Current state of US train travel?
July 5, 2008 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone give me any firsthand (or reliable secondhand) impressions of US (Amtrak) rail travel these days?

I'm planning on doing some rail travel in the US, with wife and 8-year-old child, when we next visit. Our child is a pretty hardy traveller, so no particular worries about that, especially. But anyone who has solid information on Amtrak travel these days, would you be so kind as to share it with me? I'm wondering things like, are the trains reasonably clean? Are the seats reasonably comfortable? Are they crowded? Any and all impressions most welcomed.

Also, I'm particularly interested in info on the "Crescent", running between New Orleans and New York City. But all info on any other lines as well would be great.
posted by flapjax at midnite to Travel & Transportation (47 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I used to take Amtrak between Boston and NYC pretty regularly. That's essentially a commuter line. The seats are comfortable, it sometimes runs on schedule but is very often late, and it's fairly crowded.

About 6 years ago I rode Amtrak from Boston to Oakland, California. That involved a train from Boston to Chicago, which felt more like a commuter train, and another train from Chicago to Oakland, which was more of a long-distance train. It appears that the Crescent is one of the more long-distance trains. My train had double-decker cars, much larger and more comfortable seats with more leg room, a dining car, a lounge car, and a viewing car (i.e. surrounded by windows). The train was about 1/3 full, at most, at any given time. There was also a dining car for which you had to make reservations a few hours ahead of time -- the conductor comes around and asks if you want to eat in the car. I was with one other person, and they made us sit in a booth with two people. I don't know if they'd make a single person sit with your family; I sort of doubt it.

Getting a bunk in a sleeping car is considerably more expensive, but I would bet is worth it. In my limited experience with the long-distance train trip, there were still sleeping car berths available when we got on, and were being sold at prices much lower than they would have been if I'd reserved ahead of time.

Your profile says you are in Japan. I am familiar with trains in Japan only by their reputation but, for one thing, Amtrak is much slower. For another thing, the cars are old and dingy. Much like the rest of America, they function just fine, and were once good quality, but nowadays are a little run-down.

Finally, it looks like the Crescent for today is actually sold out. With gas prices what they are, you are probably looking at a trip on a crowded, older (but still comfortable) train. If you can afford it, go with the sleeping car.

Have fun!
posted by one_bean at 5:27 PM on July 5, 2008

I just had a friend come visit me via Amtrack and her experience made certain we would never recommend Amtrack to anyone ever again.

First her trains ran about 90 minutes to 2 hours late each way making reliable punctual travel impossible and a real probl for the people picking her up on both ends

Second the trains were very populated if not totally full and the majority of the people on the train were dressed in their best four day old torn and ratty clothes. Many of the passengers smelled of sweat or urine plus there was a plentiful amount of svlcreaming toddlers with little to no parential attempts at quelling the childrens' screams.

So I think based off her experience you would be in for an adventure
posted by arniec at 5:32 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

On second thought, I gave you only the inside-of-the-train view. If you haven't done so before, traveling by train in the U.S. is fantastic. It's unlike any other form of travel. Traveling by Interstate or flying is the most generic and anonymous. Taking the back highways can be beautiful and interesting, but traveling by rail is like going through America's backyards at high speed. Well, it's not like that -- it is that. Because of the history of the railroads, and because of their function, you see a side of the country that you would never otherwise see. While the railroad does often run along the highways, at other times it'll pass along a river for a ways, or through the back parts of town, or through farmland. It can be relaxing, and (much like camping, or any other "down time" type activity) extremely rewarding time to connect with your fellow travelers. While Amtrak isn't as nice as it could be, there's nothing inherently bad about it that would make me recommend avoiding it. (Unlike Greyhound and its legions of incoherent diapered folk, young and old.)
posted by one_bean at 5:33 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd say it's a hell of a lot better than traveling by airplane nowadays. My only experience has been on the Empire Builder (older, two tiered) and the Cascades (I believe they are the newest Amtrak's got) trains on the West Coast. The trains are clean (if a bit run down on the older ones), seats are comfy, and I believe they have AC outlets in most seats on newer trains. Amtrak claims their seats are equivalent to first class seats on planes in size and comfort. They have not been crowded at all (no pushing people into cars or anything) when I've been on them, and the scenery is gorgeous. There's really no other way to travel if you have the time and money (Greyhound is cheaper but to be avoided if at all possible).

The only thing I would caution you about is they are much slower than trains in Japan and prone to delays (anticipate you may not arrive several hours behind schedule) because they share tracks with industrial railroad lines. That's the only drawback.
posted by calistasm at 5:38 PM on July 5, 2008

I used to take the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle pretty frequently - always enjoyed it. When I took it last year, though, it was crowded, uncomfortable, and late. The food was overpriced and dreadful. That being said, the view along coastal California and the trees of Oregon was amazing. So, it's a tradeoff.

