“ Amtrak (AAR reporting marks AMTK and AMTZ) is the brand name of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, created on May 1, 1971, as the United States' intercity passenger train system. "Amtrak" is a portmanteau of the words "American" and "track". Amtrak is a quasi-governmental agency; all of its preferred stock is owned by the federal government. The members of its board of directors are appointed by the President of the United States, and are subject to confirmation by the United States Senate. Some common stock is held by the private railroads that transferred their passenger service to Amtrak in 1971. Though Amtrak stock does not pay dividends and is not routinely traded, a small number of private investors have purchased Amtrak stock from its original owners. „
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NEWARK TO BOSTON
No, not as a friend of mine quipped, "Is that a motoring holiday in Lincolnshire?"
Here I am writing about a journey, that on the face of it, I needn't have made. After all, I've just spent 8 delightful nights on a house-boat in Boston harbour, so why am I writing about a train trip from Newark NJ to Boston, Massachusetts, when I could have flown from Heathrow directly to Boston?
Ah well, it all comes down to being married to a teacher, and a teacher with a flair for organising things well in advance. For teacher, read 'stuck with school holidays'. For flair read 'obsessive'.
A year ago, when her indoors was first giving thought to our 25th Anniversary 'treat', we realised that now was the time to spend those Airmiles that have so handily accrued courtesy of Tesco. Even we hadn't accrued enough to two returns to Boston, but availability of flights for those that wanted to spend 'part-money, part Airmiles' was non-existent.
The best we could do was Newark, New Jersey - well at least, I interjected, it was on the right coast (although some 230 miles or so wide of the mark).
Then being a bit of a sucker for a train ride, I suggested doing the rest by rail. After all, it was only a bit longer than London to York; how long could it take?
Well, five hours as it happens!
Yes, we could have shaved an hour off that by using the 'Acela' high speed train, but in the end we decided not to for several reasons.
1. We were boarding our train at the Newark Liberty Airport (ERW) International Station, having availed ourselves of the Marriot Hotel's shuttle bus and then the airport's own monorail system. Beware; there is NO road access to this station so forget taxis or buses. Despite the grandiose name on the station, and the expectations to go with it, the Acela doesn't stop there, which we thought was a pretty damned good reason for not getting on one. To have done so would have involved taking a local NJ Transit train into either of the Newark or New York 'Penn' stations*, and going to all the hassle of shifting our luggage and finding seats yet again, adding at least 45 minutes to the claimed New York-Boston journey time of 3.5 hours.
2. We didn't mind taking 5 hours
3. The Acela costs twice as much as a normal 'express'.
(*These tend to be referred to as 'Newark Penn', and 'Penn Station New York', otherwise they can to sound rather similar speaking through a sheet of glass.)
Both Newark and Boston have the good fortune to be part of Amtrak's electrified 'North-East Corridor' route, running all the way from Washington DC, via such places as Baltimore MD, Philadelphia PA, Newark NJ, New York NY, New Haven CT, Providence RI, through to Boston MA.
As well as the 'Acelas', other slower stopping trains ply the route, called 'Northeast Regionals' by AMTRAK, and since these DO stop at Newark Airport, we decided to tough it out on a train with something like 15 intermediate stops, admittedly two of which are in Boston. There was a certain satisfaction in the knowledge that, having hunkered down in our seats and planted our luggage somewhere safe, we were 'good' for the whole journey. It should be borne in mind that even the Acelas stop seven times over this distance, which is a clue to why they take over 3 hours to cover the modest 200 miles between New York and Boston despite a top speed on paper of 150 mph - there are other reasons which I'll touch on later.
GETTING SAT DOWN - FIRST IMPRESSIONS
There's still something very comforting about a train that tolls a bell as it arrives, giving rise to thoughts of "Reckon Ahl mosey on down to the train deee-po - sounds lahk the 1.10 from Yuma's a-comin' in" at which point you look around for that spittoon that's never quite well-enough placed.
Unlike our preconceptions of US trains, these coaches are not enormous, well not height-wise at least, an impression which is accentuated by the very high platforms which are very wheel-chair friendly, being at the exact height of the train floor. There goes another preconception out of the window - no climbing in from ground level although the doors can handle that if need be.
As you walk through the door, you may notice the neat ribbed stainless steel cigar tube that you are entering, not unlike a 1930's airliner.
