Thoughts on Train Travel in America

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Amtrak Train

I often get asked what other countries have that the U.S. doesn’t. My answer is always the same: a more comprehensive train system.

I love trains.

From the sleek bullet trains of Japan to the impossibly comfortable cars on Austria’s first-class cars to the ultimate luxury journey on rails, the Blue Train in South Africa, some of my most memorable travel experiences have taken place on trains, and watching the countryside roll by from the comfort of my seat is one of my favorite ways to relax while traveling.

Now, what does that have to do with America?

The United States is the single most car-oriented country that I’ve ever been to. In my Massachusetts hometown, one of my friends was an oddball because she didn’t get her license as soon as possible and instead waited until the end of senior year at age 18. By contrast, most of my British friends got their licenses in their twenties and some of them still don’t have a license at all!

As a result, long-distance train travel isn’t nearly as common in America as it is in other regions of the world. In a country where it’s challenging to get by without a car unless you spend most of your time in cities, the train system isn’t as modern and comprehensive as in, say, Italy, where you can get from Milan to Naples, a distance of 480 miles, in just over four hours on the high-speed train.

By contrast, Savannah to Richmond is a slightly shorter distance, 466 miles, and takes more than 10 hours.

Additionally, I’ve found that while train travel is almost universally more expensive than bus travel around the world, trains in the U.S. tend to be disproportionately expensive, and there is an enormous gap between the cost of a bus and a train, due in part to the ubiquity of low-cost bus routes.

So American train travel has its challenges. But that doesn’t mean traveling by train in the U.S. isn’t worth it.

Amtrak Berlin Bear

Traveling the U.S. by Amtrak 

“Let the train take the strain.” This was a slogan in Britain back in the day, and I love it because it represents how I feel about train travel.

Taking the train is about letting go. I think there’s an ease to train travel that isn’t there on plans and definitely isn’t there on buses or in cars. It’s smooth, it’s free, and the route is set.

That’s a huge contrast to a road trip, where you’re paying attention to your driving, making sure your gas doesn’t run out, staying alert in rainstorms, and trying to reach destinations while you can still photograph them before the sun goes down. (Not to mention keeping the peace in an enclosed space with your partner for several hours each day!)

And so this train trip was the perfect coda to my road trip from New Orleans to Charleston. Months before, Amtrak had contacted me and offered me a complimentary long-distance train journey; the timing was perfect, and I chose the Amtrak Palmetto train from Charleston to Washington, DC, a ten-hour journey through the Carolinas and Virginia. This is actually just a small portion of the route — the Palmetto in its entirety runs from Savannah to New York City via Charleston, Richmond, DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia.

The road trip was about control.

The train was about ceding it.

There was nothing to do but sit back and watch the world go by, maybe read for a bit, and catch up on work. Something surprisingly rare.

Amtrak Business Class

I was in the business class car. The main benefits of business class on Amtrak are larger, nicer seats with more leg room, more storage, fold-down trays and electrical outlets. (In other words, if you’re going to work or write on the train, business is where you want to be.)

That said, business class on Amtrak is nothing to write home about — I’d compare it to economy class in most European countries. It’s slightly larger with slightly better seats and plugs. There was no wifi, and the car looked old. (In the past, I’ve traveled on the Acela, a “superior class” train running  from Boston to DC, and THAT train is on par with first class in Europe.)

While train travel in the U.S. can be expensive, you can find the Charleston-DC journey for under $100 if you book at least a few weeks in advance. Last-minute bookings can cost more than $200. Business class cost each of us an extra $48 each.

It can be expensive flying from a city like Charleston that isn’t a major hub. Fortunately, traveling by train doesn’t add on premium fees for destinations like these, and for that reason, taking the train can work out to be cheaper than flying. The experience, of course, is infinitely better than flying!

I really wonder whether we’ll be seeing major expansions to Amtrak in the future. It’s something that every politician seems to prioritize while campaigning but it seems to fade away as soon as they take office. I would so love to see long-distance train travel become more common in America and have an improved and more comprehensive route network, but I really have no idea if it we’ll be seeing major changes even within the next decade.

