Several folks have asked me how I like riding on trains compared to flying on airplanes. I booked a round-trip ticket on Amtrak from DC to NY over New Year’s weekend so I could offer a comparison. The train ticket was half the price of an airline ticket and the train station in New York is conveniently located near Madison Square Garden. I’ll write a comparison later, but here’s my review of the Amtrak ride.
Experience: train stations do not have the same lounge options as airports so I had less of an incentive to arrive early. My Citi Prestige credit card provides complimentary access to Admirals Clubs and Priority Pass Lounges at certain airports, but that perk does not help me at the train station. The free wifi was pretty slow. Security on the other hand was practically non-existent so I didn’t have to worry about long lines at the security checkpoint. Two folks made sure I had a ticket before I boarded the train, but that was it. I walked down a long creepy hallway before I arrived at track 28. I walked to the front half of the train before I stepped inside a coach car.
In New York (Penn Station), you gather around this board until your track is announced 10-15 minutes prior to departure. There’s no security check point.
Long creepy hallway in Union Station, Washington DC.
You walk along the train until you pick one to go into. If there’s a strategy to picking the best car I have not figured it out.
I was a little surprised at how generously Amtrak applied its policy of allowing families with small children and seniors to board first. Able-bodied folks in their early 60’s and families with teenagers were encouraged to board in the priority line. Seats in coach are not reserved so priority boarding is definitely desirable.
Riding on a train also allows people to talk on their phones which is not an issue in the air. The train would be quieter if people were not on the phone. The guy to my left reminds me of the cleaner (Mike) from Breaking Bad (and he sounds like him too!). The girl sitting to my right powered through a solid two hour phone call.
Hard product: The seats were about the same width as airline seats but they reclined further. The aisle was wider (two people could easily pass each other) and the luggage rack was much larger. I helped a very small woman (under 110 lbs) lift a very substantial large suitcase (over 70 lbs) onto the overhead luggage rack. There was also a luggage rack in the front of the car if you needed more room. The handicap-accessible bathroom was huge. The handrails were plentiful because riding a train is like riding on an airplane with constant turbulence. There was also a quiet car. The café car had tables and it appeared that people camp out at those tables, even if they’re not eating.
The seats were unremarkable but each seat had an electrical outlet.
Service: there was no service. You walked like a drunken sailor to the café car. The train moved more than I expected so it was a difficult to walk at times. The guy running the café cart was very knowledgeable about trains and he proceeded to tell me that the bumpy ride was due to changing tracks at 100 mph. He was quick and efficient at preparing food.
Food: the food and drinks were more expensive than you’d find on an airplane. I paid $7.50 for a bottle of Victory Hop Devil–a bottle of Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA would run you $8.50. You could buy a half bottle of wine for $16 instead. The food was equally expensive but there were more options than you’d find on a plane—you could buy anything from a bag of popcorn to a warm hot dog.
Riding a train is like flying on a plane with constant turbulence. For most Americans, planes make sense because they’re cheaper and faster than trains. The east coast is a special case because Amtrak makes a profit on those routes (unlike the routes over the rest of the country). Tickets are cheaper and trains travel more frequently. Certainly I’ll ride the train again for a DC-NYC trip, but I will likely fly to any location that’s further away than NYC.