General & First-Time Questions
How much does it cost?
Generally, I have found train travel to be competitive with iir, bus, or car travel. Of course, the specifics will vary depending on where you are going, when, and on what train. Check out the How to Travel by Amtrak page for information on getting fares online or by phone. Also, there are lots of discounts available.
Where can I go?
Amtrak has over 500 stations in 46 states. See the Amtrak Stations section for information on how to find stations closest to you. The nation’s largest airline has only 161 destinations, some of them not within the USA.
Amtrak also cooperates with VIA Rail Canada for travel into Canada and operates some connections with Canadian rail services.
Amtrak also operates feeder bus lines to get you to the train if there is not service in your area. Also, in some cases, Amtrak will sell tickets for you on other bus lines to get you to or from trains.
How fast is it?
See the speed section on Reasons to Travel by Rail.
Reliability & Safety
Do trains run on time?
For the purposes of this question, I’ll split the answer up into two parts: the trains that run in the Amtrak North-East Corridor (NEC; Boston to Washington, D.C.) and all other trains.
Outside the NEC, Amtrak operates over rail lines owned by freight railroads. As such, they are at the mercy of the freight lines. If a freight operator decides to put a slow freight train in front of a fast Amtrak passenger train, there is nothing that Amtrak can do about it. Some freight railroads are better than others.
So, the unfortunate reality is that you need to be prepared for your trains to be late, although most trains do run on time the majority of the time.
However, being late on a train is often not as much a problem as being late on a plane; you are not likely to miss a connection, and you will often know hours in advance if you will be late.
Amtrak owns the track in the NEC, so delays there are much more rare, but still can occur.
Causes of delays
For non-NEC trains, a common cause for delays is freight congestion as mentioned above.
Another cause of delays involves cars trying to “race” trains across a crossing by driving around crossing gates. While this does not usually damage the train, the car involved is often damaged and its occupants can be killed. Police investigators can hold a train for a couple of hours to complete their investigation.
Mechanical problems can also develop. While some repairs can be made en-route, delays can still occur.
What happens when delays occur?
Most delays won’t be substantial enough to cause any serious problem.
However, if you happen to be unlucky enough to encounter a serious delay, Amtrak will accommodate you. They might offer to refund your money. They may offer to put you up in a hotel overnight and get you on the next day’s train. They may offer to provide a bus to get you to your destination. Exactly what happens depends on the circumstances.
Does weather delay trains?
In general, trains are more resistant to bad weather than either planes or cars.
With any method of transportation, winter conditions typically are the toughest to deal with. Snow and ice do not normally cause a problem for trains; you’ll probably have more difficulty reaching the train station than actually riding the train. High winds or foggy conditions (which cause trouble for planes) don’t cause any problem for trains.
That said, weather can cause trouble. Flooding can render railroad sections impassible, and some rail lines in Texas have been known to deal poorly with extreme heat.
A few years ago on a trip through Chicago, my train was delayed not because of problems on the rails, but because the equipment froze while it was stopped in Chicago waiting to be used on the next train. These problems seem to have been addressed by now.
What happens if an engine fails?
Generally, the train stops moving until Amtrak can either get it fixed or find a replacement locomotive.
Depending on the nature of the failure, passenger cars may revert to battery backups. That means that lights will not be as bright and toilets will not flush.
The bottom line is that this is not generally a serious safety hazard.
Special considerations: Children, Disabled, etc.
What if I am handicapped or have trouble walking?
See our Amtrak Accessibility page.
Do children do well on Amtrak? It seems like a long time.
Yes, they usually do very well. See our Children on Amtrak page.
Finding More Information
Consult our Amtrak Internet Resources page.
Links to this note
Train travel is a modern, fun, and fast way to travel all across the United States and the world. Here you can learn all about it.
Let’s talk about what you can expect on the train. We’ll start with the layout of the train, and go on to describe different parts of it. Scroll down for more.
Amtrak is the only cross-country passenger railroad in the United States. Outside a few regions, Amtrak is usually the only way to travel state-to-state by rail, and is the only regular option for cross-country travel by rail. Amtrak operates the trains, and mostly runs on tracks owned by freight railroads. Amtrak is a quasi-governmental corporation, created in 1971 when the passenger railroads at the time wanted to get out of the passenger business. For more information on the history of Amtrak, see the Wikipedia article on Amtrak.
Traveling by rail can be a fun, rewarding, exciting, and inexpensive experience. There are lots of Reasons to Travel by Rail. But it’s different in many ways from air or car travel. Read on to learn all about your trip.