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Is this train scenic or should I just fly?

This is a question I've seen countless times, mostly from North Americans, and I guess I'm not the only one to have seen it on travel forums. Over the time I have learnt that if the answer is no, that I should add "but you should take the train anyway because it is faster, cheaper and more comfortable" to my reply (where appropriate). Many people seem to understand, but it sometimes take a lot of effort to explain really basic things. Like the one time response was "Really, I thought it was just a one hour flight?". I then had explain that yes, it is a one hour flight. But the gate closes 20 min before departure, and you need to add time for going to and from the airports and security as well. And no, you don't need to be at the station 2 hours before the train departs.

The same with cars to a certain extent. Both within cities and between cities. I once tried to explain to a US woman that is was a bad idea to rent a car at the airport just to drive to Stockholm and then use it to get around the city.

So, now that we all are at home and a bit bored I thought I should take the opportunity to ask, since there are many North Americans here. Is the concept of a train actually being the best option to get from A to B and not just something you take because of the views or because it is quaint really that strange? Or the idea of public transport in cities in general?

Posted by
16996 posts

Except for short-distance commuter trains feeding into some major cities (which I assume don't run much, it at all, on weekends), there are very, very few passenger trains in the US, period. There are a few scenic routes, but the only area I'm aware of where trains run frequently enough to be viable everyday transportation is the Boston/NYC/Philadelphia/Baltimore/Washington DC corridor.

As for intra-city transportation, that's something that exists to a greater or lesser degree in the major cities (much more viable in San Francisco than in Los Angeles, for example) but is skimpy or non-existent enough in most areas to the point that most middle-class Americans never use it. I'm tempted to say that it's only cities with subways/light rail infrastructure where middle-class locals tend to use public transport. Those cities include (but are probably not limited to) Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.

One thing we do tend to have is a lot of parking options (though they are costly in major-city downtowns), and our driving restrictions are typically limited to one-way streets and bus/bike lanes. Those conditions make driving somewhat less burdensome, on average, than it is in major European cities.

Posted by
4259 posts

As acraven said, very little intercity train service in the US. The only area where it plays a major role is between Washington DC and Boston, the so-called Northeast Corridor. Amtrak is the national passenger railroad system, and runs a few trains from coast to coast, but most of them offer more scenery than frequent reliable transportation. There are about six trains a day covering the 60 miles between here and Seattle, taking about 90 minutes, the same as driving, but of course you have to work with the schedule. They are often late, especially the one that starts in Los Angeles and takes several days to get up here. The tracks are owned by private freight rail companies whose traffic, though not on a tight schedule, sometimes delays the passenger trains. Train speeds are pathetic compared to TGV and similar European services.

Americans who don't live in or near big older cities like NY, Washington DC, or Chicago have little experience with mass transit, especially rail, and are easily confused and intimidated by systems like the Paris Metro or the London Underground. One benefit of travel is to expose us to other ways of getting around. Europe's density makes mass transit a necessity, our non-density (apart from big cities) makes it more of a recreational option.

I'll speculate a little and suggest that recent history plays a part too. Until automobile and air travel really opened up, trains were much more important here. But in the 1950s and 60s we pretty much gave up on long-distance passenger trains and built freeways and bigger airports, letting our tracks deteriorate and making it much more expensive to bring back intercity rail service. Perhaps because of all the destruction of World War II, Europe was in a better position to improve train service when its economy made that possible.

Posted by
5109 posts

I'd go further and say that the majority of US citizens outside the NE corridor have never ridden on a passenger train so don't have a concept of it as a viable transportation option. What many have done, is ride short excursion-type trains in the mountains or other scenic areas, so maybe that's why they associate trains with scenery. Distances between cities and low airfares (up to now) make trains uncompetitive. In my region, the very few passenger trains are used mostly by people afraid to fly or who are nostalgic for old-fashioned travel. In addition the rail infrastructure is dominated by freight train services, to the point that they have priority over passenger service. That means you can expect slow speeds and frequent delays.

