The American national railway network, known as Amtrak, is operated by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, a federally administered semi-nationalised corporation. Amtrak was created in 1971 with the merging of the passenger routes of 13 privately-owned railway companies, which after years of neglect were bankrupt and facing collapse. In recent years Amtrak has suffered badly from lack of investment.
The US rail network covers more than 186,000mi of tracks and is the largest in the world. However, in terms of passenger miles per head of population, it rates well behind other industrialised nations. The fastest and best trains carry freight, which has priority over (and subsidises) the passenger service. The passenger rail system covers only 22,000mi of track and excludes two mainland states (South Dakota and Wyoming), as well as Alaska and Hawaii. There are no direct transcontinental train services and connections must be made through Chicago, in the north, and New Orleans, in the south. The rail network links over 500 cities and towns, but many cities aren’t connected. (Amtrak provides Thruway buses to link train services and to serve areas where there are no rail services.) Local trains are operated by state and regional rail companies in many states.
Slow and infrequent services
In general, services are slow and infrequent (Amtrak is God’s way of telling Americans to slow down!). American trains are on average twice as slow as those in most European countries and four times as slow as French and Japanese high-speed trains. Late trains are common, particularly on long-distance routes, and some routes have one train a day only. In an effort to win back customers, Amtrak introduced ‘on-time’ guarantees on certain services, where passengers on late trains (even one minute late) receive a free ticket on the same route. The busiest stations are New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Chicago and Newark – each handling over a million passengers per year.
Quality of service
Amtrak’s rolling stock, track and auxiliary services vary from excellent to poor. The tracks (apart from those in the Northeast) are still owned by the old freight companies (such as Topeka & Santa Fe and Chesapeake & Ohio) and are mostly ancient and badly maintained, with the exception of those commercially maintained by the busy freight network. On some routes the ride is uncomfortable and derailments aren’t unknown. Stations are occasionally grand buildings (e.g. New York’s Grand Central and Washington’s and Los Angeles’ Union stations), but most are run-down and neglected, and in the major cities are home to tramps and derelicts.
The rail system is at its best in the Northeast ‘corridor’ (the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington route), served by 120mph Metroliners and a new service called Acela, which whisks you from Boston to New York in three and a half hours and from New York to Washington DC in two and a half. The southern Californian system is also good, where distances are short and getting to and from airports would otherwise be inconvenient and expensive. In these regions, rail travel from city centre to city centre is as fast as air travel and compares favourably with European rail services. Rail is generally the quickest way to travel between city centres less than 300mi apart; beyond this distance it’s quicker to fly (even allowing for the time spent travelling to and from airports). Outside the Northeast and southern Californian regions, almost the only people who use trains are train buffs, tourists with lots of time, and those who are afraid of flying.
Crossing the US by train takes around three and a half days at an average speed of around 40mph and is reminiscent (speed-wise) of rail travel in China or India. Long-distance train travel is usually little cheaper than flying and often more expensive. Peak periods are during the summer months and over the Christmas holidays.
The advantages of rail travel are the spaciousness of the carriages (particularly on medium and long-distance journeys) and the chance to relax, read and enjoy the changing landscape (or the industrial wasteland). Many trains have observation lounges with wrap-around windows. Service is the equal of that on any railway in the world and you can usually eat and drink well at what are reasonable rates by international standards. As a means of travel for tourists with plenty of time and a wish to see some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, trains are ideal. The evocative names and routes of many of Amtrak’s long-distance trains recall the golden age of American rail travel and include the Champion, Empire Builder, Silver Meteor, Silver Palm and Silver Star, South Wind, Sunset, and Vacationer.
Amtrak provides accommodation for wheelchair-bound passengers (indicated by a wheelchair symbol on the outside of cars) on all trains, including specially designed sleeping accommodation and bathrooms on overnight trains. New Amtrak carriages, such as Amfleet trains and Metroliners, can be boarded without steps at most stations (although steps are necessary at some stations). Wheelchairs are available on request at most stations, although disabled, elderly and other passengers who need assistance (such as those in wheelchairs) should notify Amtrak ( 1-800-USA-RAIL) 72 hours before departure. Guide dogs may ride in passenger cars free of charge, although no other animals are permitted on Amtrak trains. Amtrak publishes a free brochure, Access Amtrak, for disabled passengers.
For information about Amtrak services, write to Amtrak Distribution Center, PO Box 7717, 1549 Glen Lake Ave, Itasca, IL 60143 or check the Amtrak website (www.amtrak.com). Amtrak publishes a bi-monthly magazine, Express, available free from stations and agents, as well as a comprehensive free travel planner, Amtrak’s America, containing information about all Amtrak’s long-distance routes, sleeping accommodation and travel advice. Amtrak stations, offices and approved travel agents provide information about tours, connections with other train services and buses, rail trips in Canada, hotel bookings, and car rental. In addition to its regular services, Amtrak offers around 75 package tours, many of which include hotels, meals, sightseeing and theatre shows ( 1-800-321-8684).