If you can afford a sleeper car (and they are crazy expensive) it would be a much more enjoyable experience!
posted by chez shoes at 5:41 PM on July 5, 2008

er, you may arrive several hours behind schedule. Gah.
posted by calistasm at 5:41 PM on July 5, 2008

I took Amtrak from Corvallis, OR to Portland, OR several times to visit my parents when I was in college.

The train was:

- Late
- Comfortable
- Slow (see: Late)
- When trains in the US get late, that means that they become subject to gaps in the freight schedule of the rail lines that they travel on. This means, on a line with infrequent passenger service, that you might sit on a siding for a few hours and watch freight train after freight train chug slowly past you because you happened to be the late cog in a big gearset. Also, see: Late.
- The scenery on some lines (typically those closer to cities) is pretty much people's backyards and/or some nice rusty fence overgrown with blackberries.
- I wouldn't recommend traveling overnight in the passenger cabins. The line from Portland, OR to Los Angeles, CA drops off in downtown LA in the middle of the night, for instance. (This is not a good idea if you aren't, er, comfortable in big cities. Sorry to say that it's also not a good idea if you're white.) But there's a good chance that you won't get in at the scheduled time (see: Late), so feel free to gamble. Be prewarned that this may be a case where the game you're gambling at is russian roulette. My recommendation if you're traveling overnight is to get a sleeper cabin, which I've heard are quite nice.
- Did I mention that they're usually late?
posted by SpecialK at 5:44 PM on July 5, 2008

Response by poster: Very helpful so far, folks, many thanks! Some of you have mentioned sleeping cars: can you tell me what those are like, exactly? What does one do with luggage? Is there room in those bunks for a sleeping adult plus a bag or two? Or are we talking little individual cabins here, like, your own little family room? I don't know anything about the setup...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:51 PM on July 5, 2008

I've traveled the Southwest Chief several times-- it goes between Chicago and LA and has a fairly large quotient of international travelers. I don't know how many of them have sleeping berths, but I agree with one_bean's comment that they would be preferable if they're within your budget. I'd check to see whether there are special deals available only to foreign travelers on Amtrak, such as Eurailpass for non-Europeans. (update-- our version of the Eurailpass is the USA Pass, and is pretty steep, even for coach class-- they say you can upgrade it to sleepers) I saw, and met, several younger foreign passengers who slept in their regular train seats. The seats are about the size of first-class airplane seats and recline further than coach-class airline seats, so sleeping is possible, if not entirely comfortable (I never traveled overnight on the train). The other problem is that a communal sleeping arrangement like that can make for some fairly ripe smells in the car.

There's probably both seated meals and snack service on your train. The sit-down meals are about the quality of an American chain restaurant, and the snacks are marginally worse than an American chain fast-food place, but it's sustenance.

I agree that the scenery is one of the best things about train travel, but for me, the best aspect is talking to people who you probably would never have the chance to talk to otherwise. I've met several surprisingly chatty Amish, for instance. It doesn't hurt to know basic Amish etiquette (no photos, for instance), but we all found it interesting and even funny. I also made it a point to talk to some of the younger foreign tourists on board.

The best place to do this, and in general to enjoy the train, is in what I think they're calling the "sightseer lounge car," a car with fewer seats that face out onto picture windows and also have partial glass ceilings. It's easy, and natural, to strike up conversations with people around you. Meals also provide an opportunity to do so.

I welcome you here, and hope you have a great trip!
posted by missouri_lawyer at 5:53 PM on July 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I used to travel the Richmond - Baltimore route pretty often back in college, as well as continuing from Baltimore all the way into New York City more recently. I can vouch for the frequent delays, frequent crowded cars and lousy food, but I still prefer rail travel to going by car. If it weren't so damn slow, I'd be taking the train up to New York instead of flying on my next trip. Plane fare and train fare are just about equal, but it's 90 minutes in the air vs. six hours on the train.
posted by emelenjr at 5:57 PM on July 5, 2008

Response by poster: I've just checked out Amtrak's site with little pictures and descriptions of their sleeper cars an cabins. Anyone here have personal experience with these types of seats?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:58 PM on July 5, 2008

This spring, I took a train from Little Rock to Chicago, then one from Chicago to upstate NY (I posted an AskMe about carrying a Leatherman on board).

By a lot of measures, it's somewhere between Greyhound and airline. More comfortable and slower (and more lateness-prone) than either, though. one_bean and arniec pretty much cover the good and the bad of it (though I think that many of arniec's points could be made about public transportation in general.).

