Thoughts on trains while traveling on a train

(Click for captions. Photos: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

(Reporter Taylor Griggs wrote this article while riding Amtrak over the holiday break.)

I started thinking about the way I travel long distances around the same time I started thinking a lot about the way I travel around a city, spurred by realizing how big of an impact transportation has on the environment and our quality of life.

While it would’ve been great to get from LA to the Bay Area in less than three hours, I genuinely loved almost every minute of the 10-hour ride I took along California’s gorgeous coast.

Around the time when the world watched Greta Thunberg sail across the Atlantic rather than take a plane — and right before the pandemic changed traveling completely — I started hearing more discussions about the ethics of traveling via airplane, and I was compelled to start an experiment to push train travel in the United States to its realistic limits, just to see if I could.

There are three Amtrak routes that you can take out of Portland’s Union Station: the Cascades, which you could take up to Vancouver, Canada or down to Eugene; the Coast Starlight, which extends from Seattle to Los Angeles; and the Empire Builder, which can take you all the way to Chicago. This year, as I amped up my goal to push sustainable transit to its limits, I’ve completed my mission to travel almost the entire length of all of the routes that you can hop on in Oregon, plus a few others.

The environmental impact of the aviation industry is somewhat hard to pin down: looking at the statistic that air travel accounts for only about 2.5% of global carbon emissions, you might be inclined to brush it off. But this number is relatively low because globally, only a relatively small number of people fly at all.

But those who fly have a disproportionate impact on carbon emissions. And although it’s unclear how the pandemic will change long-term travel habits, the aviation industry is poised to expand significantly in the coming years, even as climate experts warn of the dangers of growth. And have you seen the recent airport meltdown due to weather and Covid? Yikes!

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Trains, meanwhile, are mostly drama-free. They’re also very efficient forms of passenger vehicle transport, and there’s a lot of potential to make rail even greener. And thanks to a national focus on the relationship between infrastructure and climate change since President Biden’s election, they’ve been getting a lot of attention lately. A well-functioning, robust and fast rail system in the United States has long been a white whale for environmentalists and people passionate about sustainable transit. American train enthusiasts look at high-speed trains zipping through Europe or Japanese and Chinese bullet trains with a mixture of awe and envy, wishing our politicians would designate funds to build similar systems.

Recently, young people have taken over the charge to make the American train — a form of transportation that’s been around since the 19th century — relevant again. With a similar mindset as the anti-freeway youth protestors in Portland, young people across the country are learning about the importance of sustainable transportation planning and promoting high-speed rail as the climate-friendly way to travel.

The United States only has one high-speed rail line, the Amtrak Acela Express, which runs through Boston and Washington, D.C. But due to tracks that haven’t been updated in years, the Acela often doesn’t actually get to its advertised speed of 150 mph. There is a high-speed rail project underway in California that is intended to connect the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles in less than three hours, but it’s been slow going so far: voters passed funding for this project in 2008 and it still hasn’t come to fruition.

High-speed train rides that are as affordable as plane tickets would make taking the train a much more attractive option for people who have places to go and people to see and can’t afford to spend a day or two staring out the window.

But I also think it’s important to point out the benefits of American train travel as it is. While it would’ve been great to get from LA to the Bay Area in less than three hours, I genuinely loved almost every minute of the 10-hour ride I took along California’s gorgeous coast, where I could catch glimpses of surfers from the observatory car. On these long train trips, you’re able to see parts of the country that you can’t see any other way. If you’re only seeing your journey from 30,000 feet in the air or from the highway, you’re missing out on some truly beautiful views.

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On a recent trip I took on the California Zephyr Amtrak route from Emeryville, California to Denver, Colorado we made our way through the Sierra Nevadas with no highway in sight (and no fear of slipping and sliding on the ice) as we watched the snow pile up to eight feet. The next morning, the conductor called everyone into the observation car to see Ruby Canyon, a red sandstone cliff canyon on the border of Utah and Colorado that only advanced Colorado River rafters — and train passengers — are able to see.

As BikePortland has shared, Amtrak trains are often bike-friendly, meaning cyclists can tow their bikes on their journey for a fee of $20 or less (on the Cascades route, it’s $5!). This is a lot less expensive than flying with a bike, and some travelers consider merging bike and train travel for a low-carbon way of getting farther.

“It doesn’t feel great to drive three hours to climb for a day.”
— Brooke Knutson, my outdoorsy friend

I reached out to my friend Brooke Knutson, an avid bike rider and outdoorsy person who has gone on van and self-supported biking trips up and down the West Coast and in Mexico who has used the train to get to a starting-off point, to ask about her experience taking her bike on Amtrak.

“I love traveling by bike. I think it’s the best way to travel,” Knutson says. “It’s made me realize how much you can travel and do things without needing to drive or fly somewhere.”

The experience of seeing the country from the unique vantage point of a train provides an entire new element to a trip, especially for environmentally-conscious people. I think basking in the beauty of places like Glacier National Park, the Sierra Nevadas and the Colorado River canyons is more rewarding when I’m traveling in a less carbon-heavy way.

Knutson says she has started to think more about the outdoor recreational activities she does to make sure she travels in line with her environmental values. This might mean less trips that require lengthy drives into the middle of the rural country, and more train-bike hybrid excursions.