In addition to the Amtrak system and local rail services, there are a number of scenic narrow gauge railways operating restored steam locomotives on lines negotiating some of the most spectacular terrain in the US (particularly in the Rockies, where the romance of the railways survives). Deserving special mention are the Grand Canyon Railway (www.thetrain.com), which uses vintage steam trains and runs along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, and the Durango and Silverton Line (www.durangotrain.com) offering trips aboard a refurbished 19th century steam train. Another popular journey is the Napa Valley Wine Train (www.winetrain.com), employing Pullman cars built in 1917 and offering the added bonus of the opportunity to sample some of the region’s best wines.
If you’re interested in chartering a private train, the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners publishes a directory available from AAPRCO, 421 New Jersey Avenue, SE, Washington, DC 20003 (www.aaprco.com).
Single tickets in are called ‘one-way’ tickets and return tickets ‘round-trip’ tickets. (Round-trip tickets normally cost exactly twice the one-way fare.) Circle trips are round-trips within a region, where the return journey is via a different route from the outward journey. Excursion fares are for round-trips during off-peak times and cost little more than regular one-way tickets. With the exception of round-trip excursion fares, all tickets entitle you to break your journey (stop over) as often as you wish. It’s cheaper to buy a through ticket to your final destination, rather than buy tickets between stopover points.
Rail tickets for Amtrak services should be purchased from a ticket office, online or by telephone before commencing your journey. With few exceptions, discounted, excursion or round-trip tickets cannot be purchased on trains, although sleeping car, club service and custom class accommodation can be, subject to availability. If you wish to upgrade your accommodation, you should consult the conductor or ‘on board services’. When you present your ticket to the conductor (or buy a ticket from him on a train), he puts a receipt in front of your seat or beneath the overhead baggage rack. If you change seats or leave your seat temporarily, take the receipt with you and replace it when you return.
Standard Amtrak accommodation is called ‘coach’, and on selected trains in the Northeast corridor and Metroliner trains a superior Club Service is provided (with wider seats). Regional train services, the Acela Express and Metroliner have fares that vary with the time you’re travelling (off-peak, shoulder and peak hours). Children under two travel free and those aged 2 to 15 pay half-fare (based on off-season adult fares).
Children under eight aren’t permitted to travel alone and children aged 8 to 11 may travel unaccompanied under certain conditions only and with written permission from the person in charge at the boarding station. Full adult fares are charged for children under 11 travelling alone. A sleeper berth costs between 125 and 200 per cent of the standard fare. Senior citizens over 62 receive a discount of 15 per cent on most tickets and disabled travellers receive a 15 per cent discount on full fare tickets, although proof of disability is required. Students with a Student Advantage card also receive a 15 per cent discount. Discounts don’t apply to sleeping accommodation and cannot be combined with other discounts.
All Amtrak ticket offices and the Amtrak website accept American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, Discover, Mastercard, and Visa. Credit cards are also accepted at some ticket offices and aboard trains for tickets and dining car meals. Personal cheques are accepted for fares over $25 in all states except California, where cheques are accepted from customers aged 62 or over only. Passengers paying by cheque must produce photo identification and a credit card. At major stations, tickets can be purchased from automatic ticket machines called Quik-Trak kiosks.
Amtrak advises passengers to arrive at a station 30 minutes before departure time. This is, however, generally necessary only when you need to buy a ticket or have baggage to check in. Bookings are required for Club Service and Custom Class travel, seats on long-distance trains, sleeping car accommodation, Metroliner trains and some Empire Corridor trains. If you’re in doubt about whether you need to book, check in advance. If you’re planning to take a long-distance train during the summer or on a federal holiday, you should book well in advance to be sure of a seat. Bookings are required for all club and sleeping accommodation and on long-distance trains indicated on Amtrak timetables as ‘all reserved trains’.
You can make bookings at city railway stations, Amtrak ticket offices and most travel agents. When you book a seat or sleeper you’re given a booking number and a time limit to pay for your ticket. If you arrive at a station without a booking and seats are still available, you are assigned a seat and sold a ticket on the spot. Amtrak has a computerised booking system which you can call free on 1-800-USA-RAIL. The best time to call is early morning or late at night.
Cancellations & Refunds
Tickets for sleeping accommodation are refunded if bookings are cancelled at least 24 hours before departure. If cancelled less than 24 hours prior to departure (but before departure), the accommodation charge isn’t refundable, but can be credited to a future booking. If not cancelled before departure (‘no show’), the accommodation charge is neither refundable nor may it be carried forward. Club Service seating cancelled less than an hour before departure is not refunded, but may be applied to other Club Service travel on the same date only. Refunds of the unused value of most tickets are available at Amtrak ticket offices upon presentation of the original tickets (refunds aren’t given for lost, stolen or destroyed tickets).
Local (state or regional) rail companies offer a wide range of tickets usually including: one-way; round-trip; weekly and monthly commuter tickets; round-trip excursion (RTX, off-peak only); children’s fares; senior citizens and disabled; student monthly; and groups (e.g. 15 or more people).