I'd totally do it again (in fact, I'll probably do it again in August). But I'd count on arriving late.

On preview: wow, when I started writing this, only two people had commented.
posted by box at 5:59 PM on July 5, 2008

My wife took the train from DC to Oregon earlier this year, and she enjoyed the trip. The trains were all on schedule, and her sleeper cabin was comfortable and clean. There were a few glitches--the heat didn't come on one night, in Montana, in March, so it was below freezing in her cabin at one point. There was plenty of room for her and her luggage in the cabin, though she said I, at 6'5", would have been a little cramped--she said it would be too small for two adults and a child, though, and family sleeper cabins are more expensive. Food was fine, but expensive (and free with a sleeper), but probably not what a kid would like, so you may need to bring your own.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:06 PM on July 5, 2008

Best answer: I take Amtrak up and down the Northeast corridor (and occasionally elsewhere) regularly.

In general: it is far, far more pleasant than U.S. domestic air travel. However, that's not saying much, and I still end up frustrated and dirty and cursing the world most of the time when I'm done. But I'd still say it's hands-down the best way to travel in the U.S., General Aviation excepted.

The biggest problem with Amtrak is their inability to run on time. Basically ever. Running 20 minutes late is "on time" for Amtrak; running an hour behind is "a little late", three hours behind is "late". Sometimes trains stop for no apparent reason. This is not quite as bad on the Acelas—they at least seem to make an effort to keep these running close to their schedule—but with the Metroliners, it's considered just part of everyday operation. Don't expect any sympathy.

The train staff are, in general, very nice. However unlike airline attendants, they're not paid to be nice to you or generally coddle your sorry ass throughout your trip. Sometimes they are better at enforcing the rules than others. Enforcement of rules (esp. "Quiet Car" rules) range from nonexistent on some days/routes to iron fisted on others.

(Because it's possible to use cell phones on trains, lots of people spend the entire trip TALKING VERY LOUDLY into their phones, about their VERY IMPORTANT LIVES. This gets old quickly. Apparently in response to this, Amtrak puts a "quiet car" on some of its trains, which is supposed to be, basically, "library rules." Enforcement ranges; it seems to mostly depend on whether the train staff are tired and want some quiet.)

The lack of security/baggage screening is a real plus, compared to air travel. There's no TSA rectal-probery to contend with before you get on a train. (At least, not yet.) Nobody really cares how many bags of what size you carry with you — as long as you can haul them around yourself. Most trains don't have checked baggage.

How crowded the train is can vary a lot depending on the route, season, and time. Some trains, particularly those that Amtrak is required to run for political reasons or because of old agreements (e.g. Vermonter, one out to Pittsburgh) have lots of extra seats, especially during the week. Others, like DC/NYC Northeast Corridor service around a holiday, will be sold out; every seat on the train will be full.

(One might be tempted to ask why they don't just add more cars onto the trains which they know will be very crowded ... these are the sort of questions which you'll realize in time are not worth asking. There may be a reason, or maybe they just don't care. In this, they're like pretty much every other government or quasi-government agency.)

Anyway, here's my pro/con list:

Pros: 120VAC socket for every 2 seats; no "turn off electronics in preparation for landing"; nice view; way more space than airline coach; cheaper than airlines for same-week tickets; depart and arrive from city centers; better view; no baggage screens or TSA; many trains half-empty; trains inherently awesome.

Cons: Frequently late; slow compared to airlines except for a few routes; not cheaper than "discount" airline fares; no complimentary beverages; possibility of getting stuck next to some asshole on a cellphone for 4+ hours; some train stations sketchier than airports; state of train travel in U.S. will leave you pining for what once was.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:07 PM on July 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I travel The Northeast Corridor regularly on Amtrak and service is pretty decent, especially Washington, D.C. to Boston. The trains are reasonably clean, and comfortable. There are sometimes issues of lateness, but not usually too bad. The trains are all reserve, so you will have a seat, though they can be crowded, especially on summer weekends or at the holidays. The food on the trains is not particularly great, so I usually get food in the station and bring it with me on the train.

I've been told that other routes, especially West Coast routes, routinely have problems with lateness because of the freight lines having priority.

