Although greatly reduced from its peak in the 1950s, the USA has an extensive and diverse network of Interstate and Commuter railways. All long distance interstate passenger trains are operated by the Government operator; Amtrak.
From the 64 mi (102 km) Springfiled MA to New Haven CT shuttle service to the 65 hour, 2728 mi (4390 km) odyssey that is The Texas Eagle, Amtrak operate a wide variety of trains through every state except Alaska, Hawaii, South Dakota and Wyoming.
All Amtrak services cross at least 1 state border, except those operated by Amtrak California (a State supported business group operated by Amtrak). Amtrak California operates 3 intrastate routes within California:
- Pacific Surfliner (San Diego – Los Angeles – San Louis Obispo)
- San Joaquin (Bakersfield – Stockton – Oakland/Sacramento)
- Capitol Corridor (San Jose – Oakland – Sacramento)
Most Amtrak trains operate on tracks owned by private freight operators, where they lease track rights from the owner. The exception being the “Northeast Corridor”.
The Northeast Corridor
The Northeast Corridor is the route between Washington DC and Boston (via Philadelphia, Trenton NJ, New York City and New Haven CT). This route is fully electrified (at either 12.5 kV AC or 25kV AC) and in some parts Quad tracked. Standard Amtrak trains operate at up to 100 mph (160 km/h), whilst the high speed Acela Express trains operate at up to 150 mph (240 km/h) on the Northeast Corridor.
Amtrak own most of the track on the Northeast corridor (some sections are owned by the State of New York, the State of Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts). Amtrak lease track rights to other operators on this route, including many interurban passenger services:
- MARC (Maryland Area Regional Commuter)
- SEPTA (South East Pennsylvania Transportation Authority)
- NJ Transit
- Shore Line East
- MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority).
Amtrak has some fantastic journeys. Epic Journeys are those of more than 36 hours, such as:
- Coast Starlight (Seattle – Portland – Oakland – Los Angeles) – 36 hours, 1377 miles (2216 km) including some spectacular and remote coastal scenery which cannot be seen from the highway.
- Empire Builder (Seattle/Portland – Chicago) – 44 hours, 2255 miles (3629 km) through the USA’s remote north west
- California Zephyr (Emeryville – Salt Lake City – Denver – Chicago) – 52 hours, 2438 miles (3924 km) through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevadas
- Southwest Chief (Los Angeles – Albuquerque – Chicago) – 43 hours, 2265 miles (3645 km) through deserts and canyons
- Texas Eagle (Los Angeles – San Antonio – Dallas – Chicago) – 65 hours, 2728 miles (4390 km) across the top of Mexico, then right up though the heart of the USA
Amtrak do not currently operate any true transcontinental trains. The Sunset Limited once ran from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, but was truncated after damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (it now only runs from Los Angeles to New Orleans). It is possible to travel from coast to coast, but you must change trains in Chicago.
Amtrak operate the following international services:
- Portland – Seattle – Vancouver (Amtrak Cascades)
- New York City – Albany – Montreal (Adirondack)
- New York City – Buffalo – Toronto (Maple Leaf)
There are no passenger services operating between the USA and Mexico, however the Texas Eagle stops at El Paso TX, where there is a border crossing to Ciudad Juárez. Amtrak California’s Pacific Surfliner terminates at San Diego, which has a light rail connection to San Ysidro on the border with Tijuana.
All overnight trains include sleeping cars and a dining car, whilst many daytime trains have business class facilities. Acela Express trains have Business and First Class cars only. Amtrak has many types of rolling stock:
- Acela Express
Acela Express trains are Amtrak’s high speed tilting trains which operate solely on the North East Corridor. The power cars obtain power from overhead catenary lines (25 kV AC) and operate at a maximum speed of 150 mph (240 km/h). The trainsets are typically made up as follows:
- Acela Power Car
- Business Class Car
- Business Class Car
- Cafe Car
- Business Class Car (quiet)
- Business Class Car (quiet)
- First Class Car
- Acela Power Car
Superliner stock is very American; comfortable, well appointed, shiny and HUGE. These are probably the biggest passenger carriages in the world. They are double-deck (bi-level), with one manually operated access door at low level between the bogies. Inter-car access is through the upper level. Superliner stock is used on all overnight services which do not operate out of Boston or New York City, as well as The Heartland Flyer (between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City). Superliner stock has a maximum speed of 100 mph (160 km/h) and is almost exclusively hauled by P40DC & P42DC locomotives. Superliners come in many different internal configurations:
- Sleeping car – sleepers and toilets on the upper level, with accessible sleepers, toilets and showers on the lower level
- Coach cars – Upper and lower level coach class seating, with toilets on the lower level
- Lounge cars – Lounge seating with floor to ceiling windows on the upper level and a shop on the lower level
- Restaurant cars – Table seating on the upper level
- Utility cars – various configurations of crew cars and baggage cars
Superliners cannot operate out of New York City due to height clearance issues in tunnels and under catenary wires on the Northeast Regional line.