“It doesn’t feel great to drive three hours to climb for a day,” Knutson says. “I want to go places that are accessible by bike.”

In a car-centric country that prioritizes the idea of short-term “personal convenience” at the expense of a habitable planet, I see using alternate means of transportation as a radical act. In most places in the United States, people who bike, walk or take public transit to work instead of driving alone are going against the grain, encouraging cities to build around people instead of cars in the process.

And although taking the train across the country instead of flying might seem drastic, encouraging other people — and the country’s infrastructure at-large — to be more hospitable to this idea could be a gamechanger for the climate and people’s ideas about why we travel in the first place.

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Steve Hash
Steve Hash
5 months ago

I’ve always thought the train would be a great way to travel but have been hesitant due to my perception of Amtrak’s unreliable travel times. Have you found them to be reliable with their schedule?

Eli
Eli
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Hash

Yes, they are unreliable and can run as much as 12-24 hours late in my experience.

When things go wrong, Amtrak can be extraordinarily unprofessional and put passenger safety at risk. They are also surprisingly lax in mask enforcement during the pandemic.

So many people write an article like Taylor’s (you can find hundreds of blog articles like this one, typically from people who take Amtrak once or twice). There’s a reason relatively few people take the train other than, well, ardent railfans, retired people, and people afraid of planes.

adventurepdx
5 months ago
Reply to  Eli

I’ve ridden Amtrak dozens upon dozens of times. I still like it and agree with the sentiment of Taylor’s post. Yes, there are issues with Amtrak. But there are issues with other modes of transportation. Many people have had bad experiences with flying, but still do it.

And the severe delays that used to plague many long-distance Amtrak lines (like the Coast Starlight) don’t happen like they used to. My recent Starlight trip from LA to here was about 3/4 of an hour late. Not perfect, and definitely room for improvement. But when I’m already on a train for over a day, it’s not that big of a deal to me.

soren
soren
5 months ago
Reply to  adventurepdx

They do happen. For example my BEL to SEA Amtrak bus showed up 4 hours late on 12-26 and Amtrak was completely uncommunicative about the fact that my SEA – PDX train connection had already left . I was once again stranded by Amtrak with a canceled ticket and no easy way to get back to Portland. (They also refused to provide me with a ticket for a different return trip because they were completely full.)

Eli
Eli
5 months ago
Reply to  adventurepdx

Side-note: this is taking place right now in Virginia.

https://www.ajc.com/neighborhoods/north-fulton/atlanta-amtrak-passengers-trapped-30-plus-hours-on-train/77QSQTWQDNEW5F7WEC6KCIDR6M/

Lots of people who flew had miserable flights over the holidays. But I’ve never heard of anyone being forced to remain on a plane for 20 hours (and counting) — without access to food or working toilets.

On my Amtrak trips, I’ve paid ~$1000 for a Motel 6-grade sleeping car room that had no hot water the entire 2 day trip. I’ve had coach attendants literally ignore the call light for hours when I felt sick enough that I had difficulty standing up to get food (they were literally napping on the job).

And unlike on airlines, I’ve never once see them confront the unmasked passengers who board, often from rural areas — beyond performative enforcement where they politely ask and do nothing after they’re ignored.

Never again.

Chris I
Chris I
5 months ago
Reply to  Eli

To be fair, hundreds of drivers were stuck on I-95 for over 24 hours during this same weather event, without bathrooms and food (unless they brought their own). Amtrak definitely can do better in situations like this, but these are outliers.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/04/us/i-95-closed-snowstorm-winter.html

Jason McHuff
5 months ago
Reply to  Eli

Remember that Amtrak has been a political football the past half century, as those in Congress have often wanted to end Amtrak or at least not fund it, and therefore the railroad often limps along.

But I will acknowledge that a similar situation happened south of Eugene a while back when (I think) some trees came down and it took time for a rescue engine to be able to get to the train and tow it back to Eugene.

soren
soren
5 months ago
Reply to  Jason McHuff

I commuted on Amtrak 1-2 times a week from SEA to PDX for the better part of a year and I was delayed by 3+ hours on far too many trips. I’m willing to put up with Amtrak because I despise both alternatives but the vast majority of USAnians will not use an inherently unreliable service. Part of the problem is that Amtrak are woefully underfunded and do not own their track but this only underlines the point that it is more of a tourist service than an actual utilitarian transportation system (except for the corridor on the east coast, which was glorious when I lived in NJ).

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago

I’ve been on several trains where the train stopped for 15-30 minutes in a town (usually for refueling or crew changes) and passengers wandered off, never to be seen again by the rest of us, with their baggage still in the rack. In Eugene, in Havre MT, and particularly in Spokane Washington. Always very strange – maybe they thought they were in Europe where another train will arrive in 15 minutes, rather than every 24 hours in the USA.

Watts
Watts
5 months ago

It’s also much easier to social distance on a train than a plane

Planes have excellent air circulation, and despite your proximity to others, they are generally pretty safe from a covid perspective.

Airports, on the other hand…

soren
soren
5 months ago
Reply to  Eli

I’ve used Amtrak cascades many dozens of time and they have stranded me midtrip (with no other travel option provided) on several occasions. It’s definitely not a service for people who have jobs that do not tolerate unexcused absences.