Many thanks to Amtrak for providing me with two tickets on the Palmetto from Charleston to DC. I paid for the upgrade to business class. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you traveled by train in America? What do you think of it?

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68 thoughts on “Thoughts on Train Travel in America”

  1. Something that has always put me off about travelling in the US outside of big cities is the need for a car. I have a licence, but it’s been years since I’ve driven and I really have no interest in learning again. I feel the same way about train travel – in fact, I laughed at you quoting the old British Rail slogan, as it’s something my mum quotes (sincerely!) now and then.

  2. I traveled with Amtrak across the USA, and had a sublime experience. There was such beautiful scenery, interesting people and perfectly adequate trains. For what it’s worth, the trains for the long distance routes in the west of the country have much bigger seats, as well as private rooms with beds.

    I found the trains in Europe to be a bit too fast to really absorb what you’re going past. In America, you can watch kids playing, women hanging out the washing and peer right down Main Street as the train rolls out of the station. This is the upside of a very slow and delay prone system 🙂

    I loved what you said about travelling on the train being about letting go. You know exactly where you’re going, and someone will wake you up at your stop. Being on the move doesn’t get much more relaxing than that.

  3. When I went to college in DC, I used to fly home to Rhode Island for holiday breaks, and on SouthWest Airlines it was about half the price of Amtrak. Not to mention SO much faster!

  4. I haven’t traveled by train in the States but when I looked for public transportation between Montreal and Quebec in Canada I already thought that the options were so limited. In Belgium we can get to the tiniest town by train.Well, almost:)

  5. I love the train but in California where I live it isn’t always convenient or affordable. One thing I do like is taking the Metrolink into LA on the weekends. It only cost $10 and your train ticket also includes use of the metro and buses in LA.

  6. I live in China now and I take the train everywhere! You can get almost anywhere in China on a 24hr sleeper train (aka my best friend). I hate that travel is so expensive in America. Trains are super pricy and so are flights a lot of the time. I’m from Seattle and the easiest place for me to go is Canada! I really wish we had a comprehensive train system like China. America is about the same size, and with less geographic obstacles. I mean come on, there’s a train to Tibet! I would travel so much more at home if it was less expensive. I think it would really boost tourism in America if we had a good train system.

    1. When I was in Hong Kong, a train passed us and my friend pointed to it and said it was headed nonstop to Beijing. It blew my mind that the train would be traveling THAT far!

  7. I wish we had a better train system, too, but I don’t think that will happen unless the government subsidizes it (which I’m not too keen on at the moment). Although I love trains, I still prefer the independence of driving, especially when so many sights in the US require a car to access anyway.

  8. I also wish the US had a better train system. I took my first bus trip last Summer, and it was affordable and nice to just sit back. We looked into getting train tickets but they were about twice the price.

  9. I totally agree. When friends ask me about doing a 3 month trip in the US and what tips I have.. it’s always hard because I’ve done all my traveling in cars OR flying somewhere for a friend wiht a car to pick me up! I’d love to travel by train in the US. It would open up so many opportunities.

  10. Agreed that the US needs a better train system, unfortunately I don’t see any major upgrades in the next 15 years or so at least because Amtrak is the only game in town right now and they aren’t even doing well and getting any major funding for an overhaul doesn’t seem likely. It seems there are lots of differences in quality and offerings on Amtrak nationwide from what everyone says. For instance, I’ve taken many trips on the Northeast Regional (DC, NYC, Boston) and even the lowest-priced seats have all had wifi (intermittent at times), fold-down trays, and loads of storage and leg room, but it seems that’s not the case on all lines.

  11. I adore travelling by train in the US; for most routes it beats flying. However, I wouldn’t want to use it as a method of transport if I had to be somewhere quickly and reliably. Usually I set aside most of a day for any substantial train travel and if I arrive within an hour of my scheduled time I feel I’m doing well!

    The train seats in the US tend to be bigger and far more spacious than their counterparts in the UK and, if you book ahead, it can be extremely cheap. I did Detroit to Chicago for $35 a few years ago. The US also has some extremely scenic train routes: Boston to New York City is one of my favourites as is anything going along the Hudson Valley north of NYC.

    One day I’m going to go coast-to-coast by Amtrak!

    Brian.

