You Should Take Amtrak To More Places

I’m going to do a rare but unapologetic plug for a company that is not sponsoring YAPC: Amtrak. About a month ago I mentioned that Amtrak is a viable means of travel for YAPC::NA 2012. However, I didn’t mention how absolutely awesome it is. I’ve used it for a few trips recently, and I’m a complete convert from air travel.

Here are the benefits of traveling via Amtrak that immediately come to mind over any airline that you might pick:

  1. The seats are just two across and are wide. You’ll not only not be stuck between two people (the dreaded middle seat), but you’ll be swimming in all the room it provides.
  2. The seats tilt back about 45 or 50 degrees, unlike the 10-15 degrees you get on a plane.
  3. I’m a tall guy, and my knees always hit the seat in front of me on a plane, even when the person in front of me doesn’t tilt their seat back. However, on the train I have at least 1.5 feet of space in front of my knees, and still plenty even if the person in front of me tilts their seat all the way back.
  4. You can get up and walk around during the entire trip, and nobody will ever tell you to return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt.
  5. Every seat comes with two AC power outlets. 
  6. Half the time the trains are half empty, so you can usually have an empty seat next to you.
  7. You can keep all of your luggage with you or check it, but bag size doesn’t matter either way.
  8. You don’t need to be at the train station two hours early. In fact, when I travelled back to Madison from New York, I arrived at Penn Station 15 minutes before the train departed, and was on the train within 5 minutes of my arrival. Granted, most of the time you should be there a little early in case you get lost or there are schedule changes, but no more 2 hour wait and miles of security checks.
  9. There’s always a cafeteria, and usually a restaurant car and a bar car. 
  10. There’s always an observation car where the walls of the car have been replaced with plexiglass from floor to ceiling and the seats are facing outward. And on some lines they serve free coffee and newspapers if you just want to sit back and relax.
  11. Amtrak is starting to equip all their trains with Wifi now. However, I bring my Mifi along with me and have never had a connectivity problem.
  12. Tickets are usually 20-40% cheaper than airfare. 
  13. The bathrooms are 25-30% larger than plane bathrooms, and there are a lot more of them so you never have to wait.
  14. Parking at most train stations is free (check in advance for each station).
  15. Amtrak serves more cities than there are airports, however, some regions of the country are devoid of Amtrak lines.

There are of course a couple of downsides by traveling with Amtrak over planes.

  1. It certainly takes longer to get where you are going. However, if you’re like me and can work from anywhere (telecommute), time is irrelevant. 
  2. Amtrak’s web site is horrible if you have to do multiple connecting trains who’s schedules don’t line up perfectly.
  3. There’s generally only one train arrival / departure for a given city per day.

Overall travel via Amtrak is lightyears ahead of air travel. If you can afford the extra time, and there’s a stop within driving distance of you, then do yourself a favor and try it out. 


Rail travel is more efficient than cars and planes. Also, you can use Amtrak to offset your carbon footprint:

Amtrak serves more cities than there are airports, however, some regions of the country are devoid of Amtrak lines.

Really? I thought on average there are more commercial airports (~600) in the country than there are Amtrak stations (~500). Here in Los Angeles the commercial airports outnumber the Amtrak station 5 to 1. ;-)

I looked it up, and a train trip from here to Wisconsin is just over 3 days long -- via Portland, OR. A tiny bit too long to be practical, unless you really really would like to live on a train for a week (round-trip).

But – from most places on the east coast I imagine it'd make sense.

I like travelling by train very much, too. It is "a little" bit simpler in Switzerland, tough:
For a country measuring less than 350x220 km 804 train stations are quite sufficient. :-)

Not to forget a regular schedule ("at least one train to almost every destination every hour") from roughly 6am to 22pm.
The cool thing there is that your train from A to B will always leave at the same minute of the hour. This was established in 1982 and although I was a child then, I remember how big a thing that was.
"Der Kluge reist im Zuge" (the clever travel by train) was one of the slogans.

I found a number of 49 airfields and airports, but only a handful have a certain commercial value.
Switzerland is so small that one of its international airports even is abroad. It is in France!

I think it has to do a lot with history and mentality.
There are very densely populated areas in the US which would justify a fine mesh of train routes.
As for the long distances: There are trains available which travel at about 350km/h. So even for the 4100 km from N.Y to San Francisco this would be a trip of "only" about 12-15 hours. This of course, needs a certain infrastructure.
You see dismantled railways in many countries, which is sad, I believe. An infrastructure was sacrificed to the automobile (and less to the airplane) some decades ago.

Leave a comment

About JT Smith

user-pic My little part in the greater Perl world.