All aboard: Why rail travel is making a comeback

·5 min read

One evening in mid-July, Nick Skordilis looked out his window and took in the scenery. He’d just polished off a rich chocolate mousse dessert. Down below, he could see the rivers and mountains of Glacier National Park. In the distance, the sunset flared pink and orange, stretching long shadows from the pines.

It was a moment of perfect summer vacation bliss. And it was all the more striking since Mr. Skordilis was lumbering through the park on a train going 40 mph, still 16 hours from his destination.

Finding joy at your vacation destination should be easy – that’s the whole point – but for most Americans, the actual travel to reach restful getaway spots is more about gritting teeth than finding bliss. That has been particularly true this summer, with airports in meltdown, rental cars scarce, and the classic road trip under siege from gas prices. But there is one bright spot for American travelers this summer: the rails.

Passenger rail is handling the double whammy of a summer vacation surge and end-of-pandemic travel bump well – or at least better than its competitors. Amtrak, which has a monopoly on long-distance rail travel, has hurriedly restored services it mothballed during the worst of COVID-19. Ridership is up, too, reaching 85% of pre-pandemic levels in the Northeast and showing a promising pattern elsewhere. The company is even opening up new lines.

“It’s been a much stronger rebound than even Amtrak had projected in its very optimistic report to Congress earlier this year,” says Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of policy and government affairs for the Rail Passengers Association, which acts as an advocate for train travelers.

“Amtrak has been very resilient,” he says.

Much of the demand has been driven by fresh faces. Amtrak noted that 31% of April passengers were “new riders.” At least some portion of those seem to be turning to the rails to escape the chaos in airports and pain at the gas pump.

Daniela Casalino, an architectural designer living in Seattle, wanted to take an early June trip to see a friend in San Francisco, just a 2 1/2 hour flight away. But when she saw that flights cost about as much as a train trip, she paused.

A fairly frequent flyer before the pandemic, Ms. Casalino had only flown once since it began. She did not enjoy it. “I just found it really anxiety inducing,” she says. “I was like, I don’t want to do this for a while.”

Driving was also a no-go. “I like driving, but I don’t have a car. And also with fuel prices now, I’m not sure I would’ve driven down there anyway,” Ms. Casalino says. “That also sounds really exhausting.”

Embracing the luxury of time, she opted for the 24-hour train ride. She didn’t regret it.

“It was super fun,” Ms. Casalino says. “I met a lot of really interesting people, and it was super beautiful. This stretch between Seattle and Emeryville – it’s just gorgeous.”

Earlier in the summer, Mr. Skordilis, a Chicago native who works in recruiting, made a similar choice after realizing he could ditch a car ride for his visit to his partner’s parents in Michigan.

Driving would’ve taken about as long, Mr. Skordilis says, “and instead of having to look at where to turn and going to the hassle of renting a car, I could sit and open a book and read the whole way there.”

A few weeks later he found himself on that much longer, more sublime trip, gliding through Glacier National Park on his way to see a friend in Seattle.

Ms. Casalino and Mr. Skordilis are the kind of new travelers that rail travel advocates like Mr. Jeans-Gail hope Amtrak can impress. “You can either gain a lifelong customer or lose a lifelong customer based on that first impression,” he says.

But, he cautions, there are real negatives this summer too. Staffing issues are hurting service quality and sometimes causing delays. “Amtrak management cut to the bone when the pandemic hit,” Mr. Jeans-Gail says, and the company is still trying to get staffing levels up.

The freight rail industry’s labor problems are much worse, and are causing indirect effects for Amtrak passengers. Since, in most of the United States, Amtrak shares tracks with freight companies, their traffic jams can freeze passengers in place for hours.

And, despite a very strong safety record, rail travel is not without risks. An Amtrak train had a fatal derailment in June, killing four people and injuring more than 100 others near Mendon, Missouri.

“I knew [about delays] going into it,” says Dione Wigginton-Duppstadt, who took her family, including four young boys, on a trip from Texas to the Midwest, the Redwoods, and Disneyland.

“There was a lot of worry: Am I going to make my next train?” But, she said, it went smoothly in the end – and her sons proved to be good passengers.

“The kids did great. The kids loved it.”

James Landrum, who shepherded his family from Indiana to national parks out West by rail, says his children felt the same way.

“They loved Yellowstone, they loved the Tetons, they loved being there, they loved hiking it. But when anybody ever asked them what was their favorite part of the trip, they said, ‘the train.’”

Amtrak is proving such a solid alternative right now that, for the remainder of the season, trains are full and prices are unusually high. If a rail trip is penciled into your calendar for what’s left of this summer, Mr. Jeans-Gail says, “I hope you booked your ticket already.”

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