Chris I
Chris I
5 months ago
Reply to  soren

I’m curious to hear details on these incidents. Amtrak typically provides substitute bus in cases of train cancellations. Where did you get stranded, and why was a bus not provided?

soren (sorin)
soren (sorin)
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

Bellingham to PDX was the most recent disaster. The Bus was 4 hours late and Amtrak was impossible to reach with absolutely no communication about delays. The Bus driver was willing to let everyone board even though he did not know if the connections would wait. Based on previous experiences with Amtrak, I insisted that he call King Station to find out if the connection was possible. It took 20 mins of me standing out in -10 degree windchill and refusing to board for the Bus driver to relent and call King Station (the driver was struggling to accommodate a disabled passenger during this wait). King station originally stated that Portland-bound passengers would have a bus waiting but at the last minute they called him back and stated that all Portland-bound tickets were cancelled. All 12 Portland-bound passengers disembarked and struggled to find transportaion to temporary accomodation (a relative’s home in my case). I later heard from one of the other passengers whose relative was connecting to the Empire Builder that the other connection had been canceled leaving people who boarded the bus stranded in Seattle.

I should note that Amtrak’s weird “Trevor” phone line did not connect despite repeated calls that evening. I finally managed to get through the next day (after multiple calls) and Amtrak’s agent refused to believe that the trip had been “cancelled” (stated that “they don’t have the authority to do that”). It took me several escalations to even get Amtrak to refund my ticket.

I hate Amtrak but I loathe SUVs/trucks/(cars) with every fiber of my being so I will always choose Amtrak over a @#$%ing cage (if I have a choice).

PS: Every single Amtrak bus driver during this pandemic has worn their @#$%ing mask below their nose.

thielges
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

It happened to me on a journey to Yosemite. A wildfire had closed the highway between Merced and Yosemite where the Amtrak bus normally transfer passengers from rail to the park. But there were other roads open to Yosemite, including one connecting to a different Amtrak station. The conductor informed Yosemite bound passengers that they should disembark at Modesto instead and find their way on the ground to Yosemite because Highway 120 was unaffected by the fire. The conductor also helpfully introduced the Yosemite-bound passengers to each other so they could coordinate and share transportation.

While it was great that the onboard conductor helped as much as he could, Amtrak California (the organization) on the other hand really fell down on the job. Amtrak could have simply re-routed the normal Merced->Yosemite bus to use the Modesto->Yosemite route. That rerouting would have made the trip seamless. While that bus ride is a few minutes longer, it would have saved the passengers considerable time and money arranging their own transportation to complete that trip. My little ad-hoc group tried three times to find an adequate taxi and spent nearly $300 split 5 ways on that trip.

Amtrak seems to be a mix of employees who really care about delivering the product their customers have purchased and those who could care less. While the wildfire was certainly out of Amtrak’s control, they had an easy remedy available that they chose not to use and instead dumped a costly and inconvenient solution on their customers.

Serenity
Serenity
5 months ago
Reply to  soren

I used to take Amtrak to travel between San Diego when I lived down there, but those trips were only a few hours…that was over 20 years ago. It’s probably not quite the same.

lastcamp2
lastcamp2
5 months ago
Reply to  Eli

The most common reason for delay is priority being given to freight trains, even though it is against the law. The dispatch us usually done by the freight companies that own the tracks, and they defy the regulations with impunity.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  lastcamp2

I’m just curious where you’ve seen regulations in the USA that require Amtrak passenger trains to have priority on commercial track not owned by Amtrak. Most railroad companies prioritize freight by value per weight (tariff rates), the highest being packages from FedEx, UPS, postal service, and so on, followed by “live lumber” on Amtrak, then military equipment, machinery, and so on down to hauling rocks to build and repair tracks is near the bottom, just below coal.

BNSF owns all their track, even the mineral rights under it, but they are required by law and custom to share certain links of their track with UP and other companies including Amtrak, at set rates that are renegotiated periodically. Same with UP, CSX, NS, CP, CN, Amtrak (who owns the NE Corridor), and all other railroad companies including the numerous short lines.

Not all lines are double-track – single track lines are effectively one-way streets for many hours and hundreds of miles every day. I do know the freight railroads use the package and passenger trains to free up long sections of single-track by moving them to sidings, then letting a bunch of opposite direction trains to pass through on the single track, then using the faster Amtrak train to lead a bunch of other train sets in the other direction. It’s a bit like when a two-way road is temporarily reduced to one lane, with flaggers at each end.

Chris I
Chris I
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Hash

We’ve been taking the Cascades to Seattle for years, and have found it to be mostly reliable. Within 30 minutes of “on-time” every trip, except for one that got us into Seattle about an hour late. We also had a train get cancelled once due to mudslides, but they substituted a bus and it got us in to PDX “early”.

