Break Transit Summary: Train

December 1, 2007

This is the third post of a 4-part series evaluating my varied travel experiences over a week holiday.

I was looking forward to my first Amtrak train ride that was the result of research into carbon emissions of different methods of transportation. Picking up my ticket upon my arrival to Chicago instead of just before boarding made catching the train far less stressful than it could have been, as there was a lengthy line for a security checkpoint with a K-9 unit. The security came as a slight surprise after my experiences in Europe last year, but is still far less than any airport.

The train itself was a pleasant surprise. Amtrak’s superliners are two-level cars, with the main seating areas and car-to-car access on the upper level. The lower level hosts extra luggage storage, handicapped seating, 5 toilets, and 2 “dressing rooms.” The dressing rooms were probably geared more towards overnight passengers, but were a perk for an afternoon ride. The best part by far are the seats; I could have sworn I had accidentally entered first class. There was more legroom than I had ever seen, with a fold-up legrest that along with a tilted back allowed for lazy-boy posturing. Again, while this may be only tolerable for overnight passengers, for this trip it was fantastic. My train also boasted a lounge and a dining car. The lounge car had skylight windows and conversational seating arrangements, although I preferred my own car with its more comfortable chair. The dining car appeared to have reasonable offerings and prices, but I overheard some extensive delays with the reservations.

My carbon emissions for this trip were probably higher than I previously calculated. The cars were slightly over half full, and I was grateful for the empty seat next to me. But the reservation delays were blamed on the high volume of passengers traveling that day, so I don’t believe that Amtrak regularly runs full trains. This changes the per capita carbon emissions for my journey. As I had a similar experience on Megabus, I think in the future it is imperative to calculate the carbon emissions based not on full occupancy, but instead on the price point load for each system, assuming that information is available. The train would probably still be a better choice than the bus, but both might more closely approach air and car travel levels.

If there was one thing I regretted bringing, it was Dramamine. The second level of the train swayed far more than I expected, and the overall track condition was worse than I had experienced in Europe. The first few hours of the trip were filled with trying to sleep away a stomachache. However the other passengers seemed to be doing just fine, so I would recommend motion-sickness pills only if you have had problems in similar situations, such as riding in a car through mountains or on an airplane.

Surprisingly, Union Station was not Union Station. We were approximately 30 minutes late arriving into St. Louis, the result of traffic on the rails. We pulled into Union Station and I “detrained,” only to find myself on a gravel shoulder next to a parking lot and a building smaller than the train it serviced. This was not the grand St. Louis Union Station with food and entertainment at which my parents were waiting. After a hectic phone call and some visual reconnaissance we determined that the two were only three blocks apart, and I was indeed not lost in the middle of industrial St. Louis at night. Apparently Amtrak will be constructing a more formal train and bus terminal soon, but I’ve learned it’s always a good idea to check your depots on Mapquest rather than assuming they are the traditional stations of 60 years ago.

Recent events shouldn’t make passengers more wary of train travel. A speeding Amtrak train coming to Chicago from Michigan rear-ended a freight train that was on the same track. 71 out of 187 passengers were taken to area hospitals, although only 3 were held overnight. While this collision could have been avoided, no transportation method is completely safe. What is significant is that even with such a collision there were no fatalities or permanent disfigurements. I can’t recall hearing of that kind of outcome in any recent plane or bus crashes. The risk of injury in a train crash can be lessened by some common sense practices: don’t be out of your seat more than necessary and don’t leave extraneous objects unsecured where they can become projectiles in a crash.

Overall, I would highly recommend train travel for 50-500 mile journeys. It was an extremely comfortable ride aside from the swaying and my stomach. There was far less stress surrounding boarding and packing than compared with air travel, and I reached my destination with reasonable timeliness. Once I move to Chicago after graduation I anticipate utilizing Amtrak frequently to visit my relatives and new niece in St. Louis.

Other posts in this series:



Parents (car)



  1. Thanks for the write up. Most American passenger trains ride on freight tracks, so you are correct that the ride quality is generally not as good as dedicated passenger rights of way, like you will find in Europe.

    The St. Louis Union Station owner kicked Amtrak out some time ago, IIRC. There’s more discussion of the St. Louis terminals here: http://discuss.amtraktrains.com/index.php?s=7f21b74d8c7dedad24de2b91864a6b80&showtopic=7740&st=0&p=62568&#entry62568

  2. I guess until passenger rail increases (ha) it’s more economical to share rails with freight. Thanks for the link, I’m looking forward to the new station, I heard it’s also going to be a bus depot. The location isn’t horrible as it’s convenient to the metra-link, but it could do with some more lighting and other “anti-sketch” interventions.

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