Traveling by train – know your train travel rights. Learn the ins-and-outs of train travel AND how to complain for the best service.
by Malcolm Kenton
This train travel rights section is specific to the United States, but its lessons are generally applicable in other countries as well.
Primer on US train operations
Amtrak (a short name for and registered service mark of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, a quasi-governmental company formed by an act of Congress in 1970 that took over operation of passenger trains from private railroads in 1971) is—for now, at least—the US’s sole operator of intercity passenger train service. Most of Amtrak’s trains operate on tracks owned by private freight railroads whose predecessors relinquished their common carrier obligation to carry passengers to Amtrak in 1970 in eagerness to be relieved of the burden of running unprofitable services. Amtrak does, however, own most of its busiest corridor—the Washington-New York-Boston Northeast Corridor—as well as a stretch of track in southwest Michigan.
The Northeast Corridor
Amtrak runs frequent service (several departures each hour for most of the day) along the Northeast Corridor with two types of trains: Northeast Regionals and Acela Express. Northeast Regionals consist of 1970s-built Amfleet equipment, make more stops, and travel at top speeds of 125 mph. Acela Express trains are made up of more modern equipment built in 2000, have larger windows, and travel at top speeds of 135 to 150 mph. Acela Express travel time is as much as 45 minutes shorter than Northeast Regional between Washington and New York, and 1 hour and 15 minutes shorter between New York and Boston.
Acela Express fares are generally at least $100 higher than for Northeast Regionals for the same city pair on the same date, and discounts cannot be as readily applied to Acela fares as to Regional fares.
Acelas offer two classes of service: Business Class and First Class. First Class fares are at least $100 higher than Business Class and includes a designated coach with 2-and-1 seating with a full at-seat meal service and unlimited beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) included.
Regionals offer Reserved Coach and Business Class seating, with Business Class offering a designated coach with slightly more legroom and more comfortable seats (2-and-2 or 2-and-1 seating) and a complimentary non-alcoholic beverages from the cafe car. Both Acelas and Regionals have cafe cars serving sandwiches, snacks and other assorted items.
Amtrak short-distance routes
All shorter-distance routes outside the Northeast Corridor are operated at the behest of, and subsidized by, the state governments of the states through which they travel. These are called state-supported routes. These routes range in length from under 100 miles to a maximum of 750 miles, and range in frequency from hourly departures (on California’s Los Angeles-San Diego Pacific Surfliners and San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento Capitol Corridor) to one train daily in each direction.
Short-distance routes include the three routes that cross the US-Canada border. The majority of these routes are similar to Northeast Regionals and offer Reserved Coach and Business Class service. Business Class offers a designated coach with slightly more legroom and more comfortable seats (2-and-2 or 2-and-1 seating) and complimentary non-alcoholic beverages from the cafe car.
Some of the better-known train lines with somewhat different passenger services are:
- Pacific Surfliners: Coaches are unreserved, while Business Class is reserved. There is one car designated as Business Class in each consist, but there is no assigned seating.
- Capitol Corridor: All seats are unreserved coach
- Amtrak Cascades (Eugene, OR-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver, BC): Unique Talgo equipment with seats pre-assigned at large stations in all classes and a Bistro car featuring regional fare
- Hiawathas (Chicago-Milwaukee): All unreserved coach; no food service
- Hoosier State (Chicago-Indianapolis): Unique refurbished 1960s-built equipment provided by an independent contractor; a full-service dining car is available; Business Class passengers are seated in a dome car and served a full meal with unlimited beverages at their seats. The Hoosier State only operates four days a week.
- Downeaster (Boston-Portland-Brunswick, ME): Cafe car operated by independent contractor offering regional specialties.
- Piedmont (Raleigh-Charlotte, NC): Unique state-owned refurbished 1960s-built equipment; all reserved coach; lounge car offering complimentary coffee and bottled water and snacks & soft drinks from vending machines.
Amtrak also operates 15 long-distance routes (over 750 miles in length). All but one of these routes (the New York-Savannah Palmetto) run overnight for at least one night and offer sleeping car accommodations in addition to reserved coach seating, and all but two feature a full-service dining car as well as a cafe similar to those on Northeast Regionals. The two exceptions are the New York-Miami Silver Star, which has only a cafe car, and the Palmetto, which has only a cafe car and Business Class seating in place of sleeping accommodations. Two routes, the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight and Chicago-New York (via Cincinnati and Washington) Cardinal, also offer Business Class seating as well as sleeping cars. In addition, for most of the year — usually during the spring, summer and fall months — the Coast Starlight includes a Pacific Parlour Car for the exclusive use of sleeping car passengers.