Our longest delay was a late winter trip on the Empire Builder a few years back. We were staying at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, MT. Highly recommended if you are in to XC skiing. You hop on the train in Portland with your skis and wake up in Montana, right next to Glacier NP. They have 20 miles of groomed XC trails right outside the hotel (or you can stay in a caboose and ski right from your door). At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. The inbound train hit a blizzard and arrived into Portland 10 hours late. They turned it around and we departed PDX 5 hours late (10pm, so not too bad since they gave us a heads up). I wake up the next morning and look outside, and we are still in Spokane at 6am. Turns out the other half of the train had issues coming over Stevens Pass from Seattle and was 5 hours behind us. So we got to spend a cold morning walking around downtown Spokane while we waited. They linked up the trains and we got to enjoy the Idaho Panhandle and all of western Montana in the daylight (an area you normally don’t see because the train travels at night). So we did get to Essex 10 hours late… you definitely need to be flexible. I would still recommend it.

Anne
Anne
5 months ago

A few friends have taken the Empire Builder to/from Glacier and it worked out great for them.

Watts
Watts
5 months ago

I think that changing the culture of travel generally to be more about the journey would allow for this flexibility.

Maybe, but you don’t need such flexibility in Europe, Japan, or Australia (where I have found train travel to be reliable). Except perhaps in France where striking is the national pastime.

The problem is not with train travel, but with Amtrak.

soren (sorin)
soren (sorin)
5 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I agree but would modify your closing statement:

The problem is not with train travel or Amtrak but with ‘murrican “drown government in the bathtub” market fundamentalism

Serenity
Serenity
5 months ago
Reply to  soren (sorin)

I’d say it’s both.

Brendan P
Brendan P
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Hash

I’ve ridden the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland, the Cascades from Portland to Eugene, and also from Portland to Seattle (both with return to Portland, and also the Coast Starlight from Portland to Sacramento (but too young to really give any insight other than having a great time, lol).
I will tell you that on all of these trips I’ve experienced delays due to various factors (but mostly pull overs for freight train prioritization)

***note these times and prices are all 1 way – NOT ROUND TRIP***

Empire Builder; Chicago to Portland: listed trip length 45 – 58 hrs $151 (driving 31hrs $306; flying 3hrs 40min $170) The highlight of this route is Glacier National Park. However, I experienced severe delays due to blizzard in North Dakota (not an anomaly) which reduced train speed to 12 miles an hour. This meant that I made it to Portland in 64 hours.

Cascades to Eugene; listed trip length 2 hrs 45 min $26 (driving 1hr 51min $13; flying 28min [but you likely never will as direct flights are not marketed]) – this route mostly is great but had some pullovers due to freight train priority. 2 hrs and 45 min is pretty accurate.

Cascades to Seattle; listed trip length 3 hrs 33 min $37 (driving 2hr 59min $27; flying 50 min $68) – this route has steadily improved and has less and less conflicts with freight and very close to driving but with more comfort and less stress.

What we can see is that the transport options, times, and prices are such that the cost per time is stacked in the favor of airlines in a dramatic way. If maybe there was more subsidy to rail than this would all change.

Clearly, I would rather ride the train from Chicago to Portland than drive – its cost alone is half – while the time is within the realm of being acceptable as I won’t have to pull to the side of the road to sleep or pay for a motel. However, its undeniable that air travel is going to be an absolute winner here as taking 2 plus days to get to another location is pretty unacceptable in modern times and will drain your limited vacation bank.

For Eugene, the train is a great choice. Decent price compared to driving and if you are a student at UO or an Alumni coming back for a game it really should be hyped and discounted.

For Seattle, the pricing of the train is pretty competitive – the twist here is that the flight is also really attractive at $31 more for a time reduction of 163 mins [ovbs you land at seatac and have to use link light rail [43 min] so savings is still 2 hours (163-43 = 120 min)]

Trains are great and should be subsidized to the degree other modes of transit are. From a consumer standpoint, it’s always a debate between convenience and cost so pushing environmentally friendly items to be cost competitive is a must.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  Brendan P

I love your analysis, I have no disagreement about it, but what is the formula you are using to calculate car-driving costs? Are you including downtown or airport car parking costs for each mode, and time in trying to find parking? Time passing through Homeland Security at the airport?

Chris I
Chris I
5 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

He’s just using gas, so it isn’t correct. Even an economical car (fuel efficient, no car loan, reliable brand) will cost about $0.25 per mile for gas, maintenance, depreciation. That puts Seattle more in the $40-$50 range. The train will be cheaper for nearly any single driver, and the equation is about even for two people.

Oh, and good luck finding $68 fares to Seatac unless you are buying well in advance. And a “50 minute” flight to Seattle dumps you an hour south of downtown. Flying to Seattle is not competitive, unless you are connecting to another flight at Seatac anyway.

lastcamp2
lastcamp2
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Hash

One can quickly ask how reliable airplane schedules are. Flight delays are as common as dirt.
I have done all of my long distance travel by train since 2000, and would do more short distance travel if rail were accessible. I love train travel.

Eric
Eric
5 months ago

Love this post!

Anne
Anne
5 months ago
Reply to  Eric

Me too.

X
X
5 months ago

I considered a train trip to the Midwest last fall but the onset of the Delta variant and the possibile vulnerability of my relatives led me to postpone it.

In your photos at least some people are masked, and the number of people in the observation car seems typical of what I’ve seen before. Your story is not about COVID but do you have any thoughts about train travel during a pandemic? The trains do seem pretty well ventilated.

