Rail travel in the United States

An Amtrak Acela train

The United States may be the land of the car, but it also one of the greatest countries in the world to be explored by passenger train. There are a number of private operators who offer exclusive and luxurious packages on private passenger trains, but it is on board the trains of the state owned and subsidized Amtrak that most tourists and travelers experience America by rail.


Prior to the 1960s, many of the large private rail companies provided passenger service between America's major cities. However, after the advent of the automobile, commerical air travel, and later the interstate highway system, people traveled by train much less and less, leading to the rail companies being on the brink of financial ruin and electing to severely curtail passenger service. This lead to the formation of Amtrak to run passenger service in the United States. While the United States still has the longest railway network in the world, it is primarily used for freight transport, with many former passenger lines now solely used for freight.

Before setting out on a railroad adventure around America, it is worth understanding the precarious situation in which Amtrak exists today. Somewhere between being a private and a public company (all of Amtrak's preferential shares are owned by the U.S. government), Amtrak has to provide a public service and concurrently seek to be profitable as a competitive mode of transport. At present, Amtrak is the only operator of regularly scheduled intercity trains in the United States. Despite increasing ridership (driven by rising gasoline prices and the increasing inconvenience of airline security measures), Amtrak is dependent on more than a billion dollars per year in hard-won government funding.

Amtrak's financial situation is not its only problem. Most of the rail lines that Amtrak uses are owned and maintained by private freight companies. While Amtrak has a legal right to be given priority over freight trains, in many instances Amtrak services are disrupted due to freight traffic. Many rail lines are not double-tracked, and passing places are often few and far between. And in stark contrast to many countries in Europe or East Asia, electrified lines are the exception rather than the norm and while modern diesel trains are a lot better than their predecessors, they are still limited in acceleration and top speed compared to similar electric trainsets.

The closest thing the U.S. has to a high-speed rail line is Amtrak's Acela Express, running between Boston and Washington, D.C. via New York City. While the trains themselves are capable of attaining very high speeds, unlike high-speed lines in Europe or East Asia, they do not run on dedicated high-speed tracks. As such, expect journey times to be only marginally faster than taking the regular trains.

With the exception of the Amtrak-owned-and-maintained Northeast Corridor (between Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.), and some services in Pennsylvania, California, and around Chicago, Amtrak services are substantially slower, less reliable, and less frequent than those of virtually every other developed nation in the world. And yet they remain popular with many travelers because of the social atmosphere on board, the lighter environmental impact compared to planes, the spacious design of the cars, the scenic routes, and the overall comfort of the train ride. With few high-speed lines (and a general speed limit of 79mph), trains in the U.S. often take longer than cars or planes, but the unique experience can trump the long ride.

A trip from one coast of the U.S. to the other is surely one of the greatest railway journeys that you can make anywhere in the world, and with the different classes of on-board accommodation and a variety of tickets and passes available, it can also be remarkably affordable.

Passenger rail companies

Amtrak, +1 800 USA-RAIL (872-7245). Amtrak is the quasi-state-owned passenger railroad company of the United States, operating services over some 35,000 km (22,000 miles) of track, serving more than 500 communities in 46 American states and the three largest Canadian cities. Trains carry one or more classes of accommodation: coach, business, and sleeper. A seat in coach class is generally competitive with the price of a Greyhound bus ticket, while sleeper accommodation may be competitive with the price of an airline ticket; however, this depends on the route, and in some cases, a coach ticket is more comparable to a plane ticket, while a sleeper costs even more. Most of the information in this article relates to Amtrak.

The Alaska Railroad, +1 800 544-0552, is a long-distance railroad owned and operated by the state of Alaska for carrying both passengers and cargo entirely within Alaska. The railroad is famous for its summertime passenger services but also plays a vital part in moving Alaska's natural resources to ports in Anchorage, Whittier and Seward as well as fuel and gravel for use in Anchorage. Some of their cargo trains are also connected to the lower 48 states via rail barges between Whittier and Seattle. Passenger trains run from Seward through Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Denali to Fairbanks, with a spur to Whittier. The Hurricane Turn route between Talkeetna and Denali features North America's last remaining "flag stop" train service: a stretch of track along an area inaccessible by road where residents wait by the side of the tracks and "flag" the train to stop, giving it its name.