  12. The best trip I have taken is from Paris down to Nice through Auex en Provence… Beautiful and fabulous train service. Love hearing about the US trains, I have taken a trip from New York to Boston. Again another great service and beautiful scenery. Here in Perth I rarely take trains as its a city that we need a car to get around. Thanks Kate

  13. Hi–I enjoy train travel in the US (I don’t have any international train travel experience to compare it to). I traveled on the Palmetto as well from NC to Charleston, SC to Savannah, GA and loved it. Last fall i took a journey from DC to Chicago to Seattle to San Francisco and loved that as well! The scenery was amazing and the train was relatively comfortable.

    Train travel combines the best of flying and driving; you can walk around freely, have the physical sensation of actually moving while enjoying passing scenery and don’t have the feeling of delaying your arrive time if you need a bathroom break 🙂

  14. No wifi? gasp. I haven’t taken a train in Canada in a few years but I like that VIA has free wifi on all their trains now. I also like that trains tend to be a bit roomier than buses or planes and it’s pretty to get up and go for a walk to stretch the legs.

  15. Unfortunately it’s true… I hope someday US will have a better train system. Although the train ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles is really beautiful.

  16. In Australia our trains are hardly any better sadly. They seem to believe that the answer to everything is ‘build more roads’. Which is a bit disappointing. Well, the government believes it creates jobs, and they usually just call it ‘infrastructure’. With such large distances to cover, good highspeed rail in either Australia or the States would be pretty awesome. However, as in America fares are really steep here for the trains. I LOVE rail travel. great, thoughtful article.

  17. I agree about the extensive (and relatively inexpensive) train travel in different parts of the world! What is North America doing wrong?? I’ve always wanted to Via Rail across Canada but it’s SO expensive! I think it would be an amazing way of seeing all of the different landscapes of the country. I think we should start a petition for affordable train travel haha.

  18. I just took the Northeast Amtrak train from New York City to Boston. It was slightly cheaper and slower than the Acela, but it was still better than flying or needing a car. I’d highly recommend Amtrak to anyone. I feel as though most Americans don’t even consider it an option.

    One a slightly different note, most people consider cars to be freedom. However, in a country that is designed like the US if your car breaks down, you can be completely stranded because there are no sometimes no other viable options to get around. Is that really freedom?

  19. I would love to see train travel become more popular in the states too. Although I love that we have low cost buses that go between major cities, it would be nice to have some kind of alternative to that. the buses don’t seem to go super long distances, and this is where a high speed train would be beneficial. we need to catch up with Europe and Japan!

  20. I love the idea of train travel. You learn so much about a country by watching it go by your window. I’m looking in to taking the Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago. Any thoughts on that one?

  21. Hi Kate,
    I’ve never travelled by train in America. When we went to the West coast states we drove all the way which is a bummer for my husband as he had to do all the driving!

    Even though I had a car in England, I’m not a good driver and by the time I moved to Germany, what with driving on the wrong side n’ all that, coupled with excellent public transportation, I never bothered to improve and I haven’t had to drive a car for 15 years LOL!

  22. I’ve taken the train from Kansas to Chicago to DC multiple times, and funny enough, as long as I have the time, it’s been less expensive! Especially since kids ride 50% off adult fare- when you’re travelling with kids, that’s a HUGE break.

  23. Your post has me reminiscing about my cross-country trip on Amtrak almost 25 years ago… NY to Chicago, Chicago to Santa Fe, Santa Fe to LA, LA to Seattle. Mosr memorable: Kansas, and up the West Coast.

  24. The first time I went to New Orleans I was 20 years old and my friend and I took Amtrak round-trip from NYC. We had a blast. We also used to travel back and forth by train from NYC to college in Syracuse and always had a good time. I haven’t taken a long train trip in the U.S. since then. Even since moving to Germany I’ve take only one train trip aside from local travel, but I took several train trips in Europe before moving here. Traveling by car is sometimes just cheaper and more convenient. I would love to do a train trip through the Canadian Rockies though.