Onee thing I like about trains is the passing conversations with seat mates and people in the dining car. This gives me pause since I can’t afford a compartment and of course would have no idea what tack other people are taking toward possible infection. Even vaccinated, I would have to test and camp out for five days before visiting because risks that I might accept for myself are possibly devastating for other people.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago

I’ve made 5 round-trips during the pandemic, including once on a sleeper. If you take a sleeper, you don’t have to mask within your sleeper, but you do pretty much everywhere else, including the platform and stations. The main advantage of sleepers is not only privacy and hot water (showers even!) but all the food is free. Enforcement on some trains is super strict, on others not so much. I avoid traveling during holidays as the trains are exceptionally crowded, and exceptionally delayed – I dare say that most complaints are from journeys during the holidays or during spring break. On the less busy trains, most passengers are separated from each other by a seat and the air cleaning system on the train works far better than the one in your car.

FullLaneFemme
5 months ago

I disagree about train travel being drama free. I often hear of delayed Amtrak trains and experienced it during a trip from Little Rock to Chicago. My train was 5 hours late. Sure there have been worse delays in the history of travel but the train trip was already 3-4x longer compared to air travel.
I really want passenger rail to be a positive and convenient option for people living or visiting the USA but I just don’t see it happening in my lifetime. I’ll continue trying to use Amtrak in place of flying as much as possible but I wish it didn’t mean resigning myself to super slow and delayed train travel. I’m lucky that in this stage of my life I have the kind of work life where I can take a long train trip and it be no big deal but we know it’s common for workers in the USA to have limited vacation time.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  FullLaneFemme

I’ve taken well over a hundred Amtrak trips since 1982. Trust me when I say the service has vastly improved over the years and that even most of my long-distance trips have arrived more or less on time, particularly into Chicago for my connections, around a 95% on-time rate drama-free.

That said, I’ve had some of the horror trips. I’ve been on both the Cascades and the Carolinian when the train hit a person walking on the tracks – it takes a full mile for a speeding train to stop – and then there is a delay as police do their investigations and the mile-separated parts of the body are collected. On the Coast Starlight we hit a semi-trailer when a driver tried to go around the gates just outside Salem – the truck driver was able to walk away from his flipped cab, but we had to wait 9 hours for a replacement engine as both of ours had their brakes destroyed by stopping so quickly. On an Empire Builder an elderly Alzheimer patient exited the train out back as it was moving at 65 mph during the dead of night – her being missing was only discovered 4 hours later at Saint Paul when her relatives came to pick her up – we were ultimately 12 hours late into Chicago.

There are delay pluses too: Free meals on delayed trips; rerouting through strange tracks when tunnels are closed; seeing a section of track in daylight when it is normally dark due to delays (as someone else has already mentioned); being mooned repeatedly on the rated R track through the Colorado whitewater rafting sections; being flashed by a young woman in her bikini near Oregon City; seeing the smiles and waves of train watchers in small towns all over the country; and seeing the backside and back yards of the whole nation, the part you can’t see from the air or the highway. It’s also a useful topic of conversation in the diner car, where everyone is seated communally (no one gets their own table on Amtrak – you will meet and talk with strangers in the diner whether you like it or not).

Jason McHuff
5 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Overall, taking the train is an adventure, and even if you are hours late, you’re not squished in a small seat on a plane.

Just remember that Amtrak has been a political football the past half century, as those in Congress have often wanted to end Amtrak or at least not fund it, and set your expectations appropriately. Bring a radio scanner so you can know what’s actually happening.

Anne
Anne
5 months ago
Reply to  Jason McHuff

Being able to get up and walk around is a HUGE advantage over flying.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  Jason McHuff

Probably the reason it’s never gone under is there’s a surprising number of small-state Republican senators who support the unprofitable continental trains passing through their states using federal gas tax revenue. For many small towns it’s the only non-highway link they have with the outside world. Montana and NC both have state-owned freight railroads (not at all socialist, oh no…), while many states (including ND, MN, VA, NC, SC, OR, WA, CA, MD, etc) directly subsidize passenger rail service in their states. Here in Republican NC, the state railroad division of NCDOT is working on implementing a new line from “mountainous” Asheville to coastal New Bern entirely on state-owned track.

Anne
Anne
5 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

We also got mooned on the Colorado whitewater sections. We got a good laugh out of it.

Shared tables in the dining car has been a highlight on nearly all of my many Amtrak trips.

Lisa Caballero (Southwest Correspondent)
Editor
Reply to  David Hampsten

Thanks for mentioning meeting other people. 15 years ago, travelling with my 10-year old son on the Starlight to SF, I met the most remarkable man. A Christian, born and bred Jew from Brooklyn, who was befriending and helping every person in need on the train. He ended up giving my son a stern lecture about the importance of condoms. Meeting him was a profound experience. Well worth the sleepless night I spent in back of the woman without a place to live, and her three children who were up all night. Emulating the Christian, my son and I played with, and read to her young son, just to give the exhausted woman a hand. In gratitude, the boy wanted to give my son one of his few possessions—a single purple lego. My son started to refuse it (we both knew he had thousands of legos at home) but I pointed out that he didn’t have a purple one, and thanked the little boy for his gift.

That doesn’t happen in airplanes.