Public transportation in most cities outside the NE corridor suffers from bad reputation (we have frequent violent attacks on buses and at bus stops). I remember riding the MARTA in Atlanta once, during the day, with an armed police officer in every car. Very difficult to get around most cities without a car.

Posted by
93 posts

I’ve never had a good experience traveling by train. That includes in the US (cross country Amtrak even in a sleeper still sucks), Asia, Europe and India. Well, maybe the Glacier Express traveling to Zurich was an exception. But that’s it.

At one point in my life I had to travel New York-Boston-DC regularly by train and it’s something I never want to repeat. So it matters not (to me) how convenient going by train might be. If it’s far enough that I can take a flight and one is available, I’ll fly there rather than take a train. Or I’ll drive just about anywhere rather than take a train.

There’s a romance and nostalgia about train travel that many Americans seem to have. We’ve been talking to friends and family about regional travel lately and everyone keeps suggesting that we “take a train trip” cross country somewhere. Been there many times, done it for too long, not happening again.

Posted by
20686 posts

It is very safe to say that the majority of Americans have little to no experience with public transit and especially long distance train travel. I grew up in a time period late 40s, 50s) when long distance train travel was a good option. My hometown had 40 trains a day passing through. In the 50s the train was only way to travel. But passenger service was a losing proposition compared to freight. The fatal blow was when Eisenhower returned from Europe and was impressed by the Germany autobahn and the US interstate system was born. We have a long distance train system but it is a second class to freight trains that have priority on all tracks. So a passenger train is push to the side to allow freight trains to pass. It is impossible for a US long distance passenger train to maintain any type of schedule. And the finally blow for train travel in the US is that we just don't have the density of population (exception being parts of the east coast) to sustain long distance train travel. In certain areas a high speed with priority might work but the development cost for that type of system is huge to nearly impossible to consider.

We have two types of public transit rail systems - old and clunky and heavily used -- New York, Chicago, etc. And newer systems like Washington DC, Denver, etc. that are more modem and pleasant to use but ridership fares do not cover the cost of operation. And that is the sticking point. A good chunk of the taxing paying population does not like paying for something that they do not see as a personal benefit to themselves.

As far we are concerned, we make heavy use of the European train system because it is very convenient AND dependable. We don't take it for scenic views because most of the times it seems the trains are running in ditches with heavy growth of trees and bushes on both sides -- not always. For us, it is always a question of what best serves our needs. Generally if the train is more than five hours we will look to see if the airline option is better but I am will to ride an extra hour on the train just to avoid the hassle of airline travel even if the airplane saves an hour or two.

And it is partly a culture things. Many Americans are very impatient when it comes to travel.

Posted by
3427 posts

The only part of the US I have been where there is regular train service that you could depend on to get around (other than those noted by acraven) is Alaska. I took the grand railway tour of Alaska and enjoyed it a lot. Not only is the route scenic, it has multiple passenger trains daily and locals as well as tourists use it. For many people is the more isolated areas that the train passes through, it is their only connection to the rest of the world and they get their mail and groceries dropped off by the train. It is interesting when the train stops with no station in sight (nothing but wilderness as far as you can see) and people get off or on or the conductor throws a package off to the side of the track.

The main issue with passenger trains in the US is that the US is huge. The few trains that do run regular service between cities outside the northeastern area (all are operated by Amtrak), take days to get you to your destination. No one rides these except when they are looking for a quaint adventure. And who can blame them? The trains are old and nearly worn out. The service is the best that can be expected from the limited staff, but is often lacking. The food is worse than the worst airplane meal you can imagine and has only gotten even worse due to cutbacks in the dining cars. Passenger trains must pull into sidings to allow freight to pass further delaying the journey in areas where the freight companies own the tracks, even though this is contrary to federal law. Most of the cross country routes are only served once every other day with some now down to once a week with the train often being several hours to days behind schedule.