Amtrak California use modified Superliner stock known as Surfliners and California Cars. Surfliners are the second generation of California Cars and are very similar. The major visual difference from other Superliner stock is the 2 sets of sliding power doors on each side (as opposed to the single manual swing door on standard Superliner stock). Surfliners and California Cars also have cab control cars, allowing push pull sets with a locomotive at one end and a cab control car at the other. Surfliners and Caifornia Cars come in the following configurations:
- Coach car – Upper and lower level coach class seating
- Cafe/Coach car – Upper level coach class seating, with cafe on the lower level
- Cafe car – Lounge seating with floor to ceiling windows on the upper level and a shop on the lower level
- Coach/Cab/Baggage car – Upper and lower level coach class seating, with cab at one end and baggage compartment
- Business car – Upper level business class seating, with galley on the lower level
Amfleet stock (AKA Amcans) are single deck stainless steel cars, used throughout the USA (with the exception of the west coast) on shorter distance services, Northeast Regional and long distance services operating out of New York City. They are fairly standard single deck carriages, and have earned their name due to their rounded body shape. Amfleet stock has a variety of interiors, including coach class cars, business/cafe cars, dinette cars and lounge cars.
Viewliner stock are single deck sleeping cars, used in combination with Amfleet stock on overnight trains operating out of New York City and Boston. They are stainless steel and slightly taller than Amfleet cars. The name comes from the two levels of windows provided halfway down each car, to give upper bunk passengers a “view” from their bed.
Heritage Fleet is a generic name applied to any stock inherited by Amtrak from previous operators. The only heritage stock left in service is coach class cars, baggage cars and dining cars. Many shorter distance services use heritage coach cars, with some using a combination of Heritage coach cars with 1 or 2 Amfleet busness/cafe cars. The only Heritage dining cars still in use are those on the Boston – Albany leg of the Lake Shore Limited.
Talgo Trainsets are used on Amtrak Cascades services between Portland OR, Seattle WA and Vancouver. They are semi-permanently coupled, articulated, tilting trains. Talgo Trainsets are typically made up as follows:
- EMD F59PHI diesel locomotive
- 1x Baggage Car
- 2x Business Class Cars
- 1x Lounge/dining car
- 1x Cafe (bistro) car
- 6x Standard (coach) Class Cars
- 1x Service car
- EMD F40PH dummy locomotive (non-powered control unit)
Amtrak has a wide variety of locomotives operating over their network. Electric locomotives are used on the NorthEast Corridor, with diesel electric locomotives used on the rest of the network. Some dual mode (diesel electric/750v DC electric) are used on some services operating out of New York City. This is due to restrictions of diesel fumes in the tunnels into New York Penn Station.
- EMD AEM-7: Entering service from 1980, these locomotives have a power output of 5,100 kw and are capable of a maximum speed of 125 mph (201 km/h). Amtrak has 49 AEM-7 locomotives in service.
- Bombardier HHP-8: Entering service from 1999, these locomotives have a power output of 6,000 kw and are capable of a maximum speed of 135 mph (217 km/h), but are restricted to 125 mph (201 km/h) in service. Amtrak has 15 HHP-8 locomotives in service.
- Acela Express Power Car: Entering service from 2000, each Acela Express train has 2 power cars in push/pull configuration. Each power car has have a power output of 4,600 kw and is capable of a maximum speed of 165 mph (266 km/h), but is restricted to 150 mph (240 km/h) in service. Amtrak has 40 Acela Express power cars in service (20 trains).
Diesel Electric Locomotives
- GE Dash 8-32BWH: Entering service from 1991, these locomotives have a power output of 3,200 hp and are now mostly relegated to shunting (switching) duties. Amtrak has 18 of these locomotives in service.
- GE Genesis: These are the most numerous locomotives on the Amtrak network and were built between 1992 and 2001. There are several varients of the GE Genesis range:
- P40DC: The original GE Genesis with a power output of 4,000 hp and a maximum speed of 103 mph (166 km/h). Some have been upgraded to 4,200 hp and a maximum speed of 110 mph (177 km/h). Amtrak has 15 P40DC locomotives in service.
- P42DC: Upgraded GE Genesis with a power output of 4,250 hp and a maximum speed of 110 mph (177 km/h). Amtrak has 196 P42DC locomotives in service.