Whilst the low-ish ceiling height might come as a surprise, the width never fails to satisfy. Four generous seats are spread across and there's still room for an aisle wider than in a First Class coach in the UK. By the way, what we call 'coaches' are their 'cars'. 'Coach' relates to the class, like our 2nd Class. Imagine the confusion at King's Cross. "Whaddya mean my 1st Class ticket is only good for Coach 3?"
The whole effect is like a cross between agoraphobia and claustrophobia. On the one hand you've got more legroom than even Club Class on a plane, with elbow room to match, but because of the generous overhead luggage racks, suitable for full-sized suitcases, you also have to mind your head when getting up, just like in a plane. To continue the airline analogy, it's like a narrow-bodied plane at the expensive end!
There's a café car serving hot drinks, cold drinks, sandwiches and salads, which I'm 'glad' to report is well up to British standards and read into that what you will. At least the wider aisles mean it's easier to get back to your seat without getting soup in someone's fly. Half of this car is given over to seats and tables for those who are too clumsy to make it back to their seats.
Incidentally, having a bought a ticket in advance does not get you a seat number - it merely prevents overbooking of the train. If you want to sit as a group, get there early, or pick a slack period. On our return journey, there was a hint that a small percentage of 'over-booking' had taken place but only for the 20 minutes from New York to Newark, after which point some of us got out and solved the problem.
BUYING A TICKET
Our tickets cost us a very reasonable $55 each way, each, i.e. $220 in total. They were booked well in advance on the Amtrak web-site, for which we were given two bar-coded e-mail print-outs. On arrival at Newark Airport station, we inserted these in a machine, which exchanged them for 'proper' tickets rather like an airline or Eurostar ticket.
To see the North East Corridor timetable, you can download this as a pdf file from the www.amtrak.com site, by clicking on the Timetables tab.
THE RIDE - FIVE STATES IN ONE DAY!
OK, not big states, but five nonetheless, these being New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Rhode Island might well be the USA's Rutland but the train still finds three places at which to stop there!
Disappointments? Just a few - for one, the small heavily-tinted windows give the impression that it's a dull day outside, and also make it impossible to scrutinise a slowing train for spare seats as it passes you on the platform. Thus you get in anywhere, and then ply the entire train looking for somewhere to sit which accounts for all the lost souls searching hopefully up and down the train tens of minutes after it has pulled away. As in the UK, the 'airline style' seats do not guarantee you a centrally-placed window. On our return journey, I had no window at all without sitting perched on the edge of my seat.
Whilst we're talking 'windows', right-hand ones on the way to Boston make sense as the train does actually run along beaches at several spots in Connecticut and Rhode Island.
I also found the ride rather choppy in several parts of the journey, and this again harks back to why the Acelas are not the greased lightning they could be. Also the train can't seem to decide whether it's a slow train or a fast rain, there being periods when it never tops 50 mph for half an hour, and then as you near Boston you romp through Rhode Island at up to 125 mph (that's when you're not slowing for Waverly, Kingston or Providence that is).
A lot of this is down to who owns the track. For example, until you get to New Haven CT, the track from New York is owned by a commuter network with overhead wire design dating back to 1935, and little incentive to upgrade the rails to high-speed running. Once AMTRAK is in control of its own track, things improve, or at least, are improving judging by the amount of infrastructure work going on.
Somehow, the generous seating made the more tedious bits of the journey perfectly acceptable, and the stops, all about 15 to 25 minutes apart added interest. Many of the towns along the route still had those traditional large-eaved and dark wood station buildings made famous by B&W pictures of WWII soldiers returning home. The major difference these days is that they all have at least one short section of full-height platform, and anyone getting off at intermediate stops would be well advised to listen to the public address advising them which cars will be in the platform.
For those that really must do this stuff, 3G phone access seemed to be there for the whole journey except maybe the occasional tunnel, and you have power outlets by your seat. The Acelas have free wi-fi but not these trains so you'd be using up your phone's data allowance. I did appreciate the existence of 'Quiet Cars', and more to the point the willingness of American travellers to honour the arrangement. Whenever the train came to a halt, you felt obliged to speak in whispers. Very refreshing.
Speaking of tunnels, don't expect to see anything of Manhattan, since you disappear into a tunnel under the Hudson somewhere near Hoboken NJ, and reappear into constant daylight somewhere in Queens followed rapidly by The Bronx, having 'done Penn Station, NYC' and crossed under the East River too. There's a crew change at Penn Station, so this stop can last anything up to 30 minutes. There's a feeling that you've arrived in Hades during your stopover here, as the platforms are not the brightest lit I've seen anyway, and that's before you factor-in windows better suited to viewing an eclipse.
