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Rail travel in North America

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Rail travel in North America

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An Amtrak train.

Although trains are not nearly as ubiquitous and convenient a mode of travel in North America as in Europe, they remain popular with some travelers because of the spacious design of the cars, the scenic routes, and the overall comfort of the train ride. Some people prefer to take trains because they do not require long waits at security like at airports, or because they are uncomfortable with flying. Train rides in the U.S. often take longer than car rides and plane rides, but the unique experience can trump the long ride.

All trains will have coach seats. For longer rides many trains have sleeper rooms. The price of these rooms depends on the quality - whether or not there is a sink, or a private shower/toilet. You will pay a supplement for this in addition to the regular fare. If you are going across the country, you will most likely need to change in Chicago; any sleeper ticket can use the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago. There are also Metropolitan Lounges you can use in New York Penn Station, Boston South Station, Washington (D.C.) Union Station.

Peak periods

The peak periods for most rail companies in North America is somewhere between March/April to August/September, however, you should check with the rail company. In the off peak season prices drop significantly on most carriers.

Tickets and Passes

Different passes are available. There is the North American rail pass which is good for travel on VIA rail in Canada also. It is for unlimited travel in a month, and travel within both the USA and Canada is typically required. Foreigners may be able to get better deals.

Tips for tickets and passes

  • Be aware that it can be very expensive in some countries to travel by train. Especially high speed trains can be as expensive — but more convenient — as flying.
  • If you can, book in advance. In many countries you may benefit from a substantial discount. Reserving a seat, on the other hand, will usually incur a small surcharge - in these countries, you will have to decide whether or not the train will be empty enough for seats to be readily available.
  • There are a few passes, allowing several journeys to be made within a region. (for foreigners) and (for residents of North America. are good value for those who qualify and wish to travel extensively through North America. Otherwise, typically, the value gained from such a ticket is in inverse proportion to the area covered (unless you spend the whole period of the pass on trains).
  • Unless you are joining the train at a minor halt with no hint of ticket office or machine (or at somewhat more major stations, like Glacier National Park stations) or even an automated ticket machine please buy your ticket before joining the train or else you may have to pay a higher fare, a fine or even face imprisonment. Although prisons may offer free accommodation and catering, a stay in this form of government hospitality may not form an enjoyable part of your holiday.


Passengers may be able to get discounts by checking websites, having an AAA or CAA membership, being a veteran, being a senior citizen, or have a student ID.

Look out for the rail sale section of the website. You can snag $70 one way coach fares between Chicago and the West Coast. You may get a sleeper with these fares, upon paying the supplement, if they are available.

Effective April 1, 2005 to obtain a discount on Amtrak trains passengers must reserve three days in advance on all trains.

Stay Safe

When travelling, you need to watch your luggage ad stay alert. This is true when you're on a train as well. Theft is can be comparatively common on metros or trains with a lot of stops in short succession, since this will allow a thief to get off the train quickly. Trains that cover longer distances are usually safer; on high speed trains passengers routinely take laptops on their journeys. Late in the evening and on nights in the weekends, travel in well lit areas of the train and if possible in the same car as the conductor.

In Eastern Europe there have been reported incidents of "gassings." This is when a theif enters a cabin and sprays a "perfume," which causes the inhabitants of the cabin to fall asleep and awake several hours later with the possessions stolen.

Always, report suspicious characters to the conductor and move to a more populated and lit area.

Stay safe at the station

  • Be on time, or early. Though trains have a reputation for running late, they always seem to run early when you are running late to catch them. If you have bought the tickets in advance turning up 10 min before departure is more than enough. Bear in mind that trains often close the doors a minute before the official time of departure.
  • Many trains (especially faster ones) call for very brief intervals at smaller stations. Sometimes as short as 30 seconds. Have all your luggage at hand and be prepared to board quickly. Tuck away loose pieces of luggage like drinks, maps, guidebooks and coats before the train arrives to ensure a smooth boarding procedure.
  • Please don't run if you can avoid it.
  • Do not walk on the tracks except at an authorised, controlled crossing or under the direction of staff. Look both ways before crossing, even if warning devices are not operating. Do not cross against warning devices.
  • Stay behind any yellow lines on platforms except when you are actually boarding.
  • Stand well back from the platform edge when express or through trains pass the station. They can generate a lot of suction as they pass.
  • Face the platform edge if you are wearing a backpack, so the pack won't be caught by a moving train.
  • Do not enter or leave any train that is moving or while the doors are closing. If someone is caught in the door, alert the guard or operate the emergency stop/door release lever/button if the train begins to move. (Only do this in an emergency as once the train is stopped this way it may need to be inspected from end to end - which may cause a considerable delay. There are often fines for stopping a train inappropriately and you may be put off the train where it is stopped and handed over to the Police. Missing your station is not a valid reason to stop the train.)
  • Before boarding a train, wait until all passengers getting off at your station have unboarded. Trains will not depart if there are still people queueing to get on, even if it means they're a hour late.