Throughout the US, many heritage lines have been maintained or rebuilt as privately owned, touristic lines, which occasionally connect to Amtrak or regional systems. Most of these lines use old railroad equipment (such as steam locomotives) which have been refurbished. There are many such lines, but some of the most notably scenic are the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad in Colorado, the Grand Canyon Railway in Arizona, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in Chama, New Mexico, and the Cass Scenic Railroad near Marlinton, West Virginia.

Many large American cities have short- to medium-distance commuter rail systems that connect the city to nearby suburbs or smaller cities. Per their name, commuter lines generally focus on serving commuters during weekday rush hours, and thus offer their most frequent service during these times. But some also offer evening or weekend service, which can make them a great way to get out of the big city for a day or weekend trip. In the American Northeast, several commuter rail systems converge and are inter-connected; it is possible, for example, to go from Connecticut to Delaware using only commuter lines, although this would take much longer than on Amtrak and involve numerous transfers.

In particular, Boston, New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago have well-established commuter rail systems that are expansive, run very frequently, have high ridership and are well-connected to local transit systems and Amtrak. Outside of these areas, commuter rail systems tend to be more limited in scope and service, with cities such as Dallas, Miami, Minneapolis, Orlando, Seattle, and Salt Lake City having constructed new systems only within the last decade or so; many of these newer systems operate on only a single route with very limited service outside the weekday rush hours. California has a set of prominent commuter rail systems that serve the state's largest cities; of particular note there is the Amtrak California system, a set of three Amtrak routes (the Capitol Corridor, the Pacific Surfliner, and the San Joaquin; all described in more detail below) and connecting Amtrak Thruway bus service that is subsidized by the state of California and which run more frequently than typical long-distance Amtrak routes.

Planning your trip

Amtrak system map
Amtrak system map showing frequency of train service

Chicago is Amtrak's main hub for long distance trains, so those who wish to cross the country from the east coast to the west coast by train will most likely have to change trains in Chicago. For instance, someone who wishes to retrace the classic transcontinental railroad journey from San Francisco to New York will need to take the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago, then transfer to the Lake Shore Limited from Chicago to New York.

When to travel

The peak period for most rail companies in North America is somewhere between April to September, and the cost of rail passes and tickets will rise during these periods to reflect this. If you're planning a visit to the U.S. and travel a lot by train, the spring and fall (autumn) periods are likely to give you the best combination of lower ticket prices and hours of daylight for viewing the scenery from the train. Trains fill up much quicker in the summer and around national holidays (especially Thanksgiving weekend), and coach class passengers in particular will have less room to stretch out.

Timetables and brochures

All the major rail operators in the U.S. have websites with information about timetables, routes and on-board facilities. However many passengers still prefer to plan their trips using printed timetables. Amtrak, for instance, publishes a number of brochures, including the Amtrak System Timetable (with timetables for every Amtrak train and Thruway bus) and the Amtrak America travel brochure. These can be found at most staffed stations, or can be found online. Individual pamphlet timetables are also published for every route.

Further reading

On-Track-On-Line.com has a number of travel tips for the first-time Amtrak user, as well as an online forum. Seasoned rail travelers can be found online in a number of dedicated rail forums, and are usually more than happy to answer your questions about which route to take. Some other forums worth searching and joining are:

Amtrak has also gotten into the act by publishing user-submitted stories at their "Whistle Stop" webpage.

Additionally, the following book goes into much greater detail about the major rail routes of North America:

Rail passes

If you are planning more than one journey on an Amtrak train, you may be better off investing in a rail pass, which allows unlimited rail travel within a certain period and area. You should, however, compare the cost of individual tickets when pricing and planning your trip.