So, no, the train is not an option for the majority of people or tourists in the US to get somewhere you need to be. It is simply easier, and less costly, to either fly or drive or combine those two.

There are a lot of trains that run in the US solely for the tourist experience. Wine trains in the California wine regions. Several snow trains in the Colorado mountains. And many many more. But these don't really take you anywhere and are not meant for that type of use -- they start from one station, do the couple hours of the route, and end back at the starting station.

The good news is that there are a few new train options in the works. Texas has started building a Houston to Dallas high speed passenger line since both Dallas area airports have no more expansion options at this time (of course with the current downturn in travel, that all might change). It will get you between the cities at about the same amount of time a flight will when factoring in all of the timing requirements for airport processing. And parking will be free at the Houston end. Houston also has added a transit train line within the city. It is still being built, but will extend to both airports as well as the more densely populated suburbs. The calculated ridership was way underestimated with the first section running from the main business district to the medical center area and on to the football stadium now requiring a train every 90 seconds to handle the average passenger loads. Every section they open continues to surprise the transit company by the ridership - they expected lower income people without cars and are getting middle class office workers who just want a dependable ride that is not delayed by traffic as the bus service and highways often are. It just shows that with intelligent planning providing options that go where people want to go it can be a success.

Posted by
79 posts

Here in the US - the major passenger service is run by Amtrak. There are some routes considered "scenic" but not many and because Amtrak uses freight train tracks (which means if a freight train has an accident or breaks down the Amtrak has to wait until its cleared) its not the most reliable mode of transportation. The scenic routes are the Coast Starlight - LA to Vancouver Canada - route and Empire Builder - Chicago St. Paul/Minneapolis Spokane Seattle. I used to use the train to go from Portland Oregon to Seattle on a regular basis and half the time it was late or got stuck somewhere along the way. So here in the US its more of a novelty then something we depend on.

Posted by
5845 posts

We use Amtrak in the NE corridor without any problems, city center to city center. They give seniors good discounts too. The trains we take have routes that are scenic too, along the CT coastline or up/ down the Hudson River with full views of West Point.

Posted by
1220 posts

A couple of points

(a) firstly whilst what you write is true, one does also see the opposite with people here proposing train journeys which few locals would ever bother doing. Instead many of us do often get on aeroplanes or drive (because it's often quicker and more convenient than by railway). There sometimes seems to be a fantasy view of Europe being promoted where everyone is jouyously travelling on trains. The massive road networks, multitude of cheap flights and, god knows, the traffic jams show that plenty of "locals" here are in their cars or boarding planes too.

(b) Nevertheless, broadly the British & European railways are massively better (and better used), than what exisits in the USA. However, I don't entirely "buy" the "America is huge" excuse. Of course it is a big place, but so is the whole of Europe and there are parts of Europe with low populations (and poor, or even non-existent, railway systems). The difference is that where a railway makes sense (e.g. connecting large cities or feeding people into and out of those cities from the suburban and rural surroundings), then it's taken as "normal" to have railway as an option. It is not as if Europe works on the basis of dedicated lines that only link London to Moscow or Madrid to Stockholm. Instead it has a patch-work of smaller national & regional systems which are then integrated to varying degrees of efficiency - Spain/Portugal being a good example of it not working well. SO, of course, I wouldn't expect to see hourly trains leaving New York for Dallas non-stop. Instead one would fly that route. But once you reached Texas if it had the European model then there would be regularl services between all the main towns and cities with connections for many hamlets and villages as well at least for peak times.

I think the real difference isn't really size or population density. It is political will - building and operating railways cost money and in many place that means taxpayer subsidies. I often see people praise the Spanish high-speed system. It is excellent (by contrast Spain's regional rail system is rubbish). But only one portion of the high-speed network makes enough money from passengers to cover its running costs (and no part makes enough passenger revenue to also repay the capital costs). So political decisions have been made to have the system taking account of social/environmental/economic advantages rather than it being a purely profit & loss business case (fortunately the Germans paid for a lot of the capital costs via EU funding!).