There are two basic levels of sleeping car accommodation: Roomette and Bedroom. Both provide a private room with turn-down service by an attendant, and the accommodation charge (addition to the rail fare) includes breakfast, lunch and dinner service in the dining car for all occupants of the room (with the exception of alcoholic beverages and tips). Roomettes are small and feature two facing seats during the day that slide together to form a bunk at night. There is a fold-down upper berth for a second occupant, and feature a couch that becomes a wide bed at night. There is also an upper berth that folds down from the wall, plus a private sink and toilet/shower compartment.
All long-distance routes operate once daily in each direction, except for the Cardinal and the New Orleans-Los Angeles Sunset Limited, which operate only three days each week in each direction.
All long-distance routes east of Chicago, except for the Chicago-Washington Capitol Limited, use single-level cars with Viewliner sleepers and Amfleet II coaches. All others use bi-level Superliner cars. Viewliner Roomettes have a sink and toilet in-room with a shower room down the hall, while these facilities are lacking in Superliner Roomettes (Roomette passengers share a restroom at the end of the hall on the upper level, plus three restrooms and a shower room on the lower level). Both sleeper and coach passengers have access to the dining car and cafe/lounge car. Coach passengers, however, must pay for their dining car meals (prices are on the menu) and have lower priority than sleeping car passengers for meal reservations on crowded trains. On Superliner trains, the cafe/lounge car is a Sightseer Lounge, with an upper level featuring wraparound windows with swivel seats that face the windows and a bank of eight tables that seat four each. The Coast Starlight also features a unique 1960s-built bi-level Pacific Parlour Car, which is similar to the Sightseer Lounge but with a more upscale ambience and its own meal and beverage service, and with a movie theater on the lower level. Access to this car is limited to sleeping car and Business Class passengers.
Commuter rail service connects many major cities with surrounding communities. Some of these commuter trains only run in one direction at rush hours, while others run throughout the day in both directions. Commuter rail services are owned and managed by local or regional government authorities that either own their own track or negotiate access to track owned by Amtrak or freight railroads. The commuter rail authority can either operate and maintain its trains in-house or contract these services out to a third party (either Amtrak, a freight railroad, or a private rail operations & maintenance contractor).
Unlike Amtrak, where reservations must be made in advance for travel on a particular train, commuter rail services are almost always unreserved and tickets are purchased either from a station agent, from a Ticket Vending Machine at the station, on the platform, or from the conductor or train attendant on-board. Almost all commuter rail services share their major stations with Amtrak intercity trains, and some provide airport-to-downtown connections.
Train Travel Tips
Booking an Amtrak trip well in advance of the departure date is highly recommended. Like the airlines, Amtrak prices blocks of seats on the same train at different fare “buckets,” so as seats begin to sell, the fare for the remaining seats changes.
This applies to all trains except those with “unreserved” seating, on which fares are usually flat regardless of time of booking, and a seat is not guaranteed if the train is very crowded, but an Unreserved Coach ticket can be used on any other unreserved train between the same city pair, up to its expiration date. Do note, however, that at certain busy travel times (particularly around Thanksgiving), most routes that are normally unreserved will become reserved coach. Routes offering unreserved coach seating are the Pacific Surfliners, Capitol Corridor, Hiawathas and Keystones (between Philadelphia and Harrisburg only—through travel to points between Philadelphia and New York is reserved coach only).
The lowest possible fares (the E bucket or “Saver” fares) are only available at least two weeks out, and most discounts cannot be applied to bookings made within three days of departure.
Tickets purchased with an agent at a station or from the conductor will always be subject to the highest possible fare. Therefore, it is highly advisable to book a reservation using a credit or debit card, either online at www.amtrak.com, or over the phone by calling 1-800-USA-RAIL. If calling, passengers can either make a simple reservation or check a train’s status using “Julie,” the automated agent, or say “Agent” to have “Julie” transfer the call to a human being. Human reservations sales agents are available 24/7.
Fares for Unreserved or Reserved Coach seats, and for Acela Business Class, are called the “rail fare,” while a charge added to that for Business Class, Acela First Class or sleeping car accommodations is the “accommodation charge.” The accommodation charge for Business Class is generally flat, while that for sleepers varies with demand, though is generally added to the lowest-bucket rail fare.
Note: “Reserved Coach” does not mean that passengers can reserve a specific seat number when they book as they can with most airlines. It simply means that travelers will be guaranteed a seat—and if they are traveling alone they should plan to be seated next to another solo traveler. In most cases, coach passengers on overnight long-distance trains are assigned seats by the conductor or coach attendant upon boarding.