Rail passes are not tickets and you should reserve your ticket (and your seat) as soon as you know which train you will be taking, as the number of seats reserved for rail pass holders is limited.


Amtrak tickets can be purchased in person from any staffed Amtrak station, over the phone (1-800-USA-RAIL (872-7245) in the U.S. and Canada) or on the internet. A number of travel agencies that sell Amtrak tickets in other countries are listed on the Amtrak website.

Tickets for most routes are priced in incremental 'buckets': in other words, as seats on a train sell out, the remaining tickets become more expensive. When buying point-to-point tickets, especially during busy holiday periods, it is important to book in advance. Round-trip (return) tickets are priced by simply adding together the two cheapest available one-way fares.


Many passengers are able to receive a discount on the cost of the ticket. Discounts are available on tickets (but not accommodation upgrades) to members of the following organizations:

Discounts are also offered to active members of the military, war veterans, senior citizens, and students. American students should purchase a Student Advantage card; all other students should purchase an International Student Identity Card (ISIC). In all cases, you should quote your membership number when booking your ticket, and show your card with your ticket. To obtain a discount on Amtrak trains, passengers must reserve three days in advance on all trains.

Hot Deals

Amtrak offers heavily discounted coach fares on certain trains on the 'Hot Deals' section of their website. These non-refundable and non-changeable fares are generally available for travel in the next thirty to sixty days on routes that have spare capacity. The page is updated every Friday, and you should check back regularly if you want to snap up a bargain. Long distance coach fares of $70 from Chicago to Seattle (for example) are not uncommon, although they become much less common during the more popular summer months. These fares cannot be upgraded to sleeper accommodation at the time of booking, although you may be able to upgrade to a sleeper if one is available after you board the train.

Since 2005, Amtrak's offering of many of these heavily discounted coach fares has been limited by language in the legislation which grants Amtrak a yearly subsidy. However, this legislative language does not affect routes that receive a subsidy from individual states. Accordingly, those train routes tend to appear frequently on the 'Hot Deals' page of the website.

Boarding the train

Chicago's Union Station, departing point for many of Amtrak's long-distance train lines

Amtrak tickets generally do not indicate a coach or seat number, merely that you have a place in a reserved coach. Pay close attention to announcements and station staff, who will tell you where to wait and board the train. Attendants will need to see your ticket and/or pass as you board the train, and they will direct you towards the carriage you should sit in. In some cases, your ticket may show a seat reservation number and a carriage number. If this is the case, the numbers of the carriage are displayed on the doors; pay attention to these as the trains rolls in, so you can be at the right spot on the platform in time to get into your carriage. Some stations have indicators on the platform to show where each carriage will stop.

If you have a specific seat number on your reservation, you are advised to occupy it. Otherwise, follow the directions of the conductor who checks your ticket, and once on board your coach, you may select your own seat. Once you find your seat, you will want to stay there until the conductor comes by to check your ticket after departure. Upon doing so, the conductor will place a seat check (a small piece of paper) above your seat, to indicate that the seat is occupied. Take this with you if you decide to change seats, especially if you are leaving the train en route, because this piece of paper carries a station code to help the conductor let you know when your stop is imminent and shows you have given a ticket to him/her already.


Baggage services on long-distance Amtrak trains are comparable to that of air travel, though with far fewer restrictions and little in the way of security checkpoints. Long-distance Amtrak trains will have a dedicated baggage car for checked baggage that you check-in at the station and retrieve at your destination; you are allowed up to four checked bags – the first two free of charge and two more for $20 per bag, each not to exceed 50 lbs. Special items such as bicycles are subject to different restrictions. Passengers are allowed up to two carry-on bags, excepting small items needed for the trip. Passenger cars will have overhead racks or special compartments near the entrance. Detailed baggage policy info can be found here.