The first and only time I took the Crescent was 1980 (New Orleans to Philadelphia, PA), and it was an interesting experience, but not one I care to repeat. I would prefer to fly that route. If I had to take the Crescent again, I would definitely want a sleeping car, but they are indeed expensive.
posted by gudrun at 6:09 PM on July 5, 2008

I might be misremembering (it was three years ago), but when I took the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight, I'm pretty sure my luggage was checked, and I didn't have to deal with it again until arrival. As it happened, I had to deal with it seemingly disappearing once, and sit in the St. Paul-Minneapolis station until I'd missed my bus, so it was quite like air travel in that sense. I spent one night in a sleeper car after a fellow passenger's charming racism drove me out of my seat, and it was pretty tight in terms of space, like sitting in normal seats once the bed was folded away, but with the benefit of a door that closed. The seats were very comfortable, inside and outside the sleeping car.

I'd add to the bit about delays. Every train I took (aside from the Cascades route) was delayed, and in one case, we gained 9 hours, although that one hit and killed a very unfortunate farmer in North Dakota, and involved waiting for a new engine and the police.

Particularly with your kid, I would give careful thought to the food beforehand. There was a dining car, but the food was pretty mediocre (with the only upside being Amish tablemates) - I think the sleeping car included meals. There was also a snack place, serving things like pizza and bagels, and it wasn't cheap but was another chance to mingle with passengers sitting elsewhere.

The views are spectacular and I think that's the greatest merit, and would be amazing for a kid to see the landscape that way. Coming from outside the US, I know now that I want to take journeys through different regions by train to get a sense of them.
posted by carbide at 6:13 PM on July 5, 2008

I rode the Crescent overnight from Clemson, SC up to Philadelphia. It was an okay experience. I had a large airline style seat (with plenty of legroom) but still found it difficult to get much sleep. So instead I spent a lot of time in the buffet/restaurant car, which was a little bit grimy.
posted by schwa at 6:17 PM on July 5, 2008

i took the amtrak between toronto & penn station NYC a few times last year; i found it very pleasant. it's clean and calm, and amtrak trains have plugs so you can charge a laptop (although no wifi). the washrooms on board the trains are quite clean, and have running water.

on the train, i think the snack car is the best place to sit- it's very airy and bright. i usually take over one of the 6 tables in that car for pretty much the whole ride, rather than sit in the bus-style seats, which i find a little claustrophobic (although they're no more so than a regular bus or plane, and should be fine for a kid). the maple leaf amtrak is not crowded- i've never once had to give up my snack car seat, even though there's only seating for 25 people in the snack car.

as for the snacks, you're looking at sandwiches, microwave personal-size pizzas, and frosted flakes. bring some fruit! also bring earplugs and a blanket & hoodie. and maybe baby wipes.

every time the train stops, i like to get out & take some sun on the platform- the stops are about long enough to smoke most of a cigarette- but not long enough for you to use the station washrooms.

i think amtrak is the best way to travel- i prefer it to busses, airplanes, or road trips. have fun!
posted by twistofrhyme at 6:21 PM on July 5, 2008

I've taken the Amtrak overnight between different destinations across the US. On some trips there was definitely a "party" or bar like atmosphere if you left your seat and went to the smoking lounge or wandered through other cars. Lots of people bring their own alcohol onto the train and I've seen people get a little rowdy and try to start fights or pass out in the bathroom. The coach seating isn't that great for sleeping, but it can be done.
posted by pluckysparrow at 6:34 PM on July 5, 2008

I know an older couple (65-70) who took Amtrak from the East Coast to the West Coast and back within the past year, a three-day trip involving sleeper cars.

They enjoyed the scenery, and some aspects of the train travel. On the other hand, they had problems with the trains running late (nthing what others have said above), and they found it somewhat difficult to sleep, given the motion of the train during the night, and the accompanying noise (squeaks and rattles).

Also, at the end of their trip, there was supposed to be one more meal served on the train just before arrival. The meal was cancelled with no announcement. Since it was the end of the line, they were able to get a late dinner at a restaurant, but they felt put out and ripped off.

I don't think they will take any long Amtrak trips in the future, but they weren't vehemently unhappy with the experience. Note that these are older folks used to a bit more comfort. I didn't hear a thing about anything being unclean, and if it had been, I'm sure I would have heard.
posted by kristi at 6:35 PM on July 5, 2008

Important note: you'll be schlepping your luggage from the station to whatever carriage they let you board -- often the length of the train. Wheeled luggage or massive arm strain.
posted by orthogonality at 6:41 PM on July 5, 2008

After submitting I saw your followup on sleeper cars.

I've only taken one of them once. Bottom line: I thought they were pretty nice. The staff in the sleeper cars are different from the staff in the regular trains, and they do seem to make more of an effort to take care of you. Typically, trains with sleeper cars also have a Dining Car. (A Dining Car is not a Cafe Car; a Cafe Car is like a lunch counter with microwaved food, a Dining Car tries to be a sit-down restaurant—with reservations!—and real food.) I think most grades of rooms come with complimentary meals in the dining car.