  25. Great article and such a ongoing frustration. I’ve worked for years in the SF Bay Area public transit scene and now I’m withCapitol Corridor between Auburn and Sacramento. We’ve got highest OTP in the Amtrak system and customers are extremely satisfied. We’ve leveraged our proximity to big sporting and entertainment venues, but still, the Bay Area lacks logical connections between the three dozen agencies, and funding becomes so diffused as to be useless. High Speed rail is great, but the connections need to be there and that’s what I worry about. Anyway Kate, feel free to contact me if you plan to use the service in Northern California. There are some interesting and unique places to see along the route; bus connections that further expand destination possibilities (Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Santa Cruz, etc.) we’ll be having a small group discount this summer too.

  26. The Coast Starlight route out in California is a great deal if you’re used to NE corridor prices. I took it from San Francisco to Los Angeles a few years back for $50 – it was a nice, relaxing (if long) journey. My parents took it going north, all the way up to Seattle, last summer. It’s more expensive to do the overnight, but their pictures of Oregon and Washington were beautiful!

  27. Omigosh I LOVE trains and HATE flying. I love how, with trains, you don’t have to show up hours early to go through security and whatnot; on the train, you just show up. I also am really scared of flying- both the process itself and the claustrophobic effect of being in a tube thousands of feet up in the sky. Trains are just so much more relaxing, and you can see the scenery. We really ought to expand them here in the U.S.! Apparently, in my home state of California, they are in the process of building a high-speed train that will run from San Francisco to LA and only take 3 hours. Eventually they will expand it to Sacramento through San Diego. And it will be done… 15 years from now. Le sigh.

  28. We’ve looked into doing a long distance train trip here but the prices were a major deterrent. We would definitely like to do a long distance train trip of some sort but unfortunately it doesn’t work well for budget travel. For the price tag of these train rides you could fund a trip to so many places.

  29. I tried submitting this comment before but I don’t think it went through, so apologies if you get this twice.

    Australia is very similiar. In the old days they called it “the tyranny of distance” – before cars were widespread the only option was to take the train, but because of the amount of distance it was so expensive, so when cars came along a culture of motoring just grew, and now the train is the last option people think of. It’s a shame because although in many states tickets are expensive (making cars the cheaper option) in my state – Victoria – train travel is subsidised by the government and is really cheap. The cost of a train ticket here is less than what it costs to fill a car’s tank.

  30. Good post, Kate! I have often wondered about the same things about US train travel.

    I would use Amtrak more if it were more accessible, cost effective and more importantly, time effective, as you’ve mentioned. In more recent years I’ve used Amtrak to travel to D.C., New Orleans and NYC. The closest station to me is 1.5 hours away and most of the trains usually depart close to midnight. If the trains were faster, I could go coach every time to save the money. Anything over 8 hours makes me a little crazy, not to mention that sleep is pretty much a no in coach. I’ve stayed in Amtrak’s sleeper cars a few times and those are pretty cool, but EXPENSIVE ($300-600). If I were in a larger city, I would most definitely take the train to commute and travel.

  31. I definitely need to travel by train in more countries – have only done so in the UK. We’ve got it pretty good here – you get fold away tables and plug sockets at every seat – but is still imagine most of mainland Europe would be I infinitely better!

  32. While booking my next trip to the US, we researched planes, trains and buses. We were completely surprised at how limited the train services were there, especially compared to other countries around the world and by how expensive they were! We’ve opted to travel between cities mainly by bus (so cheap!) and cheap flights for the longer journeys. As much as I’d love to travel by train across the US – its just not ideal for budget travel! So I guess I’ll see how we go with our buses around the US! x

  33. I think its such an interesting reflection of our values. We want to be independent and in control of where we go. Not having control of my transportation in china is definitely trying at times but a good experience using public transportation. Honestly in the US if trains were an option… I probably wouldn’t use it. I like my road trips 🙂

  34. As a European that has recently experienced train travel in the US for the first time, my first impression wasn’t great. The train track at the station (in Boston) was dark and cold, and to be honest, the food and beverage options were rather limited.

    The train itself was tight, quite noisy and crowded.. and I couldn’t understand why I didn’t get a seat assigned – which would have allowed me to get up at some point during the 4 hour ride without losing my seat.