Posted by
16781 posts

Americans are going to Europe to see the scenery, so of course they don’t want to miss any if it’s “worth it.” They often just want a better understanding of the trade-offs.

Having learned to appreciate trains in Europe, I’ve more than once checked the options for taking them from Seattle or Edmonds but the schedules are sparse, rarely at the right time of day, and not faster than driving. Every year, when I drive 8+ hours each way for a long weekend in southern Oregon, I wish there were a train option, but the existing train takes 12 hours from Seattle to a station 65 miles away from my destination (further requiring two bus connections).

Posted by
20686 posts

It is called --- convenience. The street structure and roads makes it convenient to drive but that is more of a function as when our cities were laid out. We have cities -- towns in Nebraska that have main streets that six, eight lanes wide because when the town was laid out in the 1870s, 80s, they need room to turn around a team of horses with a wagon. None of this crowded walking lanes of dense Europe cities laid our in 1000, 1200, 1600. The one thing we had in the mid-west in 19th century was cheap space, and lots of it. And we are still spread out but that could be changing.

Posted by
4059 posts

In the state of Oklahoma, there is exactly one ONE passenger train. It runs once a day from Oklahoma City to Ft. Worth in Texas. And once a day there is one ONE train coming back from Ft Worth to OKC.

I live in a small town near Tulsa, about 90 miles from OKC. Tulsa has no passenger trains at all. There is a city bus system, which is just recently being improved so that waits of one hour or more to get a cross-town bus are less likely.

There is no public transportation option to get from my town to Tulsa. No train, no bus, no light rail, nothing. My town does not even have a taxi service. Now it is possible to call Uber or Lyft, but this is, of course, fairly recent.

In other words, in this part of the country, if you don't have a car, you're out of luck. We measure everything in terms of how long the drive is to get there.

There was some talk recently about instituting train service between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, the two largest cities in the state, but that discussion went nowhere.

So please look gently upon Americans who don't understand or appreciate the convenience of train travel. Those of us who do are envious.

Posted by
6369 posts

I will disagree with those that say the size of the US is not a (meaningful) factor relative to rail service.

Venice to Naples is the same distance as Seattle to Medford ( Badger is going to be busy on google)

Portland Eugene and Medford, do not equate to Florence , Rome and Naples.

London -Paris, is approximately same distance as Los Angeles-Las Vegas, without the inconvenience of 50 miles of water in the way.

Frankfurt-Amsterdam is the Seattle -Spokane distance.

Warsaw-Paris is Seattle to Los Angeles. ( I suspect the percentage of people who travel each of these routes and use the train are not significantly different)

Sometimes size does matter.

On taxpayer resistance-- in the Seattle area, there is a heavy rail commuter train between Edmonds and Seattle. The taxpayer subsidy for the operating cost ( excludes capital costs) is $60 per person per day ( $30 each way) The trip is 15 miles each way.
Seattle is spending a billion dollars a mile for light rail.

There are significant real factors that account for rail service in the US not being the same as in Western Europe.

Consequently it should not be a surprise that US tourists view rail travel differently than most Europeans.
It IS different and there IS a reason for the difference

Posted by
1215 posts

Thank you everyone for your replies! I knew public transport was bad in the US but what some of you have described is a lot worse than what I expected.

firstly whilst what you write is true, one does also see the opposite
with people here proposing train journeys which few locals would ever
bother doing. Instead many of us do often get on aeroplanes or drive
(because it's often quicker and more convenient than by railway).
There sometimes seems to be a fantasy view of Europe being promoted
where everyone is jouyously travelling on trains.

True, and sometimes it feels like you have to remind people that Europe is not Disneyland. And yes sometimes people suggest trains trips that few locals would consider. But in some cases the scenery is worth it. And personally I find trains a more relaxing way to travel. No security checks, no lines, no getting to and from airports.