Train travel rights – Sleeping cars
Rooms in a sleeping car are assigned at the time of booking. If booking online, travelers will be automatically assigned the next available Roomette or Bedroom, depending on which they booked. They may only request a specific room (such as one on the lower level, or one at the end of the car or in the middle) by speaking to a reservations sales agent on the phone or a station ticket agent.
Train travel rights – Refundable fares
Almost all Amtrak fares are completely refundable if canceled up to 48 hours prior to scheduled departure. The main exception is the “Saver” fares, which are nonrefundable. Between the 48-hour point and departure time, they are refundable minus a 20 percent fee (with a minimum fee of $5.00 and a maximum fee of $100.00). The fee is waived for Business Class and Acela First Class reservations canceled prior to departure, and is also waived when a traveler decides to cancel a reservation for a corridor train that is running more than an hour late or a long-distance train that is running more than two hours late. A 20% fee is charged for refunds of sleeping car tickets canceled 15 or more days before departure. 14 or fewer days in advance, a sleeping car ticket is nonrefundable, but the full value can be converted into an eVoucher (see below). Note: Amtrak fares are divided between the “rail fare” (the base amount paid for a coach or Acela Business Class seat) and the “accommodation charge,” an additional amount paid for a Business Class or Acela First Class seat or for a sleeping car accommodation.
Train travel rights – Non-refundable fares and discounts
All fares (even those labeled as “nonrefundable”) can be converted into an eVoucher that can be applied to future Amtrak reservations with no penalty, as long as cancellation is done prior to scheduled departure time. If the ticket is not scanned or otherwise “lifted” after the train departs, or if a passenger is a no-show, they forfeit the entire value of their ticket and cannot get a refund or eVoucher (except for Business Class and Acela First Class tickets, which are refundable minus a 20% fee after departure). Note: eVouchers can be applied to multiple reservations. If the amount charged for a given reservation is less than the amount of your eVoucher, you will get another eVoucher for the remaining value after booking the first reservation.
Amtrak offers the following discounts to the rail fare (but not the accommodation charge) on all trains, except that most do not apply to the lowest-bucket “Saver” fares. All except the Senior and Child discounts require reservations to be made at least three days prior to departure date. None of these discounts can be combined with any other discount or applied to loyalty point redemption travel.
- Seniors aged 62 and better: 15% off
- Children aged 2 to 12: 50% off
- Active duty military (with military ID): 10% off
- AAA members: 10% off
- Students ages 13-25 with valid student ID: 15% off
- Veterans Advantage VetRewards cardholders: 15% off
- National Association of Railroad Passengers members: 10% off
Amtrak Guest Rewards
Amtrak also has a point-earning loyalty program akin to airlines’ frequent flyer programs: Amtrak Guest Rewards. It is free to sign up for the program, and program members will earn points as long as they provide their 10-digit member number when they book.
Members earn 2 points per dollar spent on ticket purchases (with bonus earnings for Business Class and Acela First Class), and points can be redeemed for free travel at a rate of 35 times the going dollar value of the reservation at time of booking, with a minimum of 800 points, and limited blackouts and other restrictions apply.
Earnings above a certain threshold of rail travel points in a calendar year qualify members for the program’s three elite tiers, which come with a host of perks. There are also two point-earning credit cards available from Bank of America. Amtrak Guest Rewards has a separate phone number from that used for other Amtrak reservations, 1-800-307-5000, and its agents are only available between 5:00 a.m. and 12:00 midnight Eastern time, seven days a week.
Train travel rights – At the station
Stations in large and medium-sized cities will generally have at least one Amtrak ticket agent on duty at train departure times, and most of those will also offer checked baggage service. However, many of Amtrak’s stations are unstaffed, meaning there are no Amtrak personnel on duty. These are either maintained by volunteer caretakers, custodians paid by the station owner, or have no staff whatsoever (some are just platforms with or without a shelter).
These stations do not offer checked baggage service or assistance with ticketing. Some large stations have lounges that are open to sleeping car, Acela First Class and (in some cases) Business Class passengers, as well as to elite-tier members of Amtrak Guest Rewards. These lounges have their own attendants who can also sell and print tickets and change reservations, but do not handle checked baggage. Some large stations also have Red Caps, who (for tips) will help with luggage, getting to or from the train, and getting to connecting ground transportation upon arrival.
Regardless of the size or type of station, when boarding, passengers will have the option of either printing the ticket at home and bringing it with to the train (when booking a reservation online or by phone, travelers will immediately receive an email confirmation with the ticket attached as a PDF) or displaying it on Apple or Android smartphone, smartwatch or tablet using the Amtrak mobile app.
Some unstaffed stations and most staffed stations also have QuikTrak ticket vending machines on which travelers can make simple reservations and pick up tickets or travel documents.
Finally, travelers can pick up a prepaid ticket from the ticket agent at a staffed station. They will almost certainly be asked for a photo ID when picking up a ticket from an agent or checking baggage, and any government-issued ID is accepted. In rare cases, the conductor may ask for ID when scanning a ticket. If traveling to or from Canada on one of Amtrak’s three cross-border trains, passengers must have a passport or passport card, NEXUS card, Enhanced Driver’s License or other document acceptable for crossing a US land border, and must provide this document’s information when booking a ticket.
Train travel rights – Checked baggage
At staffed stations that offer checked baggage service, bags are accepted up to 45 minutes before scheduled train departure (note, however, that checked baggage is not offered on all trains serving a given station). Each passenger may check up to two bags weighing up to 50 pounds each free of charge, and up to two additional bags for $20 each, but only if the passenger’s destination is also a staffed station with checked baggage service.
Note: A limit of two larger and two smaller carry-on bags per traveler applies regardless of whether or not checked baggage is available. Fees apply for carry-ons in excess of this limit. When checking bags, be sure to retain the claim check the agent hands you as receipt for the checked bag—unlike the airlines, passengers will be required to present the claim check to collect the bag at their destination.
At larger stations, between 15 and 20 minutes prior to departure, passengers will line up to have their tickets inspected before being allowed to the platform. At smaller stations, access to the platform is unlimited. If not checking bags, passengers should arrive at the station at least 30 minutes before departure. If boarding at an unstaffed station, they can check the train’s status by calling 1-800-USA-RAIL or by going to Amtrak.com or using the Amtrak mobile app. If passengers have a disability or will need special assistance boarding, they should notify Amtrak when or shortly after booking, and should notify the station agent at a staffed station, or be sure to make themselves visible to the conductor when the train arrives at an unstaffed station. The train crew or station agent will be able to deploy a wheelchair lift or bridge plate to get them on or off the train.
Passengers in a wheelchair will be limited to one car on a single-level train and to the lower level of one car on a bi-level train. The crew will bring food from the dining or cafe car to these passengers upon request.
Train travel rights – Amtrak train personnel
All trains will have a conductor, and most will also have an assistant conductor. The conductor is in charge of all aspects of the safe movement of the train, and is the boss of all other crewmembers. He or she will scan or lift tickets (and sell a ticket or upgrade) and make sure passengers detrain at their destination. Otherwise, passengers probably will not interact with him or her throughout the trip unless there is an emergency. On some trains, the railcar (or multiple cars) will have a coach attendant, whose job is to help make the trip comfortable and enjoyable. He or she will assign a seat when boarding, help with bags, and keep the car interior and restrooms clean during the trip.
Each sleeping car has a sleeping car attendant, who performs all the same duties as a coach attendant, in addition to making up beds in the evening and returning rooms to daytime configuration in the morning. The attendant will also keep the refreshment alcove in the middle of the car stocked with coffee and juice, and will bring a meal from the dining car to a passenger’s room upon request.
Each cafe car is staffed by one attendant, who serves all menu items. Each dining car has a Lead Service Attendant (in charge of seating diners and collecting payment), two servers, and a chef. Both food service cars accept cash and credit/debit cards. The Lead Service Attendant will walk the train to take reservations about an hour before each lunch or dinner period, and these meals are by reservation only (reservations are not required for breakfast, which is first come, first served). At some large stations, passengers can make a meal reservation before departure, generally in the first class passenger lounge.
Train travel rights – Tipping
Tipping in an Amtrak dining car is customary. Follow the same protocol as at a restaurant, even when the meal is included in the fare. An appropriate tip for a sleeping car attendant is $5.00 per person per night, and for a particularly attentive coach or Business Class attendant is $2 to $3 per day. Do not tip conductors.
Once passengers board, they should remain in their seat or sleeping car room until the conductor scans the train ticket. Once this is done, passengers are free to move about the train and to hang out in the cafe/lounge car (though it’s prudent to take wallets, phones and anything particularly valuable when leaving a seat or room for an extended period).
On longer trips, the train will make announced longer stops, during which passengers will be able to step off the train for fresh air or a cigarette (there is absolutely no smoking on board any train, including e-cigarettes—no exceptions). At these stops, passengers are urged to not stray far from the train or it may leave without them!