Stay safe on board

  • If you are on any Chicago bound or departing train you may find that all the seats (or at the very least most seats) will taken. Do the best you can to find a safe place to stand or squat. Do not occupy the roof, the toilet, the luggage racks or the space under the seats or tables.
  • Never leave valuables alone, always bring your valuables with you, even when only using the restroom.
  • Always report any package, suitcase, or backpack left by any passenger. After the Madrid train bombings travellers cannot trust anyone else to protect the security of the people fully, and thereby forcing passengers to be vigilant in ensuring their own security.

Stay safe on subways

  • If possible place your hand on your wallet or purse in case a thief makes a grab for it you will be sure to feel the theif attempting this.
  • One common pick pocket situation, especially popular among British underground theives is having a group of three or four people distract the victim as they are being ripped off. It normally works like this - as passengers board an underground train a theif will push his/her way on board, while pushing the victim, another theif comes from behind the victim and picks the victims pocket. A third theif is often on hand to alert his partners in crime if the police are coming and or help his partners fight off any victims, who realize they are being ripped off.
  • Always report any package, suitcase, or backpack left by any passenger. After the London tube bombings in 2005 travellers cannot trust anyone else to protect the security of the people fully, and thereby forcing passengers to be vigilant in ensuring their own security.

On Board

  • Depending on what train you travel, your ticket may show a seat reservation number and a carriage number. The numbers of the carriage are displayed on the doors; pay attention to these as the trains rolls in, so you can be at the right spot on the platform in time to get into your carriage. Some stations have indicators on the platform to show which carriage will stop where. If you sit in your reserved seat you're always safe. On some Amtrak routes you are not given an assigned seat, instead once you board you are given the task of finding a seat for yourself or your group then sit there until a conductor checks your seat, at which time the seat unofficially becomes yours.
  • Trains offer a wide variation of amenities; the longer the distance your train covers, the more facilities there will be. Some newer highspeed trains have airline style entertainment systems in first class, and usually on-board cafes. Classic locomotive-hauled long distance trains may still have restaurant cars with waiters. Some local trains on the other hand can be quite spartan, with a the closest thing you can get to food is a bag of chips and something that could hardly be called "food," simply because it is microwaved for a minute.
  • Toliets on most trains in North America are of significantly higher standard than the trains in Europe. While train employees do a good job keeping up on the cleanliness of restrooms your fellow passengers can often dirty up the toilets by splashing water when they wash their hands or fail to throw away paper towels.
  • During the summer, especially on long distance lines or overnight trains, one will often find a group on the middle of the platform. When boarding this entire group often gets into the middle 2 carriages like a herd of sheep and will stay there often completely overcrowded. It is always a very good idea to walk through the train to the front or back to see if there is more space. This may sound completely obvious but this happen over and over again, people apparently assume that if the carriage they're in are full then so must all the others be.

Passenger rail companies


These are a few of many routes offered by a couple rail companies. The selection of routes was made by the criteria of popular destinations and routes that travel cross country. Additionally, historic routes like the Empire Builder were listed not only because of the destinations, but also because of the legacy of these routes left on tourism in North America.

Amtrak Routes

Chicago is the rail center of America, many routes converge on the Windy City and could require a passenger to change trains here, when traveling cross country.

Amtrak offers 34 passenger train routes. Some of the more popular routes are the Cardinal Express, Empire Builder, City of New Orleans, Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief, California Zephyr, Acela Express, and Capitol Limited.

VIA Rail Canada

  • Enterprise, [11]. An overnight train that runs from Toronto and Montreal. This train uses Renaissance Cars, which look spacious and comfortable that the famous Eurostar train that stops at London/Paris/Brussels could not use on the routes because of a change in plans. The Enterprise always leaves at 11:30 p.m. and arrives 8:00 a.m. (Montreal) or 8:20 (Toronto).

American Orient Express

The American Orient Express offers 9 routes, and several theme rail trips. Several of the American Orient Express' routes are listed below.

The trains are designed to be a luxury. Each rider gets a bedroom therefore the prices for tickets is higher than most passenger trains.