So please look gently upon Americans who don't understand or
appreciate the convenience of train travel. Those of us who do are

I do, I was just a bit curious. (As well as bored, so I though I could ask the forum.)

I will disagree with those that say the size of the US is not a
(meaningful) factor relative to rail service. Examples: Venice to
Naples is the same distance as Seattle to Medford

I don't want to get political but from my point of view there are certainly areas in the US and Canada where a decent rail service would make a lot of sense. While a train from New York to Los Angeles will have a hard time competing with the airlines. Like Los Angeles-San Fransisco, Tucson-Phoenix or Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal.

( Badger is going to be busy on google)

I have been, now I am exhausted.

Posted by
16996 posts

There is certainly rail service serving Toronto/Montreal/Quebec City. I think I used it on my first trip to Canada back in the 1980s. However, I don't know how frequently those trains run. ViaRail also has at least one cross-Canada route that's popular (in sections) for the landscape it traverses.

Posted by
1215 posts

There is certainly rail service serving Toronto/Montreal/Quebec City.

There is so maybe it was a bad example. On the other hand it not much to write home about from a European point of view. Six daily departures taking 4:40 from Toronto to Montreal. A modern European high speed train would probably cut around 2 hours of travel time.

Posted by
3448 posts

“ Americans who don't live in or near big older cities like NY, Washington DC, or Chicago have little experience with mass transit, especially rail, and are easily confused and intimidated by systems like the Paris Metro or the London Underground.”

We traveled by trains and Paris metro, etc. in Europe before ever traveling on the USA NE corridor train on vacation. I have to disagree with the comment above. We found rail and metro travel to be logical, easy to use and very convenient.

Posted by
11436 posts

We have used both flights and trains in Europe many times .

If train ride is more than aprox 5 hours - we fly .

Just personal preference, longer than that on a train it too long , but we love the shorter rides , and with advance buys they can be so cheap .

Posted by
984 posts

I love and prefer traveling by train in Europe if I am going city to city but will rent a car for the countryside. I have not traveled by train here in the US since I was 3 or 4.

Posted by
3427 posts

Americans who don't live in or near big older cities like NY, Washington DC, or Chicago have little experience with mass transit, especially rail, and are easily confused and intimidated

Can't speak for everyone, but for me? No. Especially rail. After I was shown how to ride the Tube in London, I have used subways and other train systems everywhere I have been in Europe that had one and have never been confused or intimidated. The systems all seem logical to me and as long as I can read the ticket machine when purchasing a ticket have zero issues getting where I need to be.

I grew up in Texas, not know historically for mass transit of any kind, and took city buses everywhere I wanted to as soon as my parents felt I was old enough to do so (that was about age 12). I knew how to pay, how much to pay, when to pay, how to get a transfer permit to the next bus, and how to tell which bus I needed to get on at stops where multiple routes converged. I think it all comes down to simply paying attention to what is going on around you which from my experiences many tourists don't seem to be able to do.

Posted by
2454 posts

In Rhode Island and (at least) South Eastern Massachusetts into the 1920's, one could take a train/tram/trolley to the rural villages, or travel rural village through Providence out to rural villages on the other side of the city. That is how people got around, and they could set out at 10:00 PM, women alone too, to get home on the other side of the city (I have oodles of family diaries). Growing up in the 60's in what was considered rural, there were railroad right of ways, still with tracks, that were buried in the woods and no longer used. A very few of them have been used as rail-trails. The right of ways are mostly still there. Unfortunately, when vehicles were starting to become a means of making money (and gasoline) they were intentionally discouraged and shut down by the lobbying efforts of those businesses. It's unfortunate to say the least.

When living in the Boston area, sometimes in and sometimes just outside, the train has been for years my preferred way of commuting or traveling playing in urban Boston, shopping, etc, otherwise, the car as necessary. I have a few acquaintances who out of principal would never step foot on the subway or bus. It's their loss as far as I'm concerned. Traffic here is ridiculous. The train or subway affords a chance to read, etc. rather than wasting time. I will take the train to Providence, RI or Portland, ME if I'm staying downtown. But there is no point if going beyond Portland or beyond the islands in Casco Bay. (Although, one can take the ferry to Nova Scotia, that is possible).

