Amtrak to NYC
August 30, 2004 9:33 PM   Subscribe

Is planning a nine-hour Amtrak trip just a bad idea? Specifically, I'm needing to get from Burlington, Vt. to NYC. What's Amtrak like these days? (Note: I'm a non-USian who's used Amtrak only once, and that five years ago.)
posted by Sonny Jim to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (22 answers total)
I did it to Montreal and was ok--bring books, ipod/cdplayer, snacks, drinks...the scenery was beautiful, and i had an empty seat next to me the whole way.
posted by amberglow at 9:57 PM on August 30, 2004

It's OK but there are sometimes multi-hour delays for no apparent reason.
posted by smackfu at 10:02 PM on August 30, 2004

In general, meh, it's a train. The seats are pretty good.

But there's a secret trick to Amtrak: if you luck into a train that has the sit-down "Café" car, you can grab a booth, plug in your laptop, and it's just like hanging out in Starbucks for nine hours. (Except the coffee is even worse.)

I know that about half of the trains on the Northeast Direct lines get Café cars, but the Amtrak site seems to indicate that your train, the Vermonter, has them, so while you're on the platform waiting for the train, ask an Amtrak guy where the Café car will be and grab a booth quick.
posted by nicwolff at 10:04 PM on August 30, 2004 [1 favorite]

I've gone cross-country on Amtrak a few times and have loved each trip. Do consider smackfu's point about the delays, though, and don't plan on a tight schedule. On my last trip, I was 27 hours late.
posted by 4easypayments at 11:18 PM on August 30, 2004

I've done a few cross country and regional trips on Amtrak and I've always enjoyed it. However, it is usually more expensive than flying and often late.
posted by Nothing at 11:32 PM on August 30, 2004

No real east coast experience for me, but the trains that run along the pacific coast out here in California are great. Some people actually ride them for fun. Delays do happen though, and I've heard some horror stories of cross country trips where the bathrooms stopped working and they ran out of food and stuff. So, as they say, YMMV.
posted by namespan at 12:29 AM on August 31, 2004

I've used Amtrak to travel boston-NYC frequently, and other trips less frequently. It's occasionally delayed and the Acela Express, which is the most comfortable train (laptop plugs, etc) is quite expensive. But in general it's a comfortable and civil way to travel.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:35 AM on August 31, 2004

9 hours? I did a three day trip a while back (Seattle to New Orleans, via Chicago) and it was fun. The only thing I didn't like was the lack of showers (unless you are rich and get a sleeper cabin, but if we could afford that, we would have flown), but for a 9 hour trip that won't be an issue.

Trains are fun, much more comfortable than airplanes or cars, and you often see interesting views you don't get to see from the freeway, so I recommend train travel highly.
posted by litlnemo at 2:30 AM on August 31, 2004

Best answer: Amtrak has lately been suffering from the traffic congestion on many railroads, which have so many freight trains jammed on the tracks that the passenger train can't help but be delayed. There's an article about this in the September issue of Trains.

From the discussions on this railfan board, Union Pacific is fingered as the biggest culprit for not having the necessary double-tracking to handle all their trains. It's probably much better in the northeast -- especially in the Boston-Washington corridor where Amtrak actually owns the rails. I don't recall who owns the track the Vermonter runs on, though.

There should be some on-time stats available for each of Amtrak's trains; they're posted frequently with much bemoaning. Google the railfan sites. The worst complaints are about the Sunset Limited, which can end up more than a day late by the time it hits Orlando or Los Angeles: UP congestion. Other trains do considerably better, though.

But this is not something I'd worry about in a nine-hour trip unless you had to be at your destination by a specific time. Plan to be late, hope for the best, and enjoy the trip in the meantime -- which is probably why you're opting for the train in the first place.
posted by mcwetboy at 6:03 AM on August 31, 2004

Best answer: That particular trip is pretty straightforward, though there can be some really brutal delays as you go through the Southern part of Vermont. Basically, unless you can get a ride with someone, that is the only useful way to get from Burlington to NYC unless you fly JetBlue from the Burlington airport into [I think] JFK. Last time I checked, flying was only moderately more expensive, so if you have options you might also want to look in to that. Otherwise just bring water, little snacks [dining car food is only okay and not cheap] something to do and you'll be fine. If you need any more Vermont travel advice, feel free to email me.
posted by jessamyn at 6:10 AM on August 31, 2004

Just to jump on the "go ahead and do it bandwagon", I used to do this about once a month when I was living in NY and my girlfriend was going to Dartmouth. As everyone has stated already, bring lots of entertainment and be prepared for delays, but most of all enjoy the scenery, especially if you're planning on doing it during this fall, once the leaves change.
posted by Inkoate at 6:17 AM on August 31, 2004

But a nine-hour Amtrak ride is SO MUCH better than a nine-hour plane ride, if that's what you were thinking by comparison, because 1.) you can get up and move around and 2.) there is lots of leg room, which is generally of great importance unless you're one of those midget people who fits in plane seats, in which case - I hate you.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:29 AM on August 31, 2004

The worst complaints are about the Sunset Limited

er, yeah. 15 hours delayed from Houston to LA ... and it took me 4 1/2 days to get from LA to Houston. The delays I can take; the train is a very soothing way to travel, but if you run into any major problems, it can get very irritating very quick.