Once clear of commuter territory around New Haven CT, the scenery opens out, as you pass through mile upon mile of deciduous forest, dotted with clapperboard houses, which must look stunning during a sunny day in The Fall. Spring comes late to these parts so everything still looked very wintry in mid-April as we slid through. Apparently according to mine host in Boston, the last signs of snow had only been gone three weeks.
Never venturing far from the coast, you pass over a lot of river inlets on a variety of interesting bridges, some of which lift when needed. Affluent marinas alternate with ramshackle and rotting wharves and a bit of sea mist rolling in adds to the atmosphere.
MY DEAR, THE PEOPLE!
The rail staff members were a breath of fresh air. The NJ Transit steward on the Newark Airport Station platform put us in a very good mood from the 'get-go' with his open friendly manner and his interest in where we came from, and this goes for all the AMTRAK staff we encountered, ticket inspectors, train guards etc. The café car attendant was a laugh, even if he was a born liar. When asked what he recommended, he returned with "It's all good!" Yeah, right!
Even at the other end in Boston the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transport Administration) ticket office man was very helpful as we booked tickets to Salem despite it being a very heavy Patriot's Day at North Station.
GETTING THERE AT LAST
To be honest towards the end of the five hours, the novelty was wearing off, especially as we crawled through Boston like a ship that's just crossed the Atlantic being piloted up a river to South Station, a terminus where a taxi rank and a week on a houseboat loomed.
Would I take the 'pretty way' to Boston again? Yes, most definitely. Train travel is 'proper' travel, unlike a bloody cattle-class plane, and it seems that a lot of Americans are starting to agree with me.
Go on, you've come this far. You may as well read the next bit!
THE REINING IN OF THE MIGHTY ACELA
Given the length of track between Washington and Boston, we're looking at something very similar to our own West Coast Mainline from Euston to Glasgow. Both have been subject to heavy and recent upgrades without any new-build stretches (which is exactly what the Germans call their high speed lines - Neubaustrecken), and both are now designed for the use of all-electric tilting trains, since both have long winding stretches, ours in the Cumbrian Mountains, theirs snaking through Connecticut and Rhode Island.
(Nerd alert - both with a heavy engineering input from Bombardier and Alsthom and indeed the Acelas do look remarkably like a French TGV at least as they approach)
Unfortunately, having designed the Acelas with a tilt angle of 6-point-something degrees to allow them to take some pretty sharp corners without too much slowing down, someone thought it would be a good idea to make them 4 inches wider to better suit Business Class accommodation. Being now wider in the beam, they stood the risk of impinging on the 'safety envelope' of an oncoming non-tilting train if encountered on a curve. Therefore, their tilt is limited to 66% of what it was designed for, meaning that sharper cornering speeds have had to be lowered. It's not that the trains couldn't handle the corners sitting bolt upright, but the posh passengers might object to having their Vichyssoise splattered all over the window opposite.
Just as with our own WCML, there are long stretches with only one track in each direction, therefore the Acela can only be as fast as the train in front, unless you have very long service intervals. In Britain, we partly solved this by shoving as much freight as possible up the famous Settle & Carlisle route, but not being able to overtake slower traffic has to be an issue for both lines.
Then of course there's the number of stops they make, which is something unheard of in France.
Factor all this stuff together, along with crew changes in Manhattan and you'll see why a 150 mph train can only average around 70-odd mph over 400 miles.
I'm a HUGE fan of Amtrak, which travels the breadth and length of the USA. It doesn't have as many stops as the Greyhound does and therefore it mainly services larger Towns rather than little places.
I travelled from Miami to New York City by Amtrak and it took 33 hours in total but was the most relaxing and chilled out part of my Holiday.
I was able to pick my Seat (make sure you get there early for that!!) and I settled myself in after my Ticket had been checked.
There is a Food Car on Board and it's like a little restaurant - You go in and order whatever you want and then pay for it straight away (don't forget to leave a small tip!!). I can recommend the Key Lime Pie if you're travelling from Florida as it is delicious!!
The Seats are large and comfortable, even for someone of my size (which is quite large).
I suppose the one downside could be that you don't know who you're travelling with so you either have to take all of your belongings with you when you go and eat or you have to trust whoever is sitting next to you - Which is a big ask if you're travelling alone!!
