Train travel is not new to most parts of the world. In fact, it is a daily necessity for people who live in Europe, in India, China, and the Northeast Corridor of the United States. But for many people who live in America, train travel in the United States is mostly overlooked. In this article, we talk about my personal experience on what it’s like taking an Amtrak train: the pros, cons, and everything in between.
What’s It Like to Travel on Amtrak
For the purposes of this article, we will talk about the Silver Star line, which goes from Miami all the way up north to New York’s Penn Station. I normally hop on the Tampa, Florida to Jacksonville, Florida part of the Silver Star when I need to commute from visiting Peter’s family to home. Commuting can get essential if you only need to drive the car one way from Jacksonville to Sarasota (where Peter’s family lives), and driving is not an option for the moment.
The glossy travel magazines portray American train travel as a bucket list item. A chance for you to go through one state to another, seeing scenery and various other national parks along the way. What they don’t tell you is that they’re mostly talking about the California Zephyr, which makes the long, more scenic, trek from Chicago all the way to California.
To be very frank, train travel in the US can get tedious and boring. There’s pretty much no entertainment on board except for Wi-Fi, so feel free to bring laptops and tablets. If you’re a creative type, this time on the trains can get very useful as you sit down and create blog posts or videos. For others, it is a good time to start watching all the TV series and movies they’ve been putting off a lot.
The seat class
There are two types of seats: the sleeper rooms and the regular seats. The sleeper rooms are those rooms where your seats become beds and you have big windows overlooking the outside. You also get your own private bathroom and sink to wash up in. Some trains even include your meals if you book this type of service on the train. If the train does not have a dining car, you can get free stuff form the snack bar in the train you’re in. Think of having this service as your own all-inclusive private room on wheels. Which, if you think about it, is not bad, but these seats do fetch a pretty penny. In fact, one of Peter’s bucket list items is to actually try this side of train travel, and we will do it, once we decide on a time and an actual route before we pull the trigger (not to mention come up with Amtrak points to help pay for it).
Now let’s talk about the regular seats, which is what I normally take. They’re almost as big as business class seats and they are in the 2-2 configuration, where there’s a window and an aisle seat on both ends. There’s plenty of room for your things by your feet or on the overhead racks, so you probably won’t need to check in a bag. There’s even a small table that you can use to work on your computer, tablet, or phone. On top of that, you have plugs where you can actually charge your electronics in. After all, you will need a lot of power to keep yourself entertained on longer train trips.
The seats are assigned depending on your destination. A conductor will write down your three-letter destination and will technically try to seat and group you with fellow travelers going to the rough region you are in. They do this in case a train goes on the stop in the wee hours of the morning and they may need to wake you up to get ready for your stop.
You can request a window or an aisle seat, depending on what you are more comfortable in. I myself take a window seat because I do like looking out the windows while there’s light to see a glimpse of Florida towns that we pass by. That, or a lot of cars passing by roads that go parallel through the tracks.
It takes forever to get from one destination to another
I understand that Americans prefer to get on their cars and travel by road from one place to another. And I agree: the interstate system can be fast if you need to go through point A to Point B. The problem with Amtrak is that it is normally delayed, and can take you forever to get from one place to another.
Let’s look at an example: if I went to visit Peter’s parents in Sarasota, Florida from our house in Jacksonville, Florida, it will take me approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes to 4 hours of driving without traffic through the interstate. If I take the Amtrak, I’ll have to travel by car from Sarasota, Florida to Tampa, Florida (where the train station is), and that takes an hour.
From Tampa, Florida to Jacksonville, Florida, the train ride takes approximately 5 hours and 15 minutes without any delays. So, the total travel time going from Sarasota to Jacksonville by commuting is now a rough total of 6 hours and 15 minutes. If you factor in the minimum waiting time for the train to board (say, 15-30 minutes), you’re now looking at a 6 hour and 45-minute commute. And on top of that, I’ll have to ask someone to either pick me up from the Jacksonville Amtrak station by Uber (or a friend), and this adds another 30 minutes from the station to our house.
So, my friends, a normal travel time from Jacksonville, Florida to Sarasota, Florida by car is a maximum of 4 hours. If you take the train, you’re now looking at a grand total of 7 hours and 15 minutes without any delays (and believe me, there will be delays on your train ride).
