How safe does private room/long distance train travel seem these days?
September 1, 2020 6:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm not actually considering traveling any time soon. I've been on the cautious end of the spectrum since March. But I'm wondering if people are edging back into long-distance train travel (or perhaps if people have been doing it more than I imagine) and how safe or unsafe it seems to the hive mind.

On the one hand, great, you're in your room, separated from people by walls and doors. I assume they're just bringing meals to rooms and skipping the dining car experience. (Which is've had one Amtrak dining car dinner conversation, you've had most of them.)

On the other hand, the rooms are hardly hermetically sealed (you, um, can sorta smell a lot of stuff) and you still have to use the bathrooms. And, well, train travel is very slow and whatever you are exposed to, chances are good you're going to be exposed to a lot of it.

I realize nobody has a definitive answer on this but I'm wondering if people have impressions. I am not a traveler by nature but the necessity of staying mostly in the neighborhood for the last six months has made me daydream a little about getting out of here, and train travel is what I like most when I do travel.
posted by less of course to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've been considering this (for an unavoidable trip, instead of flying). If you pay enough you have a bathroom in your private room. Their ventilation systems supposedly exchange the air every 4-5 minutes, but I would probably wear a mask most of the time anyway, even in a private room.
posted by pinochiette at 7:14 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]

FWIW, everything I've heard is that airplanes do not seem to me major spread vectors; it seems reasonable that an even more-sparsely populated train car would be safer.
posted by Hatashran at 7:38 PM on September 1 [4 favorites]

I can verify that a coworker of mine did a cross country train trip and didn't catch it (somehow the woman travels all over the country and never catches anything). Beyond that, I guess it depends on what risks you are willing to take.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:22 PM on September 1

it seems reasonable that an even more-sparsely populated train car would be safer.

Length of exposure is also important though. A cross country flight is 5ish hours but 4ish days on the train.

Maybe the air handlers are better in the sleeper cars than the standard ones, but the standard ones can get pretty ripe during the course of the day.

If I had to travel, I'd personally rather drive in an environment I have control over or fly with a good mask and just get it over quickly.
posted by Candleman at 9:07 PM on September 1 [6 favorites]

I had the misfortune to board the Coast Starlight for a 24-hour trip while the vacuum toilet system was malfunctioning. (In Amtrak's defense they gave us the option of a refund before we got on, and refunded the fare for the sleeping car portion.) It was the train they call the S**tty of New Orleans, the smell was awful everywhere. I conclude from this experience that the ventilation is not that great on the train, and that you also have the risk of the vacuum flush, which has been implicated in at least one confirmed case. Even though you have your own toilet, you're still in very close physical proximity. Amtrak doesn't have HEPA filters, either (though odors can pass through filters that trap the virus, so smell is not an absolute problem). I think it's more risky than taking a short plane flight, and the flight is more risky than driving yourself somewhere. Sorry.
posted by wnissen at 9:30 PM on September 1 [3 favorites]

In my experience, the busiest corridors have the most updated trains with the best amenities. I can't speak to many of the cities in the Mid-west, but on the East Coast, the busiest corridors get the most business traffic among the largest cities — DC, NYC, Chicago and Boston, in particular.

Trains in the South were notably poorer both in terms of quality and age because they're not getting the same kinds of big business traveler bucks coming in on the regular. So part of my decision, were I you, would depend on your route.
posted by Violet Blue at 12:05 AM on September 2

Here is a video made by a YouTuber taking the sleeper from Milan to Palermo back in August. I suspect that if somebody were to mention the idea of a 17 hour summer time journey on an Italian train then you might not expect that is the sort of trip that could work well in Covid times. I think this shows otherwise.
posted by rongorongo at 12:20 AM on September 2

As a correction to an earlier point, Superliner roomettes do not have toilets in the room, but Viewliners (east coast, mostly New York based) do. The major cross-country routes, such as California Zephyr and Empire Builder, are out of Chicago on Superliner equipment and take two nights to their destination. If you want a private bathroom in these sleepers, you need to get a Bedroom or better, not just a Roomette.

If you take a look at the occupancy rates of sleeper cars on Amtrak, it seems very low right now, and there are plans to discontinue daily service at the end of September, replacing it with thrice weekly. This comes from having observed the number of apparent occupants while trainwatching in the last month or two.

If you get a Superliner Roomette, you might be better off on the lower level, which has less passenger traffic because you don't get everybody walking down the hallway all the time. As a bonus, most of the bathrooms and the shower are on the lower level.

I wouldn't risk Coach on any long distance train, but am considering a Roomette on the Zephyr in the next few weeks for some critical business travel that's been put off since March. Given the low occupancy rates, September seems the time to go as occupancy will go up when they cut the number of trains. Additionally, while length of exposure has something to do with the risk, I note that air quality hasn't been something that's been a serious consideration in the past. I have lots of sleeper travel over many years, and I don't typically smell things in adjoining compartments, even when the attendant brings meals to the next room.
posted by jgreco at 4:52 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]

As a public health person, putting in a major shout-out for the Johns Hopkins Novel Coronavirus Research Compendium (NCRC) as a very reliable resource for getting some evidence-based advice on these types of questions. I think this resource is particularly helpful because along with the short summaries of a study's main finding they also include short, accessible summaries of limitations and pros/cons of the study design and methodology.

The NCRC team just did a write-up on train travel safety in July:

The risk of COVID-19 transmission in train passengers: an epidemiological and modelling study

Summary of Main Findings

The overall attack rate among contacts was 0.32% (234/72,093) (95% CI: 0.29, 0.37). The attack rate for those seated in seat A from was 0.28% (95% CI: 0.21, 0.39), from seat B: 0.41% (95% CI: 0.31, 0.54), from seat C: 0.34% (95% CI: 0.26, 0.45), seat D: 0.34% (95% CI: 0.26, 0.45) and seat F: 0.27% (95% CI: 0.20%, 0.36%). Attack rates were different depending on the row a contact was sitting. Contacts in the same row as an index case had an attack rate of 1.5%, which is 10 times higher than the attack rate of being 1 or 2 rows away from the index case. Travel time was associated with the attack rate as there was an increase by 0.15% per hour of travel time, though this relationship strengthened after a contact traveled for more than 4 hours.

posted by forkisbetter at 10:21 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]

It isn't clear that the Johns Hopkins study is adding any meaningful evidence as it is clearly talking about coach passengers, and the topic here was private room train travel.... if they have something for private rooms, that'd be interesting to hear.
posted by jgreco at 11:01 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]

I would bring a high-quality HEPA filter air purifier for my cabin and run it the whole time. I don't trust the ventilation system on a train the way I would trust it on airliners which have to have much more sophisticated air treatment systems.
posted by quince at 5:20 PM on September 2

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