Last week’s New York Times Magazine featured a long article about long-haul Amtrak travel that somehow managed to get almost everything wrong about the advantages and disadvantages of train travel. As a life-long enthusiast of train travel, I thought it might be helpful to correct some of the more common and absurd myths perpetuated in the article.
Myth #1: Amtrak travel is expensive
Behold the feigned horror the Times Magazine author imputes to her hypothetical friends:
“Depending how you slice it — time or money — there are either 61 or 960 immediate reasons not to travel by Amtrak trains from New York City to Los Angeles. Those are the extra hours and dollars, respectively, that you might reasonably expect to forfeit if you forgo a six-hour $129 nonstop flight and opt instead for an Amtrak sleeper car. Covering the interjacent 2,448.8 miles can easily consume some 67 hours for a mind-boggling $1,089.”
Unfortunately for the Times Magazine, these numbers are easily checked. For non-stop flights between New York City and Los Angeles 6 months from now, I actually found slightly cheaper economy flights than the ones that Weaver reports, starting at just $127:
But the identical Amtrak route she took between New York City’s Penn Station and Los Angeles’s Union Station doesn’t cost $1,089. It costs just $232:
Why the difference? Because Weaver is comparing Amtrak’s sleeper car accommodation to American Airlines’s economy cabin (I actually found sleeper car accommodation on the same date in October not at $1,089 but at $914 — Weaver should start booking further in advance!):
The deliberate confusion of economy-class airline fares with sleeper car Amtrak fares is journalistic malpractice, but that doesn’t stop us from untangling it a little bit more.
First, let’s take note that an economy-class airfare between New York City and Los Angeles International Airport requires you to travel to one of New York City’s regional airports from your residence, and from LAX to your final destination in Southern California. I don’t live in New York City or in Los Angeles, so I’m not going to pretend to venture a guess at that final cost, besides spitballing that it’s in the high 2 figures, depending on your origin and final destination. Remember you’re only working with $105 in “profit“ to begin with by flying instead of taking Amtrak.
Second, what do you get for your fare in each case? In the case of the airfare, you get the convenience of same-day arrival. In the case of Amtrak travel, you also get 3 nights of accommodation on board the train. If we insist on only comparing airfares and Amtrak fares, that leaves you paying $35 per night for a place to sleep (assuming in each case that your flight and your train arrive on time — no sure thing). Amtrak also includes free checked bags and much more in-cabin storage space than the typical US airline, a potential additional source of savings.
Of course, I don’t recommend traveling on long-haul Amtrak routes in coach. The sleeper cars are far preferable! That brings us to the third piece of the cost puzzle: sleeper car accommodations include the same 3 nights of sleep, but on what an airline blogger would insist on calling “lay-flat seats,” plus 9 cooked-to-order meals in the Amtrak dining car (dinner on day of departure, 6 meals en route, breakfast and lunch on day of arrival).
For a single traveler between New York City and Los Angeles, we can finally make a clear comparison: $127 is the underlying cost of transportation, with the option to pay $262 per night for three hot meals per day and private sleeping quarters.
Is that a good deal or a bad deal? Well, that depends on how much you planned to pay for room and board in New York City and Los Angeles, which I’m in no place to judge. But the math changes a final time when you book a sleeper car with multiple people, as intended.
That’s because when you travel on Amtrak, you pay a fixed price for each sleeper car room, up to the maximum number of passengers that room type accommodates. The cheapest roomettes on this route accommodate two passengers, which means two people can buy 3 nights of room and board for a total of $892, or $446 each, $149 per day (remember we’ve assigned an underlying value to the transportation itself of $127 per person):
Suddenly it become clear that when used as intended, Amtrak long-haul travel isn’t outrageously expensive. Booked far enough in advance, it starts to look like a steal.
Myth #2: Amtrak travel is inconvenient
Weaver gave herself a bit of an unfair advantage by selecting a particularly illogical route to go by train: between two cities served by multiple airports and multiple airlines, but only an awkward train connection. Personally, I would not book an Amtrak trip with just a 5-hour connection window, as hers does in Chicago. In the waning days of the old Amtrak Guest Rewards program I booked an itinerary from Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief, connecting to the Coast Starlight. Over the next 3 days the train was predictably delayed, we missed our Coast Starlight connection, and had to be rerouted by bus and regional rail upstate to where the Coast Starlight ultimately caught up to us.