If you've ever taken sleeper trains in Europe (and I'll just say for starters, my experience comes from taking DB sleepers a few times, mostly Paris-Berlin), the Amtrak ones differ in that they're built around the idea of not having to share with strangers. The European sleepers I've been on have relatively big cabins, but it's expected if you're a single person or even 2 people traveling together, the cheapest option is to have others in with you, in a 4 or 6-person room. The lowest grade of Amtrak cabins (the "Roomette") are very small and designed for either one person alone or two people traveling together. The bigger rooms are all meant to be purchased whole; I don't think you can just book one bunk in a 4-person room, as you can in Europe (at least when I was there, you could). Roomettes also have their own toilets, and the higher-class rooms also have showers. (Although they're all very, very snug. Imagine a very small camper, where every bit of space is used for at least two purposes.)

I'm pretty sure there are 120VAC power outlets in all the rooms, which is very nice if you want to bring a laptop.

Only downside I see to them is the expense and the amount of time they take. If I had the time and the money to take a sleeper train cross-country instead of taking a jet, I'd do it without hesitation. But that's an unfortunately rare combination.

There's a lot more information on Amtrak's sleeper rooms online; the major thing to know is whether the train is a "Superliner" or "Viewliner". The Viewliners are used on Eastern routes and have only one level, while the Superliners have two levels, and are used mostly out West. I've never been on the latter; so I'll confine all my observations to only applying to the Viewliners.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:43 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

One thing that has not been mentioned yet - Amtrak does not own most of the track it runs its trains on. The Northeast Corridor (Boston-NYC-Phila-DC) is the major exception. Anywhere outside of that area, the freight companies that own the track get priority, which means the passenger trains could be sitting on a siding for a long time waiting for a three-mile freight train to chug by.

I've taken Amtrak from Albany and Boston to Philly and back. I don't remember them being terribly late (by which I mean more than an hour or so). Compared to an airline cabin, the cars are very spacious, and being able to walk up and down the entire train unhindered is a huge bonus. I've generally enjoyed the trips I've taken on it.

If you're heading out in this direction - the trip from NYC to Albany is absolutely gorgeous. It follows the Hudson River almost the entire way, and every time I took that trip I spent the entire time with my face pressed against the window. Especially if you're traveling during winter, when there's snow on the ground and the river is partially frozen... stunning, really.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:48 PM on July 5, 2008

The worst seat on Amtrak is better than the best seat on an airliner. Remember that the journey can be a destination, too :)

And man, come by Indy if you can!
posted by pjern at 6:54 PM on July 5, 2008

Best answer: I've taken Amtrak for several days in pretty much every direction in the US and it hasn't changed too much since I started doing this maybe 15 years ago. Here are my notes, lreated to what others have said

- you can both check bags and carry bags with you. Once you get within the Northeast Corridor [like if you were going to, say, Boston] you'd have to carry your bags with you. Make SURE you can check bags through the entire way if you're going to check bags. I took a train from North Carolina to Boston and switched trains in ... DC? NY? and had to carry my bags with me the remainder of the trip, big pain.
- Sleeper cars cost a lot but they're essentailly a private little room. You could get two bunks and roll your kid up in a sleeping bag on the floor or get a place with three beds I think. I think you have the option of one with a bathroom [a sort of lackluster shower, small toilet] or one with a bathroom down the hall. In any case, if any of your family care a lot about cleanliness (I don't, but I know some people do) I'd suggest this because on long trips the regular bathrooms can sometimes get nasty.
- many trains have quiet cars where there are no cell phone yakkers. If your son isn't a howler, I'd aim straight for these and stay there, they are nice.
- Once you have a seat, you can also walk around, go to dining car [overpriced] or the sightseeing car [super nice and nice for meeting people] or the bar car [over priced drinks, you used to be able to smoke there, I think now you can't], just sort of find a way to keep some stuff with you, like important can't-be-stolen stuff. You can leave a jacket on the seat you were in and come back to it
- Food. Check the schedules you may not be stopped anywhere long enough to get food leaving you at the mercy of the dining car. I'd bring a LOT of snacks and water bottles and etc. There is a water dispenser on the train for sure. Often you can get hot water for cup o soup stuff from the dining car [this is at their discretion, sometimes they are jerks]. I'd also bring like Slimjims, trail mix, nuts, dried fruit, etc. It's good to not have to rely on the dining car food and good to have stuff to give a kid who may be hungry at inconvenient times.
- You will have access to electrical outlets.
- You may or may not have adequate heating or cooling so bring some clothes that work in layers. I have been alternately freezing and too hot on various trains, good to plan ahead.
- Don't know what your plans are in NY but if you're in NY with an Amtrak ticket you can CHECK BAGS at the train station which is a huge deal, may be a small fee, can't remember. If you have time there before you go on to wherever you might be going, take advantage of this, it's awesome.
- Trains run late, totally true.
- I've travelled as a single woman on trains for years and never had anything CLOSE to problems in any way. ymmv, but just a data point.
- ortho is right, there is a good chance you'll have to schlep your luggage a fair distance so be prepared.