On local trains, senior citizens (aged over 62 or 65) and disabled people with a valid Reduced Fare Card or Medicare Card may be eligible for reduced fares for off-peak travel, i.e. any time except on trains scheduled to depart between 6am and 9.30am and between 4pm and 7pm, Mondays to Fridays. In some areas, a Weekend and Holiday Family Supersaver Fare allows two children under 12 to travel free with a full-fare paying adult. In most areas, children under five travel free when accompanied by a full-fare paying adult, although this is often restricted to one free child per adult. Local one-way and round-trip tickets may be valid up to 180 days.
Tickets for suburban services can normally be purchased on trains, although there may be a surcharge when tickets are available at a local outlet. At some suburban stations there are ticket outlets during peak hours only, outside which tickets must be purchased on trains. In some areas, where tickets are not available at the local station, they can be purchased at nearby shops. If in doubt, check in advance . Ticket machines may be provided which accept all coins (except pennies). Monthly tickets can usually also be purchased by post. Information about local commuter train services can usually be found in the front of your local telephone directory.
The cheapest rail accommodation (called accommodations in the US) is called ‘coach’, where reclining aircraft-type seats are provided, with ample leg room. Seats are comfortable and have trays, reading lamps, and sometimes a fold out leg and foot rest. Pillows are provided free on overnight trains, although you should bring a blanket (souvenir blankets are sold in lounge cars) to counter the freezing, night-time air-conditioning. Most people find they sleep well in the reclining seats.
Superliners, operating in the west, are Amtrak’s premier long-distance trains and offer restaurants, bars, a cinema, video entertainment, taped music programmes and social centres. Superliner accommodation varies, but usually consists of coaches, observation or dome cars, full-service dining cars, and sleeping cars. At least one toilet is provided in each car. Sleeping accommodation includes economy single and double bedrooms, deluxe bedrooms with shower, washbasin and toilet, family bedrooms sleeping two adults and two children, and bedrooms for passengers with mobility problems. In the east, Amtrak’s older Heritage long-distance trains are in service, although these are being replaced by new Viewliner carriages. Heritage trains are equipped with a range of sleeping accommodation including:
- Slumbercoaches: private single and double rooms equipped with a toilet and washbasin, and lounge seats converting into a single bed or upper berths at night;
- Roomettes: private single rooms converting from a sitting room to a sleeping room, with a full-length bed and private toilet facilities;
- Bedrooms: private rooms designed for two adults or one adult and two children, with a private bathroom. Bedrooms can be combined into suites.
- Smoking is prohibited on all Amtrak trains except for the Auto Train, where passengers may smoke in a designated area of the lounge car only. Passengers may smoke on station platforms when the train stops, provided that there are no local laws forbidding smoking at the train station, but must remain ready to re-board immediately when notified that the train is about to depart.
- Many trains in the Northeast Corridor and on the West Coast now offer quiet cars. Seating is available on a first-come first served basis, and those sitting in the quiet car are requested not to use mobile phones, pagers, handheld video games or computers that make noise. Passengers are asked to speak softly and the lights on board may be dimmed to allow travellers to relax.
- All trains have toilets or bathrooms. These are often quite spacious on older trains, with the toilet separate from the washing facilities and seats for those required to wait. Trains often have separate bathrooms for men and women.
- Long-distance Amtrak trains often have baggage check-in facilities. On trains where you can check in your baggage, you must have photo identification (to reclaim your bags) and you’re restricted to three checked-in bags, none of which can weigh more than 50lbs (25kg). You’re limited to two pieces of carry-on luggage. Checked in and carry-on bags must be labelled with the passenger’s name and address.
- Announcements are usually made when trains are approaching stations, although you shouldn’t rely on (usually unintelligible) announcements for information about when to disembark or change trains. Often stations are poorly signed and many have one or two small signs only. Platforms (tracks) in some areas are marked inbound (into city) and outbound (out of city).
- Most long-distance trains have dining or restaurant cars and tavern lounges, where you can have a quiet drink. Meals are reasonably priced by international standards and above average for rail fare. However, Amtrak snack bars are poor and for the starving only. Food and drink must be provided by law on any train journey of over two hours. All long-distance trains with a dining car service provide children’s dishes and a special food service, e.g. low fat and kosher meals (although these must be ordered in advance). Passengers may bring their own food on board, although Amtrak employees are not allowed to heat it up or serve it to you.
- Most trains also have a bar-car, where in addition to alcohol, you can often buy drinks and snacks all day long. The bar may open and close at strange times, as the sale of alcohol is subject to the licensing laws of whatever state the train is passing through. Passengers are permitted to consume privately purchased alcohol in private sleeping car accommodation only. Alcohol may not be permitted on local trains unless there’s a bar-car.
- Railfone public telephones are provided on all Metroliner Service trains and most long-distance and express trains, calls being paid for by credit card.
- Earphones must be used when listening to radios, cassettes and compact disc (CD) players on trains.
- Inexpensive daily parking is available at or near most suburban stations.
- All main stations offer a choice of restaurants and snack bars, although the food may leave much to be desired. Food and drink machines are also provided at many stations.
- Travel insurance for rail passengers is available from major stations.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.