Train travel rights – Restrooms
All standard coaches have two restrooms at one end of the car. The ride is generally smoother when seated towards the center of the car, but in the event of a collision or derailment, passengers are safer if seated towards the end of the car.
All coaches have at least one vestibule at one end of the car for boarding and detraining (some have two vestibules, one at each end), but not all vestibule doors will open at many stations, as they must be manually opened and closed by a crewmember. Trains do not have seatbelts.
If traveling overnight in a coach seat, bring a pillow and/or neck pillow, blanket and an eye cover. These will not be provided to coach passengers, but a kit containing these items is available for purchase in the cafe car for $8.00.
Feel free to bring books, movies and/or music on any portable electronic device (which must be used with headphones, unless in a sleeping car room with the door closed), card games, and anything else that will help pass the time. Passengers may just find themselves content to watch the passing scenery, or to enjoy the company of those who were previously strangers in the convivial atmosphere of the lounge car. Travelers may buy their own food and drink and consume it on board (except in the food service cars), but personal alcohol purchased elsewhere may not be consumed on board except in a sleeping car room.
Train travel rights – Complimenting and complaining
Amtrak’s Customer Relations Department handles all passenger feedback about their travel experiences, positive or negative, and it is the only department capable of offering any form of compensation or refund after travel has been completed. All complaints brought by passengers to any other Amtrak employee—train crew, station agent or telephone reservations agent will be referred to Customer Relations.
There are three ways to get in touch with Customer Relations, each of which is best for a different type of feedback:
- By email, via the Webform at www.amtrak.com/contact-us. This is most useful for general feedback, compliments and minor complaints. Passengers will generally get an email response within 24 hours or the next business day.
- By phone: call 1-800-USA-RAIL, ask to speak to an agent, then ask the agent to be transferred to Customer Relations (whose agents are only available during regular business hours on weekdays). This is best for more serious complaints, cases when passengers would rather speak to a person than put it in writing, and cases where a refund or other compensation might be requested.
- By US Mail: Passengers may write a letter addressed to Amtrak Customer Relations, or to Amtrak’s President & CEO (Joseph H. Boardman, as of January 2016), and mail it to the address below. These letters are read by staff at Amtrak’s headquarters. This method is best used for the most serious complaints, including allegations of gross mistreatment, negligence or discrimination. Be sure to attach all relevant documentation to the letter, and include all contact information.
The address is:
National Railroad Passenger Corporation
60 Massachusetts Ave NE
Washington, DC 20002
Refunds are only given after completion of travel in the rarest of circumstances. In most cases, passengers deemed worthy of compensation by Customer Relations will receive a “transportation certificate,” of a specific dollar value, up to the full price paid for the original ticket, which can be exchanged for future travel purchases over the phone or with a station agent.
If passengers have a particularly bad experience on Amtrak and are not satisfied with the railroad’s response to their complaint, they may take it to their member of Congress, either by calling his or her Washington office, sending an email or by mailing a letter to his or her district office (letters to the Washington office are delayed by up to 60 days due to post-9/11 security protocols).
When calling, ask to speak to the legislative assistant who handles transportation issues. Congress exercises extensive oversight over Amtrak’s budget and management, and Congressional staffers will be able to investigate a passenger’s complaint via contacting Amtrak’s Government Affairs office.
Passengers unsure which member of Congress to contact (their Representative or one of their two Senators), it is best to contact one who sits on either the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee or the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, or one who sits on one of the Appropriations committees. If none of the passenger’s representatives sit on any of those committees, then take a pick — preferably contact one with whose office the passenger has already established a relationship. Each member’s Website will display his or her committee memberships and contact information for his or her Washington and home state/district offices.
Safety and rules-compliance-related complaints should also be brought to the Federal Railroad Administration, a branch of the US Department of Transportation that oversees railroad safety and development. Visit www.fra.dot.gov, call (202) 493-6014, or write to:
Federal Railroad Administration
1200 New Jersey Ave SE
Washington, DC 20590
Passengers may also want to share feedback with the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) or the Amtrak Customer Advisory Committee (ACAC).
- NARP is a nonprofit advocacy organization representing the users of passenger trains and rail transit, and has extensive contacts within Amtrak, on Capitol Hill and with the Administration. Telephone: (202) 408-8362. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. (Passengers who are frequent train riders might also consider becoming a member of NARP to support their advocacy work and receive a 10% discount on most Amtrak rail fares.)
- The ACAC is an all-volunteer body of regular Amtrak riders who serve as “mystery shoppers” and constantly report feedback on their travel experiences. It is run as a partnership between NARP and Amtrak. The Director of ACAC also has extensive connections with Amtrak management. Email: email@example.com