Feel free to contact me for more info. I still regularly take the train from VT to NY but that's a different sort of trip than the one you're taking.
posted by jessamyn at 6:54 PM on July 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

I used to take the Crescent in the middle of its route--DC to Charlotte--in college. The Crescent does have the big seats with huge legroom and I found those very comfortable for sleeping. On an overcrowded train at Thanksgiving I ended up sleeping in a booth in the dining car and that was also surprisingly comfortable. I usually brought my own food, but buying it wasn't so bad when necessary. Also, nobody's emphasized how nice the double decker club cars can be. They have comfortable seats and amazing views.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:02 PM on July 5, 2008

I am only familiar with the NE Corridor from Washington, DC to New Haven, CT.

The stations are often grand, the product of Beaux-Arts design at the turn of the 20th century when railroad travel was still the pinnacle of transit. The trains themselves are grungy, but you will have more room to sit, stand and move around than on an airplane. The scenery is depressing, because freight and commuter rail run together (if not on the same tracks) through grimy formerly industrial urban and suburban areas. It's worth watching the approach to New York City from the south, and the Delaware - New Jersey bridge crossing.

By all means try not to travel at the peak holiday or pre-holiday dates (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter). The trains fill with college students (I was one) who usually have a lot of luggage, and with families and other non-student travelers. You may not get a place to sit. AFAIK this may only apply to the NE Corridor, since there are many colleges and universities in and near the cities that Amtrak serves.

If you can afford it, the Acela Express, the "business class" version of Amtrak, is a more luxurious train. The Metroliner will get you reserved seats but is otherwise identical to the regular trains.

I second the remarks about delays, but nowadays you can get those with airlines too.
posted by bad grammar at 7:05 PM on July 5, 2008

Response by poster: Remember that the journey can be a destination, too :)

Oh, absolutely, pjern, absolutely. That's one of the big reasons we're thinking about trains as opposed to planes. Not to mention that I actually like the kind of grimy, industrial, rusty, backyards-and-rickety-shacks views that I recall from an Amtrak trip I took about 30 years ago.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:19 PM on July 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, and thanks everyone for these answers. Great!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:19 PM on July 5, 2008

I took a Amtrak from Madison, Wisconsin to Sacramento, California via Portland, Oregon last September and the train I was on most certainly didn't have power outlets in every other seat. I spent two days of traveling through the rolling northern plains unable to even charge my laptop and enjoy a dvd while the Joad's across the aisle from me refused to allow me to use the only outlet in that half of the train. The conductor refused to get involved. Additionally, the toilets on that train were irreparably clogged for the two-plus days of travel. A miserable experience.
The leg from Portland to Sacramento was much better. I tipped a conductor $20 to ensure that I had a power outlet. The toilets worked on that train as well.

Last week I had to travel to Pleasanton, California by Amtrak and was on a train-bus/bus-train round-trip schedule. On my return, after arriving at the train station in Stockton, California we were informed that the train was delayed in Fresno because it had a 'passenger trespass incident', code for the train had hit and killed someone on the tracks. Amtrak had been aware of this for hours yet didn't provide any alternate form of transportation, (bus), to Sacramento, (the nearest major station that remains open all night), instead leaving us stranded in BFE. At 100:30PM their customer service phone line had a 42 minute wait time.

I traveled extensively in throughout China by train and while there are always the occasional issues I had much better experiences in the 'developing nation' than with Amtrak. Amtrak continues to give the impression that they just don't care. At least for the non-commuter trains that don't generate the income.
posted by geekyguy at 8:07 PM on July 5, 2008

Many points from experienced travelers were made above. Let me make one more.

One significant advantage of rail travel is that you will pay for one trip from, say, Point A to Point J. You can get off at Point B, Point C, etc. and stay for a day or a few days and then get back on and continue, without additional charges. It will still be necessary to let them know what your plans are, to ensure that you have a space (particularly with a sleeper) but if your plans involve a number of possible locations along a route, this can be a significant plus.
posted by yclipse at 8:20 PM on July 5, 2008

Hey Samm:

I have taken Amtrak all over the place. most frequently from Chicago to DC, but also to New Orleans, Ann Arbor, Miami, NYC, Boston etc.