Make sure you take a large Book (or two) and either some CD's or your MP3 Player as there isn't a whole lot to do once you're on Board.
The Tickets can either be bought online (www.amtrak.com) or in person at the Station - I would recommend at least a few days in advance as they quite often have special offers for advance purchase.
I would definitely recommend the Amtrak!!
I like Amtrak, the rail service in the USA.
I chose to travel with them to get from New York to Chicago, a journey, by train, of about 18 hours.
There are two brilliant things that I remember about this journey, and one (serious) negative.
Let me get the negative out of the way first! The food. I was not expecting the food to be brilliant, or to be cheap. It was reasonably cheap, but it was awful! I had a burger and chips, which being from the UK, I expected to be French Fries. They were, of course, what I would call Crisps. Ok, my mistake. Still, I have never had a burger served with Crisps before.
The Crisps were ok. They were ready salted flavour, and they were fresh and crunchy and there was lots of them.
I do not know how to describe the burger. It was vegetarian, but I have no idea what it was made of, so awful was it. If you are going to travel with Amtrak (and you should), then I would bring your own food!
Now, on to the positives!
Firstly, the scenery was amazing, and the train travelled slowly enough that one could appreciate it.
Secondly, the train was very comfortable. I was surprised at how clean it was and at how big the seats were!
A couple of other points that might be useful to someone- there was a power point so that you could plug something in, for example a mobile phone or a laptop computer; secondly the train is staffed (and the staff were polite and helpful); thirdly, there are bathrooms on the train (which were clean to start with but started to smell after a while); fourthly, you can book online (search Google for Amtrak).
One final and important point- I was surprised at how cheap the ticket was- around 100 USD if my memory serves me correctly. That was about fifty pounds at the time.
I've traveled extensively in the USA and Canada by rail, notably during a one month rail trip that formed a complete circle from Montréal to the Pacific and back again. Many segments of that trip, and many other individual trips have been with Amtrak as a 'coach' (seated economy) passenger.
To understand Amtrak you need to understand the rail system in America in general. Amtrak is unlike any European railway system, and subtly different from its nearest comparison, VIA Rail in Canada. Amtrak is technically a private company owned entirely by the government. It owns very little track - just a stretch in the electrified and heavily used 'North-East Corridor' between Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston. Everywhere else, its passenger trains operate over track owned and operated by private freight companies. Although Amtrak has a technical legal right for priority over these lines, extremely patchy political support for long distance train transport and financially driven freight railroads mean that the commonest complaint of Amtrak is that trains are delayed for hours because of freight trains occupying the track ahead.
If Amtrak were every privatised, the cream of the network would be the North-East Corridor, which is served by (relatively) high speed Acela trains. Acela has carved out an increasingly strong business market in the north-east, with downtown-to-downtown travel times that are competitive with the airline shuttles on the same routes. These trains offer only Business class and First class; for coach travel on this route you need to take the slightly slower corridor services that run parallel to Acela.
Elsewhere, Amtrak is a different beast, with a dozen or so notable long distance trains that criss-cross the country. The network is impressive, but it's a pale shadow of what Amtrak once had when the various private passenger railroads were grouped together in the seventies. The economic environment in which Amtrak operates is not favourable, with the organisation finding it hard to fight for money just to maintain service, let alone invest. It is a common perception of rail users that certain politicians don't like giving money to develop rail services, yet will happily plough sums into airport or highway projects.
Long distance trains offer a basic service which can be exceptionally cheap in coach class and reasonably priced in sleeper accommodation. There are different bedroom options depending on the train, from the single level Viewliner car used on routes in and out of New York City, and the ubiquitous double deck Superliner that operates on almost all other long distance routes. Long distance trains feature a restaurant car serving a reasonably priced meal of part-pre-prepared and part-cooked-on-board meals. Some feature an additional lounge car or sightseer car.
Most long-distance routes radiate out from Chicago, which is Amtrak's biggest hub-city. A full printed timetable and system map can be ordered for free online, by phone or collected from a staffed Amtrak station.