Unfortunately, some Amtrak stations do not offer checked baggage as a service, and it would be advisable to check with Amtrak before boarding. A good indicator of whether your stop offers checked bags is to look at the arrival/departure time of your stop. Many stations, such as all of the stations serviced by Amtrak's Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited inside the state of Ohio are only accessed by those trains, which arrive in the predawn hours of the morning; as such they are unmanned, and do not offer checked bags.

On board

The information here relates specifically to services operated by Amtrak. Private train companies and commuter rail services will offer differing standards of on-board facilities. Generally, commuter trains will have unreserved seats and little in the way of amenities aside from restrooms, although some systems might offer services like room for bicycles or quiet cars.

Coach class

Superliner coach seats

Coach (economy) is Amtrak's most affordable class of travel and is offered on all trains except the high speed Acela Express trains of the northeast corridor (between Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C.). A ticket in coach guarantees you a seat in a carriage with approximately forty to sixty other seats, arranged in pairs either side of the aisle. Seats can be arranged in facing sets of four, but in almost all cases you will find that seats will all face the direction of travel. Luggage racks and spaces for larger items are provided, along with toilets either at the end of the coach or in the lower level of two-level trains.

An Amtrak coach class seat is roughly comparable with a business class airline seat: there is ample leg room, a reclining seat back and fixed armrests on the outside of each pair of seats. If there is a seat in front of you, a fold-down table will be available. On longer distance routes, there is more legroom as well as a deeper recline and a padded rest that folds up to support your legs when you recline.

Business class

Business class is offered on most trains where there is no first (sleeper) accommodation. Seats are arranged in pairs to one side of the aisle, and singly on the other side of the aisle (called '2+1 seating'). There is more room than coach class, as well as an at-seat attendant service with complimentary refreshments and a newspaper. Long-distance trains that travel overnight generally do not offer business class; sleeper class is available instead.

Regular first class

The only first class service offered by Amtrak that does not include a sleeper is found on the Acela Express trains along the northeast corridor. These trains offer only first and business class service. First class includes complimentary at-seat meals.

First (sleeper) class

Superliner sleeper room, with the bed folded up for day use

Amtrak markets and prices sleeper accommodation as 'first class', with a level of service that aims to be equal to that of a hotel. In addition to a private room on board the train, first class passengers can take advantage of a number of other amenities, including:

First class accommodations are priced in addition to the lowest available coach fare, and are priced in incrementally priced 'buckets' according to availability. As each 'bucket' of rooms sells out, the price goes up. It is worth noting, however, that after an Amtrak train departs its originating station, if there are any sleeper accommodations still available on the train, they revert in price to the cheapest originally available price. For example, if a train has one remaining room available prior to departure, it would be priced in the most expensive 'bucket'. Once the train leaves, however, a coach passenger on board the train can approach the conductor and upgrade to the sleeper for the price the room would have been when it first went on sale.

Amtrak operates two types of sleeper carriage: the precise standard of accommodation that you will have depends on the type of train you will be riding on. Check the timetable or Amtrak website to discover which sort of train you'll be riding on.

Superliner coaches

Superliner two-level coaches are used on all long distance trains west of Chicago, and certain other routes. They offer superior ride quality and better views than single level coaches. Most accommodations are located on the upper level, with toilets and other facilities located on the lower level. You can see the inside of Superliners here. Superliner sleeper cars offer the following sleeper accommodations:

Accessible Bedrooms should only be booked by those with reduced mobility or a physical disability. Family Bedrooms and Accessible Bedrooms are located on the lower level of the Superliner carriage.

Viewliner coaches

Viewliner single-level coaches are generally used on all long distance trains that operate in and out of New York Penn Station (where Superliner trains are too tall to enter the tunnels that approach the station). They are distinctive because of the two rows of windows on the side of the train, allowing both upper and lower berth passengers a view from their beds. They offer the following sleeper accommodations:

While there are no actual limitations, Accessible Bedrooms should only be booked by those with reduced mobility or a physical disability, and family bedrooms should only be booked by families traveling together.