Only real downside is that they are usually late. In my experience it is usually because there is a freight up the line that is being held up by another freight farther up the line, and its not like you can just pass. Once on the way to DC, some clown in Indiana decided to try to jump a train and got himself cut into several pieces. That was over six hours sitting still in the mddle of nowhere while they found the local cororner and they scraped up what was left of the idiot

No matter what anyone says about the price, the sleeper car is your best bet for comfort for a long trip. There are two basic types, one is esentially two seats facing each other that fold into a small bed, the other is a larger room that has a fold down bunk bed, a couch that folds down into a (sort of) twin bed, a chair, a with its own bathroom and a (sort of) shower. comes in mighty handy after a long trip.

The regular cars are just miserable on a long ride. Back when you could actually smoke on a train, in the club car there was a contingent that would plant their asses in a booth with a deck of cards and five packs of smokes, and stay there for the next two days. In the skyliner, or viewliner or whatever cars, people would beeline for them and lay down across a whole row of seats at 10 a.m., because thats where they planned on sleeping that night.

In the sleepers, its roughly equivalent to first class on a plane. You board first, the guy carries your luggage for you. You get first call for dinner (which FWIW...the food is actually pretty good and included in your ticket)

When I first started taking it on long trips, I would just slip the attendant a tip, and tell him all I need is coffee and maybe some juice in the morning and you dont need to worry about me. There is a a call button if you want to be served, but also if you just open the damned door there is an urn of pretty good coffee, fresh juice, and a USA today waiting at your door.

I always got everything I needed, and nothing I didnt. I spent most of those trips with a pint of booze, a one-hitter and a telecaster/headphone amp while my kid dozed, and the wife did crossword puzzles.

One of the neat things, is they will seat you with different folks in the dining car. Hey...1996? on the way to DC?... Doug and June Finnegan , retired couple from Sydney Australia...still remember them.

They will come around while you are at dinner, or whenever you ask, and make the beds up for you, fluff your pillows and everything.

If you are going to do a lot of rail, it REALLY is worth the extra gidas for the luxury. It's some of the finest traveling I've done. In the same respect, some of the worst has been in a coach seat on Amtrak next to some 300 pound smelly jerk on a cell phone.

Splurge/enjoy and do report back
posted by timsteil at 8:22 PM on July 5, 2008 [2 favorites] is a great source of info on train travel all over the world.

A friend was planning on taking the train from the West Coast to the Midwest but the trains are sold out. He was planning about a month in advance, so keep that in mind.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:35 PM on July 5, 2008

Overall: The comfort level is actually fine. Amtrak is quite nice. It's just really effin' overpriced for what it is. If there's no...issues, it's civilized compared to air travel. If there is a weather/mechanical problem, it's everyone's problem, as it causes overcrowding, food shortages, etc. Business class is worth it if you can afford it.
posted by desuetude at 11:14 PM on July 5, 2008

I have experience with the Boston - NYC route, pre-Acela, and the Coast Starlight.

Boston to NYC is great. I'd hope on the train in a suburb of Boston (plenty of parking), completely avoiding the hassle of Logan Airport. On the other end, the train dropped me off near the businesses I needed to see (unlike a plane, where on arrival I'd have yet another trip before getting where I wanted to go).

The business class was a little more expensive, but also comfier and better for working.

Coast Starlight - I've taken it 2 or 3 times from Seattle or Portland to the SF Bay Area. It is arguably the gem of the Amtrak line - a beautiful route and, if you're in the sleeper car, there are a lot of extras - a wine/lounge car, dinner included in with the ticket, a movie lounge.

Taking this route on vacation, with no hard schedule to get anywhere, was great. I traveled with one adult and a kid, and we got the 3 person sleeper room. It had its own shower and toilet, and enough room for three people to hang out.

Now taking this same route on business? Don't do it. Amtrak passenger trains take second seat to freight on this line, and there are a lot of single-track stretches, meaning you have an excellent (95+%) chance of experiencing at least a two hour delay.

On my third and last attempt (for a while) on this line, my train was sidelined and then broke down. Oh, and it was missing the lounge car that is 50% of the reason for paying for a sleeper car - no refund for that. Oh, *and* it broke down right before dinner, so I didn't get to eat a meal until ... well, until the next morning, because ...

They finally got the train running, but instead of continuing ahead, we returned to Portland (arriving around 2am). Amtrak gave me a refund and taxi fare - I was on my own to find a room or a flight.

I love Amtrak, when it works. But when things go really wrong, Amtrak doesn't always have the resources to take care of you or recover from the problem.