But there are lots of routes where Amtrak is not only convenient, but indispensable. Someone living in Seattle or Portland who wants to take a New Year’s ski vacation at Whitefish Mountain Resort, near Whitefish, MT, can sit down on New Year’s Day on the Empire Builder at 4:40 pm and arrive in Whitefish the next morning at 7:21 am for $77; they could be on the slopes by 9 am. The next best alternative I found is a $139 Alaska flight, not to Whitefish but to Kalispell, arriving at midnight (requiring another night of lodging), and a 15 mile car or shuttle to Whitefish. Which do you think is more convenient?
Now head the other direction: 6 months out, you can book a 7 hour, 47 minute flight from Chicago to Wolf Point, MT, for $381 per person, with (pretty tight) connections in both Denver and Billings. Or you can sit down on the Empire Builder at 2:15 pm and arrive in Wolf Point around noon the next day for $110. Which do you think is more convenient?
Let’s do one more fun one. If you want to get from Mattoon, IL, to McComb, MS, you can drive 2 hours to Indianapolis International Airport, pay $94 to fly to New Orleans, connecting in Atlanta, then drive another 2 hours or so to McComb. Or you can sit down on the City of New Orleans in Mattoon and step off in downtown McComb 13-and-a-half hours later for $111. Which do you think is more convenient?
You can see from these examples the obvious convenience of Amtrak, and train travel in general: it makes the intermediate stops that other forms of long-haul transportation don’t. To put it another way, Amtrak is only inconvenient if you aren’t using it as intended. For folks without impaired mobility, It’s incredibly inconvenient to ride a municipal bus two blocks. You have to find the right stop, figure out whether a bus is a local or express, wait for it to come, then it might drop you off on the wrong end of your destination block. How inconvenient! But that’s because you’re using it wrong, not because municipal buses are an outdated or unnecessary form of transportation.
Myth #3: There is No Reason to Cross the U.S. by Train
Near the beginning of her article, Weaver notes in passing:
“The most unifying characteristic of my fellow passengers was not age (although, as a rule, the sleeping cars skewed retired), race (very mixed), income (while sleepers are astronomically priced, coach seats can be downright economical for shorter segments) or even fear of flying (no one I spoke to had it).”
This is best understood as a passive-aggressive swipe at a 2013 Times article about Amtrak travel, which explains perfectly clearly why people take Amtrak: if you have a fear of flying, you have a fear of flying no matter how much longer train travel takes. If you’re unable to fly for medical reasons, you’re unable to fly no matter how much cheaper it would be. If you’re undocumented, you’re unable to fly (and often unable to drive) no matter how much more convenient it would be. Train travel doesn’t serve those populations as a “backup” option; it serves those populations as the only option.
Conclusion: if you don’t like train travel, don’t travel by train. But don’t tell me there’s something wrong with trains
I’m perfectly aware of confirmation bias, and the fact that I love train travel obviously makes me seek out the most convincing arguments in favor of train travel. If you think train travel is a poor substitute for flying or driving, then you won’t find these arguments convincing.
Writing this post, I was reminded of my notorious screed about Galveston, TX, where I wrote extensively about how hard it is to get there, and reader stvr commented, “Do you not have a driver's license?” To stvr, renting a car for a weekend is a totally normal and good way to get around, whereas to me it’s an almost unfathomably annoying prospect.
Whether it’s flying, car rental, or train travel, issues where people have strong feelings are opportunities for disagreement, but also a chance to exercise some epistemic humility. I hate renting cars, but I’m not crusading for the destruction of the car rental industry; I know that many people believe it serves a useful function, and I’m not willing to say with certainty that those people are wrong. Likewise, even if you hate traveling by train, before destroying America’s passenger rail network once and for all, do me a favor and take the opportunity to step back and ask how certain you really are that all of us who love it are wrong.