy otherwise! When its time for the train to move on, they really will shout out “All Aboard!”
So there you have it, now go out and travel Amtrak!