    But then again, I guess the authentic American experience would have been to drive Boston to New York instead of taking the train – maybe on my next trip! 🙂

  35. I wish trains were more used in the United States, but I guess that is the reason why road trips are so popular. However, you would think the US government could work it out better. I am not a huge fan of taking buses in the United States, especially if I am alone. I actually grew up in a family that had probably 1.5 cars per person, but I do not own a car and share with my boyfriend. I wish we were able to travel easier, but I also think it is because our transportation infrastructure is lacking.

  36. I’ve always wondered if our country is simply too big for trains. It seems the bigger the country, the less organized and the less developed railways tend to be.

    My mom does the Boston-CT commute (closest Amtrak stop to us on the Boston-Penn Station, NYC line is in CT though we are in NY) every week since she works in Boston during the week. So many delays and train issues that seem to pop up once a month. I think once the train even hit some deer which jammed the engine. When a Metro-North train (which is the commuter train I take into NYC to work) derailed up near New Haven, all the trains including Amtrak were backed up and my poor dad had go to pick her up an hour away in New Haven on a Friday night.

  37. I had a lovely experience over Easter on the Train from DC up to NY. Had the pleasure of jumping off in Delaware to tick off that State on my list too! The seats were comfortable and the speed of the train was just right to combine a little reading with some lazy staring out the window!

    I’m a seasoned British rail traveller and for me the experience was on par with what is on offer back home!

    Emma x

  38. Traveling in the US feels extremely castrating for me, with basically a 100% dependency on cars, moving around in this country is a struggle if you don’t have one.

    I’m in the US for a couple of months and the lack of freedom to move is overwhelming, since I’m not staying in a big city, but with friends who live in the suburbs.

    To get to and from the train station I need someone to give me a ride, people are not always readily available, there is no bus system connecting train stations with most suburban areas. If no one is available to give me a ride, i can’t go out.

    Cross country train rides cost a fortune. Doing it by bus is extremely uncomfortable and I’ve experienced a lot of unreliability with Greyhound.

    In general the US has no public transportation culture, which is the extreme opposite of Europe and SEA countries. Probably this is why the backpacking culture never took off here. I love to come over and visit friends, but to be honest, I’m dying to go back to Europe and move around easily, cheaply and safely, either by train or bus.

  39. I have taken the train in Canada before and while it is slow, it is a charming form of travel. High speed rail links in high density parts of the our two countries is an idea whose time has come.

  40. I think certain corridors on the east coast are still popular, but towards the middle and west coast of the country, the distances make it more feasible to fly….although there is a plan to do a fast rail from SF to LA and San Diego down the road.

  41. “It’s something that every politician seems to prioritize while campaigning but it seems to fade away as soon as they take office.”

    I live in Wisconsin and as soon as our current Governor took office he “gave back” a huge federal grant that was meant to put in a rail line from Chicago to the Twin Cities. Sad day for those of us who would love to be less reliant on a car. I haven’t been anywhere outside the U.S. yet, but we are heading to Italy this Fall and I’m honestly excited to examine their infrastructure. We rely on cars for everything here and urban sprawl is out of control. I thought about taking a train from home to NYC to visit my brother and it would have cost more than a plane ticket and taken two days one way. Hopefully our country can catch up to the rest of the world where mass transit is concerned.

  42. I’ve never taken a train ride but hope to do so this Fall. I think it would be great if trains were more accessible and less expensive but it’ll take a village to make it happen. Thanks for the train information Kate!

  43. Thank you so much for posting this! I am planning on taking a one-year anniversary/honeymoon via train from Pittsburgh to Boston, just in time for fall foliage. While I’ve been on trains before in the states, that would be my longest ride, roughly 12 hours each way.

    It makes me sad that as a culture Americans are so dependent on cars, but I also think that partially has to do with how spread out things are here. Not to say that can’t change, but we can try to be hopeful for the future.

  44. I couldn’t agree with this more – travelled the States a few years ago and took the train from NYC to Chicago, figuring it’d be a scenic, relaxing way to avoid another flight. It was scenic, no doubt, but the comfort, modernity and service level was on par with that of my home (Ireland) in the very early 90’s right…add that to the relatively high ticket costs (vs. Europe, for example) and you can see why so many in the US don’t even consider the train.

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