Amtrak: USA Passenger Trains

Overview

Amtrak in the USA is less of a well organized network and more of a hodgepodged mess-work as far as train systems world wide go. This is due to the nature in which Amtrak is administrated by various states within the USA and their semi-private industry led company. Each state has their own political microclimates that are all too weak to stand up to powerful lobbying efforts from the fossil fuels and automotive industries. On top of all that, there are significant inherent challenges including easements and infrastructure. Even if the overall covered area is limited (Amtrak Map), it is there, and it does work.

We have only traveled the stretch of this system that goes from Kansas City, MO through Jefferson City, MO to St Louis and the route from St Louis to Chicago, IL. I personally have had very good luck with departing on time and often even arriving early. However, @activesidequest has not; she has experience trains both departing and arriving hours late. So, plan accordingly.

Things we love about the train are that you don’t have to drive, and the ride is smooth compared to traveling by car. There are bathrooms on board, and you can bring and eat food during your journey. It seems when traveling regionally, you can also save money compared to driving if traveling with one or two people. By far, the convenience of not having to drive over long distances is the main attraction.

Booking

You can book your tickets up to 11 months in advance through these methods:

The app works really well and, we’ve had plenty of success using it for purchasing and boarding with our eTickets. You can even set up text alerts if the train is delayed. The ticket window closes sales 10 minutes prior to departure, but we highly recommend purchasing your ticket in advance as they can sell out.

 

  • Pets—cats and small dogs—are now permitted on some routes for a $25 fee.
    See details for booking with pets.
  • Bicycles may be brought onboard several routes. Prices, loading procedures, and reservation requirements vary by station. Check the site for more details.
    For cyclists looking to ride the Katy Trail, the Missouri River Runner allows four bikes per train with a $10 fee, and reservation is required. Amtrak staff will tell you where to put your bike when you board.
  • Carry-on luggage is allowed on all trains, with a limit of 2 small pieces and 2 large pieces per customer. Though, on the routes we’ve used no one seems to care how large or heavy your bags are, and we haven’t seen any airline-esque contraptions to determine if you’re over the limit. Checked baggage is only available on certain routes. See the site for specifics.
  • Business Class upgrades are available. The trains we’ve been on offer Business Class seating which shares a train car with the Cafe car. Business Class seating is in the front, then the Cafe section of that car, and in the train cars behind you find Coach Class seating. There are only about 5 to 15 rows with a seat layout of 2 seats on the left of the aisle and 1 seat on the right, so these limited seats can sell out fast. The seats have much more cushion and provide more leg room than Coach Class seats. You are also provided one complimentary soft drink along with your Business Class ticket.

Amenities

  • Wi-Fi is available on many trains, but in our experience is incredibly slow. Streaming sites are blocked, and file downloads are limited to 10MB. Cellular data network coverage for both Verizon and AT&T were very spotty while on both the Kansas City – St Louis and St Louis – Chicago routes. Come prepared with pre-downloaded content or put down your device and enjoy the scenery.
  • Power outlets are available on all trains. The trains we’ve ridden have had two 3-pronged outlets located on the wall just below the window of each seat.
  • Restrooms/Toilets/WC – usually two per train car, cleanliness dependent on the actions of your fellow travelers.

Food and Drink

All trains have either a Cafe, Lounge, or Dining car where you can purchase food and drinks. The most basic, the Cafe car, serves snacks, sandwiches, pizzas, soda, beer and wine. Be forewarned, the prices are extremely high. A can of soda alone will set you back $2.50.

We instead recommend bringing your own meals and drinks. Though, if you want an alcoholic drink you’ll have to purchase it onboard as drinking your own pre-purchased alcohol is limited to private sleeper cars.

Parking

We have to add a note about parking. All of the station appear to have different set-ups, but in our experience we have had difficulty parking. Chicago was fine, no need for parking as they have mass transit, but anywhere else – please look up ahead of time where you can park prior to your trip so you don’t miss your boarding time. For example, in Jefferson City, MO there is no signage directing Amtrak users to the overnight lot several blocks away, and only short-term day parking around the station. In Kansas City, there was a Maker Faire which blocked off much of the roadway and filled all the parking around the station. We prefer being be dropped off or using public transit to get to Amtrak stations.

If given the choice of piloting an automobile for 3 to 9 hours or traveling by Amtrak, I definitely prefer Amtrak. The ride is smooth and I can do other things while traveling that don’t include holding a wheel and constantly watching a road.

 

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