X
X
5 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

…seeing the backside and back yards of the whole nation…

Some backsides are more worth seeing than others! The side that the US turns to the tracks is often kind of scrappy, as in disused farm equipment, brownfields, closed factories and scrapyards. Graffiti is abundant in the entire range from blight to high art. Farms run a similar gamut from CAFOs to pastoral and then a little bit of dustbowl pathos.

Scrap and all, I want the window seat!

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago

Bikes are free as long as your journey begins and ends within North Carolina, but you still need a reservation for your bike.

alicia johnson
alicia johnson
5 months ago

it isn’t amtrak or in the west coast – but the rail runner train service in new mexico is awesome – the line doesn’t share with freight so trains are predictably on time and super pleasant. if anyone is headed to NM i recommend trying it out

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  alicia johnson

There is a similar passenger train on Vancouver Island, very scenic and no freight traffic, from Victoria to Comax.

Chris
Chris
5 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

I think that line has stopped running. I looked into VIA rail options just before covid and nothing popped up on Vancouver Island.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris

Bummer! Another service I was lucky to use before it closed. It looks like parts of the line are being converted to a rail-trail.

Serenity
Serenity
5 months ago

As BikePortland has shared, Amtrak trains are often bike-friendly, meaning cyclists can tow their bikes on their journey for a fee of $20 or less

Yeah? Ask them about trikes.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  Serenity

Tandems need to be boxed up, probably trikes too. If you can’t lift your own eBike, they won’t haul it either.

Chris I
Chris I
5 months ago
Reply to  Serenity

A trike is not a bike.

Serenity
Serenity
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris I

No, a trike isn’t a bike. However, Trimet says it is “a bicycle with more than two wheels.” I don’t know what Amtrak says a trike is. I know a few people on the recumbent tricycle groups were trying to work with Amtrak to get them to allow trikes.

Anne
Anne
5 months ago

I have taken many Amtrak trips over the years – from 2 hours to 2 days+ (Empire Builder to Chicago and California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville). Many of those trips have been 18-20 hours. Experiences have varied from trip to trip, but have been mostly positive.

When I took the California Zephyr in 2019, we had a few freight-related delays in the eastern half of the trip but made up time in sparsely populated areas and arrived within 30 minutes of our scheduled arrival. One Empire Builder trip had an interruption due to large scale flooding in Wisconsin. They arranged a very efficient transfer to buses when we arrived in St. Paul, MN, with Chicago passengers going to 2 buses, passengers for local stops in MN and central WI to other buses, and passengers to stops from central WI to north of Chicago to other buses. We arrived in Chicago pretty much on time – impressive, considering rush hour traffic approaching Chicago.

I’ve taken the Lakeshore Limited many times between Chicago and Boston, as well as various NY destinations. That has varied from right on schedule to 1-3 hours late. I’ve also taken the California Zephyr between Chicago and Denver several times – right on time to 1-3 hours late.

Dining car meals have generally been good and most of the people were pleasant. I greatly prefer Amtrak to the “flying bus” experience that air travel has been in recent years.

TakeTheLane
TakeTheLane
5 months ago

Do they have special (hanging?) racks for traditional bikes or do they toss them into a luggage space with the other luggage?

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  TakeTheLane

It varies quite a bit. Most long-distance trains that have baggage cars have hooks for the baggage car attendants or conductor to hang traditional bikes as you hand it up to them. I believe it’s the same on the Cascades. All the trains on the super busy NE Corridor do not have baggage cars any longer (as of Oct 1 2021) and so you the bike passenger not only has to pay $20 to have your bike transported, but you yourself must load the bike into you passenger car to put it on a hook, typically without the front wheel, while other passengers are getting on too; up the steep steps, around a sharp corner, down a narrow corridor, then the reverse getting off at your destination. Don’t forget your panniers. It ain’t light rail, it’s hell. If your train still has a baggage car and your origin and destination stations handle checked baggage, you still have the option of boxing your bicycle.

Caleb
Caleb
5 months ago
Reply to  TakeTheLane

I’ve only ridden the Empire Builder (twice between PDX and FAR, once between MSP and CHI) and the City of New Orleans (once from NOL to CHI), all within 2008-2013. Each time I had to box my bike (and once three bikes), but aside from a time I bought one of Amtrak’s boxes, I didn’t have to pay anything, since they were all included in the checked baggage allowance.

galen
galen
5 months ago

FYI, the article describing the cost of flying with a bike is over a decade old. In the past few years, many of the major airlines have reduced their fees. For example, Alaska treats bicycles like standard checked luggage. There is no oversize fee. In contrast, on a trip to NH last summer, Southwest charged $75 (one way) for my bike which was packed in an Aircaddy box.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  galen

Amtrak currently charges $20 per segment. For example, if you are traveling PDX to WAS on one ticket, the bike charge is $40 total: $20 PDX to CHI + $20 CHI to WAS. As Caleb correctly relates above, it used to be free or nearly free, $5 to $15 for the box but free after that, and if you used your own box from the Bike Gallery dumpster, totally free as long as you didn’t have much other baggage. The current charge structure began in 2015-16 towards the end of the Obama administration when taking your bike with you suddenly got a lot more popular.

StephenH
StephenH
5 months ago
Reply to  galen

Most airlines consider bikes as just checked baggage now. Granted you have to pack your bike.