It takes forever, right? Almost twice as much time to travel from one destination to another. If you look on the bright side, there seems to be a lot you can accomplish in 7 hours and 15 minutes if you’re not driving the car.
Let’s also look at the cost of driving. If you’re just looking at the gas prices and not on the wear and tear to the car, to get from Sarasota, FL to Jacksonville, FL will be roughly 1 tank of gas on our Mazda 3. That’s roughly $28-30 one way for the 300+ mile journey.
If I took the train and booked early, I’m looking at $33 for a one-way train ticket from Tampa to Jacksonville, and a $25 Uber ride. Total cost is $58. Of course, the Uber ride is completely optional if you can get a friend to pick you up, so let’s say the cost is pretty even in terms of dollar amounts.
If you took the car, you’ll have more time to yourself as you complete your journey. You can stop wherever you want to stop, you can even leave whenever you want to. Your schedule is not dictated by an arbitrary schedule of when the train may be arriving and departing from various stops, nor do you have the big dilemma of entertaining yourself on the train. Of course, commuting does have its downsides, but most people prefer to commute because it is their only mode of transportation or if it is more environment-friendly.
Why won’t the US invest more in public transportation options?
Because of the car mentality that the US has, public transportation has to take more of a back seat. And this is why trains take forever to get from one destination to another. The Amtrak trains don’t actually travel on dedicated lines that are strictly for passenger travel. They actually share the train tracks with commercial train cargo, so they can only go on certain routes and can’t really add to it. On top of that, if a train gets stuck or delayed, then the whole timetable gets delayed too.
For example, the Amtrak from Tampa to Jacksonville leaves at 5:27PM. The train cannot leave earlier than 5:27PM for some reason (even if everybody is all aboard). If the other trains in front of it get delayed and clog up the train track then the entire schedule will be thrown off. Every single train has their own little window to operate, and missing that window can mean being delayed for hours at a time.
You’re technically second-class citizens if you are traveling on the Amtrak on non-North East corridor destinations, where train cargo is king.
However, if you live in the Northeast corridor, then you’re in luck. You rely on the Amtrak and other train services to get home. It’s not uncommon to live in Connecticut or New Jersey and commute using the train every day to New York City and back. That is the only anomaly in the history of American public transportation system. I guess because it is super crowded and expensive up north, having a car means you’ll incur so much more costs than public transport.
Would you recommend taking the train?
Personally, I wouldn’t, unless it is your first time to actually take it, then the excitement and the newness of it all means that you are actually open to the slowness of the travel. If it was your first time, then you can bet that the small delays and little inconveniences won’t matter much to you. If it is your second time, then you actually sigh and think “is it over yet?” and if you’re doing it more than twice then you begin to prepare yourself accordingly. You start bringing your laptop and its charger, and you arm yourself with a long to-do list that you hope to accomplish on the time that you are sitting waiting for your stop to arrive.
If you really need to get somewhere on public transportation and the times suit you, then I would recommend the Megabus. It is like the Greyhound, but it is much cleaner, cheaper, and faster than the train. I’ve taken the Megabus numerous times here in the United States, and more often than not, they arrive in the destination within 30 minutes of the original arrival time. They even have fares for as low as $1 per ride. So yes, I can technically go to Orlando or Atlanta for $1 from Jacksonville.
As of my most recent train trip, it appears they now have train stewards that walk up and down the aisles who are ready to answer any questions or to assist the passengers if they need anything. This is a very welcome change, and makes the train service feel more personalized.
There are also many more people who take the train as compared to the last time I took it. Maybe because the days I used to take the train were different, or maybe because Amtrak changed some things in handling delays that people are starting to take the train again, or maybe they just lowered their prices. I’m not exactly sure what they did, but this train I’m in is packed! Another note – I sometimes get dizzy when I’m working on the computer as the train tends to shake and wobble a bit when it gains speed. That leads to me being a little unproductive in part of the 5 1/2 hour train ride. I wouldn’t recommend trying to type and do work if you get train sick, but I find that not looking at the screen and just typing what I think helps in relieving the headache. The editing and the reading can come later.
Have you taken the train before and would you take it again?
Comment below on your experiences, and any suggestions for me to survive the longer train rides. This article was actually typed as I was waiting for my train to arrive back home to Jacksonville. And no, I haven’t even started my journey yet, but I still have 3 other blog posts to finish before the end of the 5 hours is up!