For the best fares, tourists should consider Amtrak's range of regional or national rail zones. There are two price scales for these: peak season and off-peak season; the best option being to travel in the beginning and end of the off-peak season when good fares will bring you closest to the best weather and holiday seasons. Sleeper accommodation and meals aren't included in rail passes, but coach accommodation is very comfortable and spacious. Compare Amtrak coach to domestic business class on any American airline and you'll be impressed: big seats recline with footrests and most passengers get reasonable sleep on board. Unlike VIA Rail there are no little luxuries like blankets or amenity kits, so be travel prepared with whatever makes you comfortable for sleeping. If you're used to Greyhound, you'll consider it luxury :)
Other bargain fares, including weekly specials that update every Friday, can be found on Amtrak's website under 'Hot Deals'. These can often be discounted by up to 70% of the regular fare. No sleeper accommodation can be booked online with hot deals, but if there is space left on the train, any coach class passenger is allowed to speak to the conductor of the train to buy an upgrade to sleeper accommodation. Note that sleeper accommodations are sold in fare buckets that get more expensive as they sell out: either book early or hope for availability on board the train, when you can buy your upgrade for the cheapest possible fare.
Amtrak is slow, stations are often inconveniently located and reliability is an issue. But if you're a first time visitor to America or just someone who hasn't explored every corner of your own nation, Amtrak is a brilliant way to travel: inexpensive, comfortable, environmentally friendly and brilliant for sightseeing. Provided you're not on a tight schedule, you can enjoy a much more relaxing trip than by air.
In April 2003 I took a holiday to the good ole US of A to do a coast-to-coast trip, but as I don't drive I was in quite a dilema as to the best way to get around. Really there are three options: Flying - Expensive but fast Greyhound bus - Cheap but very slow Amtrak - Cheap (by UK standards) but still quite slow I chose Amtrak mainly because of the price and the idea I didn't have to sit in a cramped bus seat for my journey. I looked at the Amtrak website, and planned my route which was Washington DC - Charleston WV 9 hours $35 Charleston WV - Chicago IL 12 hours $40 Chicago IL - Reno NV 47 hours! $85 Sacramento CA - San Francisco CA 2 hours $15 So as you can see once I'd paid for my travel with my VISA card i'd sorted out all the travel costs for my trip for just under £100 (at a £1 = $1.5 exchange) Given I was travelling a total of 3500 miles, you can appreciate what great value this is in comparison to UK rail travel. Getting to Washington Union station a huge wonderfully arhitectured building was very simple as unlike airports railway stations tend to be in the heart of Americas citys. Amtrak often offer a checkd baggage service so if you have large items of luggage you can check them as soon as you get to the station, saving you the effort of carrying it and worrying about it while onbaord the train. My first two journies was on the Cardinal viewliner train, this was a single decker train with huge recliner style seats. In fact the seat size was very similar to 1st class on a flight and I had no problem in sleeping in the seat overnight with a blanket and pillow for comfort. If you are getting off at a stop in the early hours of the morning you needn't worry about staying awake as the conductor tags your seat with the station you're leaving at so he'll wake you up before your stop. The onboard staff are
as a rule curtious and friendly, being more than happy to answer any questions I had during the trip. Food and drink is expensive by US standards but not by UK standards, so if you're rtying to save money buy your snacks before you get on the train. The second train ride was on the California Zephyer a double decker superliner train, with seating on the top deck and toilet facilities below. Again the huge reclining seat were very comfortable but 47 hours on the train was a very long time, be prepeared to bring some books/games to keep you occupied for the duration of the journey. The Zephyer also had a lounge/viewing car with huge windows offering great views as we passed through the Rocky mountains. Both trains also had a full dining car offering breakfast and dinner, although I never took a full meal I heard good reports from other travellers on board who did. My final train journey seemed to fly by after the Zephyer ride, again on a superliner train this one being the very modern Capitol Corridor trains. These trains were very modern i'd imagine less than 5 years old and were a joy to ride on. Of course the real beauty of train travel is meeting people and I can guarnatee you'll meet a wide variety of people all travelling Amtrak from one side of the USA to the other. Amtrak do have a reputation for horrific delays at time. but none of my trains were ever more than an hour late. If you require a 'proper' bed to sleep in anight Amtrak do have sleeper cars, these are not cheap however! 1 night in a sleeper on the Zephyer costs $300! If you can make do with sleeping in your seat you'll save yourself a lot of money. So to summerise, if you're travelling long distance in the USA and you are on a budget Amtrak could just be a great way too go. If you're on a sleeper service you'll save yourself a night in a hotel and by uk standards the ticket prices are very cheap. You'll also have plenty of roo
m to yourself something you wouldn't get in a Greyhound. P.S If anyone has any more questions feel free to email me and ask :)