Lenny Anderson
Lenny Anderson
5 months ago

Thanks Taylor for stirring up a lot of rail travel memories. Paul Theroux can supply plenty to those of you who feel left out! I really enjoyed the old Pioneer along the OR side up the Gorge before it was discontinued. Not too long ago I heard some rumbling about getting it started again. Unlike the Empire Builder on the WA side, the Pioneer left in the AM so one could enjoy a day in the Gorge and hope the PM train back to PDX!
Couple of stories I would like BikePortland to follow up:
WSDOT’s efforts to get the Seattle/PDX trip down to 3 hours or less…that would complete with air travel which includes ground transport, security, check in, etc.
ODOT’s efforts to double track the UP line between Albany and Eugene…I think that is where a lot of delays occur. Can they get Eugene to PDX down to 2 hours?
You might reach out to Jim Howell at AORTA…Assoc. of OR Rail Transit ?? He’ll know the latest or get you in touch with someone who knows. HSR as in High Speed Rail is a long way off, but HighER Speed Rail is within reach between Eugene and Seattle.

StephenH
StephenH
5 months ago

After having traveled on trains in Japan, Korea and Europe, Amtrak is a huge disappointment. It is too expensive (almost as expensive as air travel), slow, and routes are spotty. For example, to get from Portland to Vancouver took 3 extra hours and went by bus for lots of it. The only reason to use Amtrak is nostalgia.

Also, the carbon footprint may not be true either. These are big heavy diesel equipment and not full. A full plane is more efficient than car for long haul; and electric vehicle is going to beat a train for short haul.

adventurepdx
5 months ago
Reply to  StephenH

I agree that America’s rail network can be disappointing compared to other parts of the world. I strongly disagree that the only reason to use Amtrak is “nostalgia”. Sure, it can be a reason. But I’d rather take the train to Seattle than drive or fly. It may be a bit faster to drive (though not if you’re going to hit Seattle metro during rush hour) but I hate driving I-5. I’m guessing a lot of other people hate it, too. Then there’s the other little things about driving, like traffic in Seattle and parking. I’d rather not worry about that kind of stuff, just get off at King Street Station and ride my bike or take transit.

As for the “bus to Vancouver”, yeah, depending on when you want to go, the only option is a bus between Seattle and Vancouver. But there is (or was) one daily connection via train from Portland to Vancouver. It is true that it is not as fast as driving (well, so long as it’s smooth sailing and no backup at Peace Arch) and a lot of the slowness is due to the circuitous route when it crosses the border and limited speeds in Canada. But there is a train connection.

I’d love to see a link to back up your claim that an electric car is more efficient than a train for the “short haul”.

soren (sorin)
soren (sorin)
5 months ago
Reply to  adventurepdx

69 gC02e/km per passenger for a diesel train with a European load factor (Amtrak cascades likely has a lower load factor)
comment image

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263145479_Are_Railways_Climate_Friendly

70 gCO2e/km for 1 passenger in an EV using the NW grid (1.6 km/mile)comment image

https://evtool.ucsusa.org/#z/97214/_/_/_

It seems that an EV trip with more than one passenger is more efficient than a diesel train trip (at least using the NW power grid).

PS: Thanks for asking for these numbers! I should consider replacing some of our multi-passenger Amtrak cascades trips with trips using my used Leaf (recently upgraded with a recycled 62 kwh battery).

adventurepdx
5 months ago
Reply to  soren (sorin)

Suit yourself. For me, it’s not about whether a Leaf, new or used, is “more efficient” than the train. It’s about the driving itself (which I don’t care for), all the things to think about when getting in a city with a car (parking, traffic, etc.), plus “unsustainable land use like highways and parking lots” as Taylor mentions.

soren (sorin)
soren (sorin)
5 months ago
Reply to  adventurepdx

If it’s easy for me to emit less GHGs and air toxics (diesel is particularly bad) then I will at least consider it. Not for you or for society as a whole but only for my own mental health.

“unsustainable land use like highways and parking lots”

I think the only moral path forward is to remove highways and parking on a grand scale but I’m surrounded by Portland progressives who want to establish free market pricing schemes to make driving and parking more “efficient”.

Watts
Watts
5 months ago
Reply to  soren (sorin)

I should consider replacing some of our multi-passenger Amtrak cascades trips with trips using my used Leaf (recently upgraded with a recycled 62 kwh battery).

No, you shouldn’t.

If you take the train, your emissions will be pretty close to 0 because it’s going, with or without you, and will emit pretty much the same either way. If you drive, all your emissions are new emissions that you could have avoided by getting on that train.

The “average CO2 cost per passenger” analysis is not really appropriate for evaluating individual travel options. It leads to faulty decision making, as you’ve illustrated here.

soren (sorin)
soren (sorin)
5 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I clearly stated that I would take the train alone so it’s bizarre to see you arguing the opposite.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
5 months ago
Reply to  Watts

“If you take the train, your emissions will be pretty close to 0 because it’s going, with or without you, and will emit pretty much the same either way.”

The same logic can be used for flying or for public buses. Most flights will fly even if they are not full. True, airlines will suddenly cancel flights if they don’t have enough passengers, or crew, or planes, but I’ve flown on planes that were only a quarter full as I’m sure you have too, and since that plane was going to fly anyway, the effective new emissions generated by my flying was zero.