Eating and drinking on board

Interior of a Superliner Lounge Car.

On the shortest of journeys, Amtrak offers an at-seat trolley service of drinks and light refreshments. On most journeys however, there will be a dedicated café or lounge car that offers a marginally broader selection of hot and cold drinks and refreshments, although all snacks will be pre-packed and all hot snacks will be microwaved. Expect to find a very basic selection of overpriced snack food items, although a few trains may surprise you with other options (for instance, the cafe cars on Amtrak Cascades trains sell wine). Café and lounge cars offer an open area of seating around tables that will be open for most of your journey, so even if you don't purchase something from the café you are welcome to sit in the car, enjoy the view and maybe meet some other passengers and on-board staff.

On almost all long distance trains, Amtrak offers a dedicated dining car that will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals are generally prepared off the train before departure and then reheated and plated on board. During lunch and dinner service, for example, customers are presented a preprinted menu with a selection of a couple of appetizers, about six entrees, and a few dessert items. Menu items ordered are served on disposable plates and cups, as are the napkins and tablecloths; cutlery and wine goblets are, however, fashioned of steel and glass, respectively.

The Amtrak Lead Service Attendant, or LSA in Amtrak-speak, who runs the dining car will seat travelers together to fill a table, instead of assigning individuals or couples to a table by themselves (however, the LSA will seat a family together). This practice tends to surprise those unfamiliar with it. In many cases, a traveller will find an interesting conversation happening that would never come about otherwise.

As mentioned above, all meals (but not alcoholic beverages) are included in sleeper tickets. Coach passengers can pay according to the menu. Per meal, the breakfast menu is the cheapest and dinner is the most expensive. Reservations are required for lunch and dinner; after boarding the LSA will travel through the train taking reservations. Reservations are handled in time increments, so during meal time the LSA will periodically announce when each group of reservations will be served.

Given the high price of meals from the dining car, many seasoned travelers bring their own snacks with them on the train, and then supplement them with the odd item from the lounge or café car. However, you aren't allowed to consume any food you bring on board in the café car, and federal guidelines prohibit the dining staff from handling any food you bring on board (even if it's just to reheat something in the microwave).

With the exception of sleeper passengers who consume them in their own cabins, passengers are not allowed to bring their own alcohol on board any Amtrak train.

Other amenities

Many of Amtrak's short and mid-range trains as well as some of the busiest stations offer free wi-fi, though this service can be rather unreliable.

Some short and mid-range lines, namely those in the Northeast Corridor, also offer a Quiet Car where cell phone conversations are specifically prohibited and any device that creates noise must be silenced (and you will get dirty looks and be asked to move if you break the rules). This is a relatively new service and is slowly being expanded to other short-distance routes.


Unfortunately, delays are common on long-distance Amtrak routes. This is because private railroads own most of the tracks used by Amtrak, and they are more concerned about their own freight trains than about Amtrak's passenger trains. Average delays vary considerably among routes. The very helpful Amtrak Delays site will give you an idea of when you can expect your train to arrive, showing how late it has been over the past few weeks. In the last few years Amtrak has increased its effort to ensure trains are on time, and most trains arrive on time well over 50% of the time. Some states (most notably California, where three of the six most popular Amtrak routes run) have taken steps to ensure higher punctuality by giving Amtrak priority over freight or investing in infrastructure themselves.


Amtrak has over 30 different passenger train services. There is a high concentration of routes in the Northeast and Midwest, with a lot of interconnecting lines and routes are more likely to run multiple times a day. In the South or the West (save for a small concentration of lines in California), services dwindle dramatically with only a few lines and a small number of connecting points, however these lines are also among the most scenic in the country.

The Amtrak Cascades
The Downeaster
The Pacific Surfliner

See also

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, March 13, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.