Admittedly, very few of the problems that caused this massive delay on my return trip were under direct control of Amtrak--hurricanes, freight derailments, Mexican nationals tossing rocks across the border and shattering all the locomotive's windows, border patrol inspection turning up a wanted criminal--and I've got a voucher for another train trip...with a free sleeper a result, but the service on the Sunset Limited is not very good. Three Amtrak employees abandoned a little old lady who got very confused on our third day out of LA thinking El Paso was New Orleans (her destination) and who thus refused to re-board the train. I was appalled at the indifference the Amtrak employees showed to her, and was prepared to escort her personally to New Orleans if necessary, but fortunately some soothing calls from her relatives on my cell phone got her re-oriented.

Trains running up/down the coasts are MUCH better both on-time-wise and service-wise, and I've also heard good things about the Empire Builder.

Travel tip: reserve "lower level coach" seating if possible. Ostensibly, that's reserved for elderly/handicapped people but Amtrak doesn't care. You get much more legroom, the compartment isn't connected
posted by WolfDaddy at 7:33 AM on August 31, 2004

ack, hit post accidentally ... to continue:

the lower level compartment isn't connected to the other cars, so it's quieter (kids literally run rampant through the train at all hours) and the bathrooms are right outside your compartment. The compartment is usually nearly empty, too (probably accounting for Amtrak not caring who reserves those seats). You do have to climb stairs to go between cars, but that's the only consideration.
posted by WolfDaddy at 7:37 AM on August 31, 2004

As a regular user of the Vermonter until about three months ago (albeit from SPG [Springfield, MA] to NYP, not all the way from Vermont) I can say go for it! Amtrak does indeed own the trackage at _least_ as far north as Amherst MA, and I'm pretty sure they own it up to St. Albans VT or Burlington VT as well. The seats are comfortable, even the coach class has power plugs and flip-down trays, and that particular travel corridor isn't usually known for delays, although they do happen.

And yea, the cafe cars are fairly nice, even if the food is expensive and subpar. But what do you expect; it's not like your standard airplane fare is much better.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 8:14 AM on August 31, 2004

Not particularly safe for work self-link. I don't much like Amtrak any longer...

Then again, I hear that east coast schedules are a little more timely so your experience may vary widely.
posted by Fezboy! at 9:13 AM on August 31, 2004

Yes, it's much better on the coasts. I used to enjoy taking Amtrak from Boston to New York - since moving to the Midwest, I dread the same-length trip between Chicago and Ann Arbor. Routine delays, unpredictable temperatures, cars with an overwhelming smell of bathroom air freshener and severe motion sickness brought on by the bouncy ride have made it one of the most unpleasant U.S. travel experiences I know of.
posted by transona5 at 9:54 AM on August 31, 2004

For nine hours you will be on board for at least one or two meal times. I suggest boarding the train with fifteen dollars of groceries. I had jam, fresh bread, fruit salad, juice, yogurt, cheese for a twleve hour ride from Quebec City to Toronto. (It was Via, not Amtrak.) Much cheaper. Train food is only a step above eating paper.
posted by philfromhavelock at 10:20 AM on August 31, 2004

i've never heard of an amtrak trip that was on time. consider yourself lucky if you arrive on the same day that they say you will.
posted by badstone at 10:36 AM on August 31, 2004

East coast trains are fairly on time. The train will be moderately clean, make a number of stops on a 9 hour journey.

Prepare to relax - often the seat next to you is open. If the train is busy, expect to be told to move your gear.

The cafe cars are nicer to sit in, more working space, but not as good to relax in.
posted by filmgeek at 2:23 PM on August 31, 2004

My Amtrak tip (which I've probably mentioned before) - call ahead to make sure your train doesn't leave EARLIER than it's scheduled to. Maybe it doesn't happen very often, but they did that to me on my return Chicago-Toronto trip, and I was stuck in the bus ride from hell - took 4 hours longer and was much more dismal.

I still like taking the train, but from now on I'll always call ahead - what kind of transportation leaves BEFORE it's supposed to? (Apparently the schedule change had been made after I booked my ticket and no one from Amtrak either before or on the trip out bothered to tell anyone. Dude at the counter said they "probably tried to get in touch" with me at home, but no one had left a message or even showed up on caller ID).
posted by Gortuk at 3:50 PM on August 31, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your advice (and links) -- it's much appreciated.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:15 PM on September 1, 2004

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