The Cult of Cars, Racing and Everything That Moves You.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

I Took Amtrak Instead of Flying and It Made Me Want to Die a Little Bit

Illustration: Jason Torchinsky
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It started, I think, as a joke.

We were booking my travel arrangements to get me to and from the Detroit Auto Show back in January, and someone—I think it was Raphael Orlove—started looking up Amtrak tickets, just to compare them against flights.

Thanks to some strange streak of self-abasement, I thought this was a great idea. Let’s see what taking a train is like! It’ll be an adventure! This will be a fascinating experiment!

I now know that, unless “fascinating” has very recently changed meanings to be a catch-all word for “long, dreary, grim, and depressing,” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Like many of us, for me train travel still manages to carry just a hint of its old exoticism: I’m pretty sure that, when thinking about my upcoming journey by rail, at least part of me almost believed there would be at least one point where I’d be running across the tops of the train cars, evading a murderer, until I drop down through a trapdoor into the plush chair of an elegant dining car, just as a steak is placed immediately in front of me.

None of those things happened.

It’s not like there wasn’t time for such events to have transpired, because once you buy a train ticket, time becomes an embarrassingly and troublingly bountiful resource. I can make this more understandable if we take a moment here to break down some of the essential, crucial facts about this journey by train, and compare it to the same journey by air.

I was returning from Detroit, and heading back to my North Carolina home, so were I to fly, I’d leave from DTW Airport in Detroit and fly into RDU airport in Raleigh, North Carolina. The flights we’d priced for me for this trip ranged between $140 and $170 or so, and the duration of the flight is about one hour and 45 minutes.

If I factor in getting to the airport an hour before the flight leaves and travel from RDU to my home, we’re looking at a total transit time of around, oh, three and a half hours. Let’s call it four hours, just because.

Now, for a train going from Detroit to Raleigh, you can get a ticket for right about $140 to $150, and that’s for just a coach seat—not a little “roomette,” which would start at an alarming $589.

So, the price is about the same, really. The kicker here is that where the airplane takes four hours, the trip by train clocks in at 23 hours and 18 minutes, according to Amtrak’s website, though I seem to recall that my particular trip, with a layover in Washington, D.C., took about 26 hours total.

That’s a staggering difference—four hours versus 26 hours—when it comes to sitting in one seat. The train takes longer than a plane by over a factor of six. It’s over a goddamn day. A day of your life.

It’s the sort of difference, when factored in with the near-parity in price, that would make any rational human wonder why the hell would anyone willingly do this? Is there some advantage to being trapped on a rattly wheeled metal tube for over a day that I’m somehow missing?

This is exactly what I had to find out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that, when I reached out to Amtrak and revealed I was going to write about my experience, they sent me a comped ticket for one of those nifty-seeming little rooms, which I suspect would make the trip a lot more bearable and would have probably made the coverage of this event better for them.

Unfortunately, the ticket, I didn’t realize until it was much too late, was for the wrong day. Nobody told me about this until I had completed the first leg of my journey from Detroit, a bus ride to Toledo, and was attempting to board the train.

That means if I didn’t, luckily, still have my original coach-seat ticket, I’d have been stuck at a Toledo bus station, a fate I’m not really able to accept. So, it was in the regular old seat that I spent my 20-something hours.

But let’s start back at the very beginning of the journey, so you can get the full feeling of what it’s like. For many Amtrak trips, you start not on a train, but a bus. These buses are pretty much normal large passenger buses, and they leave from Amtrak-run bus stations.

These stations sort of set the overall tone of what a journey by train is like. While many airports certainly aren’t amazing places to be, there are many, many airports across the country that are actually pleasant, interesting spaces—well maintained, with interesting architecture, a good variety of (sure, absurdly overpriced) restaurants and newsstands named confusingly after cable news channels, but the general overall airport experience in America certainly isn’t bad.

I can’t say that about the Amtrak bus terminals I was in.

These bus terminals were shabby places, and while not exactly horrible, had that sort of worn, beaten, but still just-maintained-enough quality that I usually associate with old Soviet public spaces.

The one in Toledo did offer some handy information in the bathroom, though:

So, yeah, I was able to get the inside scoop on Jimmy O. and his status as a dad, which, I’m sorry to say, isn’t great.

The buses do claim to offer some nice amenities via stickers on the outside:

...though I wasn’t able to locate any of these, really. I mean, I made it out alive, so I can give them “safety.”

After the bus ride, you get to the train, and, if there’s one thing that’s better about train travel, it’s that it is much more hassle-free than air travel, mostly because there’s almost no security at all for your luggage.

You drag along your suitcases, and, when you enter the train itself, you just heave them into some luggage racks, and, from what I was able to tell, that’s it.

The seats are bigger than on an airplane and have a lot more legroom, but it’s not a fundamentally radical difference in design. Train seats are a bit wider and have more legroom, but when you factor in how much longer you’ll likely spend in one, none of those extra few inches seems quite enough.

Other important amenities, like the bathrooms, really aren’t that much better on the train, either. The bathroom on the train I was on felt like a 15 percent scaled-up version of an airplane bathroom, but somehow shabbier and more depressing:

That photo on the left is a little “lounge” area that one of the bathrooms had, but I’m not really sure just how much lounging anyone would really want to do in there, sitting on that upholstered block and peering critically into that smudged mirror.

I should mention that the mysterious “lounge” was only for women, or so a magic-marker’d notice informed me on the door. I’m sure there are few things women find more enticing than marker scrawl across a narrow door at the end of a hallway.

There’s a general, overarching sense of wear and neglect all over the train that’s just not present to the same degree on airplanes. The whole interior is done in strange, institutional store-brand-vanilla-ice-cream-block yellowy beiges, and the stainless steel trim on everything just makes it all feel even more institutional.