- P32AC-DM: Dual Mode locomotives, capable of running using the 3,200 hp diesel engine or 750v DC 3rd rail, with a maximum speed of 110 mph (177 km/h). The 3rd rail power supply is used in the tunnels around New York Penn Station. These locomotives use AC traction motors, as opposed to the DC traction motors of all other Genesis locomotives. Amtrak has 18 P32AC-DM locomotives in service
- EMD F59PHI: Entering service from 1998, these locomotives have a power output of 3,200 hp and a maximum speed of 110 mph (177 km/h). The are most commonly seen on Amtrak Cascades and Amtrak California routes.
As well as these locomotives, Amtrak also have an assorted fleet of “cabbage”cars. The cabbage cars are old locomotives, which have had the power plant removed. A side roller door has been added to allow baggage to be stored in the space left. The cab controls have been left in place and the cars can be used to remotely control other locomotives in a push/pull configuration.
Fares and Accomodation
Amtrak coach class fares are generally slightly cheaper than a discount airline. Both have their pros and cons; the train is slower, but the trains generally depart from the centre of the city and there is less formalities prior to boarding. You also get a generous baggage allowance (2 bags at up to 23 kg each) and a big, comfy seat.
For a Modest premium, many shorter distance services offer business class (not available on overnight trains). Business class has larger seats with more leg room
Sleeping class fares vary widely, depending on the size of room, the day of the week and how far in advance the ticket is booked (generally, the earlier you book, the cheaper the fare). Main meals in the dining car are included in the sleeper fare. Of note is that the sleeper charge is a fee added to the coach class fare. Only one sleeper charge is applicable per booking, regardless of how many people occupy it (up to the number of beds available). For example: if the coach fare is $100 and the sleeper fee is $150, a single occupant will pay $250 (coach+sleeper), and 2 people will pay a combined total of $350 (coach+coach+sleeper).
Rail passes are available for travel within the USA. The rail passes are available for coach class only, but the holder may pay to upgrade to business or sleeping class (pending availability). The rail passes are available for the entire USA or Amtrak California only and give a set amount of sectors over a period of time:
- 15 days/8 segments (USA wide)
- 30 days/12 segments (USA wide)
- 45 days/18 segments (USA wide)
- 7 days travel in a 21 day period (Amtrak California only)
What are the trains like to travel on?
Amtrak trains are generally very clean and comfortable with good facilities. The timekeeping of the trains is not so good; I have been on Amtrak services that ran up to 4 hours late. that being said, many services do have “make up” time in their timetable. Probably 75% of Amtrak trains that I have caught arrived within 10 minutes of their timetable.
Food On Board
All overnight trains have a dining car, whilst all day trains which do not have a dining car have some sort of food service. These range from a kiosk on shorter distance services to “dinette” cars; half a car set aside as a diner selling basic meals such as sandwiches and microwaved hot food. The food in the full service dining cars is excellent, better than you would expect on a train; ranging from hamburgers to half a chicken to crab cakes. Vegetarian meals are also available. If you travel in a sleeper, all main meals are included in your fare.
Most overnight trains (and some daytime trains such as Amtrak Cascades) have lounge cars. Most trains operated by Superliner stock have a lounge car which has longitudinal seating facing floor to ceiling windows on the upper level, with a kiosk downstairs.
Coach seats are wide, with plenty of leg room. They all have tray tables and many have a 120v power outlet. The seats are very comfortable for a daytime journey, but sleeping class is definitely recommended for overnight journeys.
Business Class Seating
Business class seating is slightly wider than coach class, with extra leg room. All business class seat have 120v power outlets. Other than that, there’s not a great deal of difference.
Sleeping class is the way to go for overnight trips, with main meals included in sleeping class fares. Each sleeping car has an attendant, who is available at all times. Complimentary self serve tea, coffee and fruit juice is provided in sleeping cars. There are various types of Sleeping berths, with some minor differences between Superliner (most overnight trains except east coast) and Viewliner (east coast services):
- 2 facing seats which convert to bunk beds
- 120v power outlets
- Superliner berths have no private shower or toilet (shared facilities available)
- Viewliner berths have a private toilet, but no private shower (shared shower facilities available)
- 1 seat and one couch, which convert into large lower bunk and small upper bunk
- 120v power outlets
- Private shower and toilet
- Family Bedroom (Superliner only)
- 2 seats and 1 couch, which convert into 2 large bunks and 2 small bunks
- 120v power outlets
- No private shower or toilet (shared facilities available)
Amtrak has a very good website (www.amtrak.com), containing a vast amount of information such as: