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Amtrak Trains are the Best Public Transportation in America

I stepped off of the platform and up onto the train, I moved through the spacious aisle, choose a seat for myself that had a full window view, deposited by bags in the huge overhead rack, sat down, tilted my seat way back, and relaxed. Peace. This was how I stayed for eight hours as [...]

I stepped off of the platform and up onto the train, I moved through the spacious aisle, choose a seat for myself that had a full window view, deposited by bags in the huge overhead rack, sat down, tilted my seat way back, and relaxed. Peace. This was how I stayed for eight hours as the Amtrak train chugged from Rochester to New York’s Penn Station. I slept, ate, wrote a little, watched the countryside of my native state roll past, and found myself very impressed by the luxury of coach travel with Amtrak. My daughter watched videos and played in her own huge seat and my wife slept soundly.

When using public transportation in the USA my first choice is to go by train. Amtrak is the company that runs the passenger rail lines in my home country, and they now do so as well as any other country in the world. It’s my impression that the service on Amtrak has improved over the past ten years. I made three trips via Amtrak in March on three different lines going between Rochester and New York City, and all three trains departed and arrived on time and rides were classic episodes of leisurely travel. I paid $40 for the first trip, $55 for the second, and $85 for the third — three prices way below that of flying.

Leg room on Amtrak train

I laughed to myself as I thought about the suckers going this route by plane. I chuckled about how they had to arrive at the airport an hour or two before departure, get charged extra to travel with luggage, be looked up and down as someone confirms that they’re who they say they are, about how they had to walk around in their socks getting x-rayed and/ or buggered by the TSA who are apparently trained to treat everyone like a criminal, how they had to cram into an aluminum tube, how they had to sit in a seat that even a skinny butted French model would even find uncomfortable, and how they would arrive at an airport that’s over an hour’s subway ride outside of the central areas of New York City. I also laughed that the suckers flying had to pay two to three times as much for this — all to save only a couple of hours porthole to porthole.

Whew, that could have been me.

I spread my arms and legs out to their full extent, admired the comfort of my seat, and thought myself real smart for taking the train. But taking the train was obviously no secret. Although the car I was in was not full to capacity there was a respectable number of people who choose the train over the bus or plane. Amtrak runs around five trains per day along this route, and, in my experience, they almost always have a comfortable number of passengers.

Wide aisles on Amtrak train

I have ridden Amtrak trains many times before in my travels, but I don’t think I’ve ever fully realized how good it is.

  • The space on the Maple Leaf and Lakeshore lines is without equal in ground transport anywhere in the world. My wife could just about fully extend her legs without even reaching the foot rests on the seat in front of her. The seats are also wide, allowing more than enough elbow room.
  • There are also relatively gigantic overhead luggage racks, which can handle my backpacks easily. Amtrak also does not really regulate luggage amount or weight — or at least I’ve never noticed this — so you can freely travel with pretty much whatever you want, within reason, without needing to pay extra fees for it.
  • There are also no security checks to ride these trains — you can just show up five minutes before your train arrives and jump on.
  • The bathrooms on the train are huge, well stocked with paper towels and toilet paper, have a sink with running water, and are clean.
  • There is free WIFI on the trains as well as in the stations.
  • There is an electrical outlet for each passenger.
  • There is a food car where you can order meals and drinks.
  • You can get up and walk around or stand as much as you want.
  • There are no assigned seats, so you can choose where you want to sit within your designated car.
  • The trains are super clean. There is even disposable paper on the head rests that the attendants change after each run.
  • The train is often way cheaper than flying and competes well with the popular bus lines. This is especially true if you book in advance.
  • Children ride for half price.
  • There are large windows and interesting scenery that cannot be had when flying or taking a bus down endless monotonous highways.
  • You can transport an unloaded, legal firearm in your checked baggage.
  • Riding Amtrak is 30 to 40 percent more energy efficient than flying or driving.

The only real drawback to taking the train in the USA is the amount of time it takes. Going 600km from Rochester to New York City is no problem, but if I wanted to go much farther than this the time investment could outweigh the other benefits in some situations, and flying could prove more effective — I think it takes nearly a week to ride Amtrak coast to coast.

Petra watching videos on Amtrak train

Video about the benefits of riding Amtrak trains

Filed under: Train Travel, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3413 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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5 comments… add one

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  • Sam April 14, 2012, 10:58 pm

    Very true Wade. I took the train from NYC to rural Northeastern Pennsylvania when I returned back home and found it very easy, comfortable and cheap. Especially to get to such a rural spot.

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    • Wade Shepard April 15, 2012, 12:32 am

      Yes, these trains are now pretty amazing. Way better than I remember them being.

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  • Russ April 16, 2012, 2:01 am

    Hey Wade, I’ve ridden the Amtrak from San Diego to NYC, and also from San Diego to Oregon, so I can chime in about the longer trips. I definitely agree that the train is the way to go for short trips, and especially the newer trains are great, with wifi and power outlets at every seat. On my long haul cross country train, I noticed that when I switched in Chicago to go on to NY, it was like night and day, with the latter train being much older, less comfortable, and having less leg room and less of the newer amenities. On those longer rides cleanliness seemed to become a factor too, after two and a half days on one train the bathrooms were getting nasty. It seems to be my experience that the short routes, especially the frequently run commuter routes, are prompt, whereas the long haul trains are more prone to delays. (We spent a few hours sitting idle in the middle of the forest in Oregon due to a mechanical issue.) I might question the practicality and cost effectiveness of long haul train travel in the US (I did my trips just for fun), but no doubt Amtrak is the way to go for shorter trips.

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    • Wade Shepard April 16, 2012, 6:06 am

      Right on Russ,

      The quality of Amtrak really depends on the line you’re going down. In March I rode Amtrak three times between Rochester and NYC on three different lines. The Lakeshore Limited and the Maple Leaf Express were great while the Empire line had drastically less leg room and was far more crowded as well as being more expensive. I also agree that taking the train across country should be something that’s done just for fun.

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  • AndrewT March 7, 2013, 4:30 pm

    I take Amtrak quite often from Philadelphia, and yes if you travel by Amtrak often enough you will encounter headaches, but more often than not the trips is smooth and comfortable and worry free. And all the trains are usually full. That’s proof that Amtrak DOES have more customers than anti-train people believe. The only problem is the outrageous costs between major cities.

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