It’s the sort of surface, minimal-effort sort of cleanliness that leaves everything with a worn, tired look, with accumulated discolorations in corners and a smothering sort of ennui that coats everything.

Yes, there’s a cafe on board, but before you get your hopes too high, let me show you what that means, at least for coach travelers:

That’s James, a Lead Service Attendant, and James was polite and good at his job, but he’s working with food and equipment that’s roughly on par with a small public pool’s snack bar. The food is packaged and microwaved, and that means breakfast will likely look something like this:

A cardboard box, a packet of cream cheese, and a bagel microwaved into something that would work remarkably well as a replacement go-kart tire.

Yes, you can order beer and wine, which you may need, but it’s not going to make the food any better; it’ll just help you care a little less.

One advantage over an airplane, though, is increased space and mobility, thanks to things like the observation cars. These are like a combination of a rolling cafeteria seating area and a greenhouse. There’s a lot of windows in the sides and roof, and you can imagine that the designers’ original sketches of these must have been spectacular.

In reality, though, the cars have the same sort of public-transit wear that makes everything feel just a bit joyless, and, in the case of when and where I was traveling, the scenery out the window, heavily dusted with late-January snows, was stark and sometimes beautiful, but almost always profoundly lonely and gray and depressing.

Now, sure, some of this was on me—I had been gone a while, and was missing my family and everything felt cold and lonely and uncaring and, well, just sort of grim.

None of this was helped by the interminable slowness of the train, as it plodded its way through white-and-gray-and-black mottled wilderness and sad, forgotten little towns and abandoned industrial areas wearing mantles of rust and decay. This all gets to you after a while, especially when the top speed never really managed to get much past 40 mph.

The plodding pace, the grim scenery, the general shabbiness of the interior, the loneliness, the spotty phone service, the way the whole situation pushes the mind to leaden thoughts of regret and loss, it all conspires to make you wonder how anyone can take a long train journey like this and resist the urge to open their wrists.

That slow speed, though I suppose was worthy of a hollow, forced chuckle every now and then. I checked the speed several times on my phone, and was amazed at the result every time.

I can drive as fast as a train in any one of my 50 horsepower-or-less cars in second gear. Why is this okay? Is this the best we really can do?

There are some lines where Amtrak does run faster trains—the Acela Express trains can hit 150 mph (though they average 84 mph), but they only operate in Amtrak’s busy Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.

It’s worth noting that this corridor accounts for 37 percent of all of Amtrak’s riders, and by far most of its profits. Nearly all of Amtrak’s other long-distance train routes lose money. The Northeast trains, by far, make the most sense out of Amtrak’s lines to use regularly.

The site Real Transit has a pretty striking graph showing just how dramatic this relationship is (at least in 2013):

As you can see, there’s just not a hell of a lot of incentive for Amtrak to put any effort into their long-distance passenger rail service. Also, the real use of long-distance rail in America is for cargo, so the tracks and scheduling is mostly tuned for that, which means long-distance passenger rail is just squeezed in wherever between cargo trains.

It’s a real Catch 22: Amtrak complains of being woefully underfunded, but there doesn’t feel like a case to justify more investment in it. Had we done it right from the beginning, it’s possible America could’ve had a high-speed passenger rail network the way Europe or Japan does. That’s a beautiful thing to think about. But what we’re stuck with, instead, is a system that—unless you are traveling between D.C. and New York or something—is woefully inadequate compared to air travel. Or even a car.

So, that brings up the real question here: why the hell do people do this?

It’s not really cheaper. It takes so, so much longer. It’s not all that much more comfortable, the food’s no better—what’s the possible appeal here?

I asked passengers every chance I got, and I got an interesting array of answers: there were a few who just hated the process of flying, either due to phobias or just on principle, there were some who felt the process was more enjoyable, one who felt the overall extra space was “calming,” and a few who liked the opportunity to meet “interesting people.”

While these are valid reasons, none are really objectively practical. The only hard, financial advantage I heard was from a student traveling from D.C. to Raleigh, who told me that, unlike planes that increase fare prices as the departure date grows closer, the train’s fare is set, even if you book it the day before.

So, on a budget and last-minute, a train may make more financial sense. As long as it’s not so last minute that you can’t squeeze in the considerable time needed to get anywhere.

James—who you may remember from the cafe part above—also told me about a difference about train travel that may or may not be considered an advantage.

“Crazier things happen on trains,” he told me. “There’s less rules than on planes, and nobody gets dragged off through the aisle like on a plane. People have more time to go nuts and do crazy things.”

If your goal is to get yourself into a metal tube with people possibly willing to go bonkers, then it looks like a train may be your better bet, if you’re willing to put in the time to wait it out.

Plus, there’s something to be said for having a big block of uninterruptible time without great internet coverage that’s conducive to getting shit done. I managed to clean up all the footnotes on my book (more on that soon), which was tedious and long, but a train with nothing else to do and an electrical plug at the seat meant this was a task that could be accomplished.

If you had a big project that you needed to really focus on, I can see worse ways to get it done than to spend a full day or two on a train.

From what I can tell, a train makes more sense than an airplane only in some very specific circumstances: if you’re a broke last-minute traveler, or perhaps an easily-distracted writer, or an air-travel phobiac, or someone who fetishizes a general and vague sense of grimy utility, then maybe, just maybe, the train makes sense.

For absolutely everyone else, I can’t think of any rational reason why you’d want to put yourself through the tepid, boring hell of a long-distance Amtrak trip. I don’t even feel bad about saying these harsh things about Amtrak’s long-distance service, since they lost $543 million on their long-haul routes in 2018.

By badmouthing long-distance Amtrak rail travel, I’m probably saving them money.

You’re welcome, Amtrak. Now please never put me through that low-key misery again.