The bus that JM “claims” nearly hit him downtown had only 5 passengers on it, but it still has a schedule to follow and will travel whether it has no passengers or 40 passengers, barring incidental corking bicyclists, and so it’s net extra emissions are effectively zero.

soren (sorin)
soren (sorin)
5 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

I was trying to be diplomatic by not pointing out that Amtrak cascades typically runs at 5-30% occupancy except for Holidays.

The GHG emission numbers actually suggest we should abandon trains if we are not willing to 1) minimally fund them and provide minimal levels of service, 2) make them competitive with the bloody cage via incentives and cage-use disincentives and 3) electrify them. To be brutally honest, our current train system with the exception of the NE corridor is a vanity project that caters to tourists, train-fans, and the odd eccentric left-winger (me).

adventurepdx
5 months ago
Reply to  soren (sorin)

5-30%? Maybe during the last two years of COVID. And the Portland-Eugene run is on the lighter side. But I’ve taken numerous Portland-Seattle trips over the past twenty years, rarely on the holidays, and it was always pretty full. Maybe not 100% full, but I’d say more towards 75%. I was usually a single passenger, and it was very, very rare that I didn’t sit with someone else.

soren (sorin)
soren (sorin)
5 months ago
Reply to  adventurepdx

Mon the 10th:comment image
Tues the 11th:comment image

adventurepdx
5 months ago
Reply to  soren (sorin)

So you’re using a two day sample, as Omicron is nearing its peak and people are being told to not travel, as your proof?

I don’t think that’s how statistics work.

We get it, Soren. You don’t like Amtrak.

Steve C
Steve C
5 months ago
Reply to  soren (sorin)

Don’t know if this changes your personal calculations or is reflected in Amtrak’s booking UI, but Amtrak Cascade has been running a 50% max capacity due to covid.

But to support your point, per train ridership is close to pre covid levels. It seems pretty normal to have 100-150 riders on a train that theoretically could (without covid rules) hold ~300 passengers. It’s just that the number of trains has been reduced from 14 trips to 2 per day.

I believe they can, with enough lead time, add or subtract a few cars to trains. And they have recently added new cleaner “tier 4” Siemens Charger locomotives. It would be super interesting to know emissions for a PDX to SEA trip for a 50% passenger load. I suspect it would be different from the UK average, but maybe not. It’s really hard to say if EV carpooling is better than the train if you don’t have specific emissions data for the train trip too.

https://www.aawa.us/news/posts/ridership-on-amtrak-cascades-returning-to-pre-pandemic-levels/

soren (sorin)
soren (sorin)
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve C

It would almost certainly be higher than the UK average given that ~40% of lines are electrified there (and most are slated for electrification; albeit at a morally-repugnant slow pace).

I may dislike Amtrak’s customer service but I suspect I’ve ridden Amtrak Cacades more than anyone on this thread. And despite all of my difficulties with Amtrak, I will continue to use this line (most of my trips are alone because my partner said “never again” many years ago). However, I am under no illusion than Amtrak’s diesel-spewing trains are a good option from a climate crisis perspective. In fact, these trains are like EV carpooling, a lesser evil.

Dan Kacerovskis
Dan Kacerovskis
5 months ago

Great idea to utilize a train for biking demarcation. I hope the Rail Baltica project offers this service when it is completed. This will provide easy accessibility to Europe and the Baltic states for bike trips. Keep up the interesting writing!

jesiah
5 months ago

Great article! I’ve been a huge proponent of bike-by-train for the last several years. Did a 18-city around the US on bike & Rail Pass three years ago, and it was incredible! Highly suggest.
To every complaint: thank you for agreeing that the way forward is to expand funding and services to bring all of US passenger rail service up to snuff for a supposedly “developed” country.

Alon
Alon
5 months ago

Thank you for the article.
As someone who travelled hundreds of times on the Eugene-Portland and Davis (California) to Berkeley and SF, I have experienced many kinds of delays, with the most unusual a train carrying circus animals (wish they were free) getting stuck over the Willamette river.
Still, it is wonderful to travel on the train, for all the reasons mentioned here by the author and readers and also for teaching us that there is a minute and then there is an Amtrak minute, that time when travelling by Amtrak is indeed a river which sometimes has no banks, and for teaching patience.
In 2008 I voted for a bond to support a speedy train between LA and SF. It was passed by the voters and was expected to be completed by 2020 but as far as I know the first nail has yet to be pounded. May train travel in the USA expand and grow and pronto!
A good 2022- health and joy, peace and justice.
Alon Raab
KBOO Radio Bike Show co-host

thielges
5 months ago
Reply to  Alon

“…was expected to be completed by 2020 but as far as I know the first nail has yet to be pounded. “

I presume you are talking about the California HSR project. While it has been delayed (mostly by politics), many nails have been pounded already.

https://cal.streetsblog.org/2021/10/06/eyes-on-the-viaducts-streetsblog-tours-under-construction-ca-high-speed-rail/

Alon
Alon
5 months ago
Reply to  thielges

Thank you for the good news! May we soon be able to travel on that line and many others.