To maximize your chances Amtrak, you will need to be flexible and ready delays. Do get a sleeper car, and do make the most of the lounge area and diner.
posted by zippy at 11:54 PM on July 5, 2008

I'll second That site is awesome. I travelled around many countries by train (not the USA though), and it was always good for me. Pretty complementary about Amtrack sleeprs, too...
posted by mjg123 at 4:07 AM on July 6, 2008

Best answer: Just wanted to add that the famous "City of New Orleans" train has a major problem right now in Memphis, a sinkhole under the tracks that neither the city nor the track owners want to pay for, so people have to get out of the train, onto a bus, go around Memphis, get back on train.... and Amtrak may be dropping Memphis entirely. The problem will NOT be fixed anytime soon.

I like trains, but I think you will find U.S. trains a major disappointment after Japan.
posted by tomboko at 5:25 AM on July 6, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, that sinkhole thing is a total drag, and thanks for mentioning it, tomboko. As far as US trains/Japan trains comparisons, yeah, I'm under no illusions about all that. The Japan system is superlative, trains run on time, what, 98, 99% of the time? They're clean, reliable... not cheap, but, you get what you pay for: the service is uniformly excellent. I knew even before I asked this question that there's really no comparison. Still, it's the USA, the country of my birth and where I spent most of my first 38 years, and, hey, gotta get back there every once in a while and put up with the bullshit, right? I mean, so I can smell some of the roses...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:42 AM on July 6, 2008

miagaille and I are taking the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco at the end of August, in a sleeper; memail us at some point after that and we'll have stories then!
posted by dmd at 6:41 AM on July 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

simply put.. unless you are doing one of the old time steam trains for the beauty of riding a train and seeint he landscape (like in napa vally or at the grand canyon) it is NOT at all worth it... Especially with Amtrack...
posted by thp2way at 8:17 AM on July 6, 2008

It is totally worth it to travel first class. One, you'll be assured a seat and two, the food is provided.

We travel up and down California frequently and really like it. YMMV.
I have travelled Chicago - Denver a few times and found it "fun" but I was a teenager then.
posted by k8t at 8:34 AM on July 6, 2008

Oh, and 2nding the cell phone thing. Very annoying.
Similarly, some people get really drunk and loud.
posted by k8t at 8:38 AM on July 6, 2008

A few people mentioned the train stations along the NE Corridor. For the most part, they are among the best interior spaces in each of their respective cities -- except for Penn Station in NY.

If you haven't yet had the displeasure of coming through Penn Station yet, expect to disembark into little more than a very gritty subway concourse. Penn Station is entirely underground and shares space with two other commuter rail lines. Poor layout makes it hard to get oriented, and crowds make it hard to maneuver (particularly between the Amtrak portion of the station and the subway). Frankly, it is a disgrace.

That said, Amtrak is the most efficient and comfortable mode of transportation btw Boston and NYC, NYC and Philadelphia, or NYC and DC, compared to driving, flying, or taking the Chinatown buses.
posted by hhc5 at 7:26 PM on July 6, 2008

the maple leaf amtrak is not crowded

It really depends on when you take it. I've been on a Maple Leaf that was 95% full.

If you're taking the Maple Leaf and crossing the border, especially eastbound, be aware that even though they've scheduled two hours for the customs checks, it can take longer than that, especially if the train is full. That's two hours where you aren't even allowed to get out of your seat. Taking the bus is generally faster and cheaper than Amtrak, but Amtrak's seats are way better, and they have power outlets. (So does the NeON bus between New York and Toronto, apparently. Ask me again after Labor Day.)

Also, be prepared to sit just outside the Syracuse train station while the CSX dispatcher tries to figure out what button to press to switch your train into the station. [NOT BITTER]

One significant advantage of rail travel is that you will pay for one trip from, say, Point A to Point J. You can get off at Point B, Point C, etc. and stay for a day or a few days and then get back on and continue, without additional charges.

This is not true. At all. If you want to get off at points B and C, you will have to pay three separate fares: A to B, B to C, and C to J. This will be more than one fare straight through from A to J. Your ticket will likely say "no stopovers."
posted by oaf at 4:47 AM on July 7, 2008

> Penn Station is [...] a disgrace.

Agreed. The best part about Penn Station are all the photos of the old station they have hung on the walls. Whoever put them there has a sense of humor.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:01 AM on July 7, 2008

Response by poster: Once more, thanks folks, for all your wonderful answers. This has been really helpful.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:00 AM on July 8, 2008

I'm happy to report that the sinkhole in Memphis that I told you about has been fixed. Yayy!
posted by tomboko at 5:40 AM on October 17, 2008

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