While I've flown to NYC once or twice, I much prefer the train as it leaves me downtown vs at the airport where another mode of transport is required. I've taken most of the trains cross country, and enjoy them for the relaxation, the interesting people I meet, and the amazing scenery, and yes, I took one to come home from a visit to my brother in California due to a premonition, which is what got me hooked.

So, in summary, for many of us in this area, trains are our first choice, and they are easily used, particularly from the airports. There are also a few who feel it is beneath them to take public transportation (those I know are usually those who grew up with less than other people, oddly enough) so I'm not sure what would get them onto trains. It is more possible in New England to use trains on a daily basis, and, at least Logan Airport (Boston) and Greene (Providence) have train/subway or public transportation options to get from the train into either city (in fact there is a direct train from Greene to Boston, with some stops along the way). There are other public transportation options as well. It is unclear why any one would want to rent a car from Arlanda to Stockholm, unless they just don't do any homework before hand...

Posted by
2436 posts

I love the trains in Europe, but in US, not so much. My husband has taken trains from Bhm to ATL and New Orleans. He likes them. But you should hear my daughter's story of her trip to New Orleans on the train-they got there 8 hours late because of trains being stopped on the tracks and then she got sick in New Orleans.

Posted by
5540 posts

Amtrak passenger trains are suppose to have priority over freight trains. Freights tend to be a lot longer than passenger trains and a long freight may not be able to fit a siding. The practical matter is the passenger will be sidelined for the long (and slow) freight That wouldn't happen in Switzerland..

Posted by
17682 posts

Even thou I am an American, I am old enough to have had some experiences with trains in this country. I'm grateful for having had the experience.

The first fourteen years of my life were spent in So. Calif. (Burbank) from the middle forties to the late fifties. In 1947, when I was 3 yo, my mother took us by train "back" to Kansas City to meet her relatives. Being on the train for days was an experience (pleasant one) that I have never forgotten.

There was a mainline train crossing on Olive Ave, one of the main streets in Burbank, and sometimes we would have to stop at the crossing while the trains, both passenger and freight trains, came thundering through. I vividly remember them crossing the road in front of us, big steam engines, with all the flashing, moving parts around the driving wheels.

Later, when I lived in Seattle, and was going to college in upstate NY, my mother decided I should go by train so I could take along a trunk in the baggage car with all the stuff, clothes and bedding, I would need in the dorms. That was a fun trip, two nights on the N.P. North Coast Ltd through the Rockies to Chicago, then a mad dash across the mid-west, overnight on the 20th Century Limited to Albany.

Traveling by train was great back then. Even a few years ago, there were still a few trains around. Three years ago, we came back from a trip in northern Nevada from Reno to Denver, overnight, on the Amtrak Zephyr. Then Amtrak had a package deal with a small compartment and all of you meals in the dining car.

Now, sadly, I have to go to Europe to enjoy train travel.

I love and prefer traveling by train in Europe if I am going city to
city but will rent a car for the countryside

Not true, at least not in Germany. Over half of my 158 nights in Germany in the last 20 years have been spent in 15 towns smaller than 10,000 people. All but two towns were accessible by rail; the other two I got to by bus. In 20 years traveling in Germany, I've never needed to rent a car to get to where I wanted to go.

Posted by
17682 posts

If train ride is more than aprox 5 hours - we fly .

I guess that is a pretty good rule of thumb if you are going between big cities. The trains leave from downtown and go to downtown, so there is little commuting time to get to and from the train, but since airports are usually well outside of town, you have the time to get to the airport, time going through security and getting to the gate, wait time at the gate and boarding time, time to deplane and find ground transportation at your destination, and time commuting into town. This all on top of what at first might sound like a short flight. So yeah, a one hour plane flight can often take five hours from city center to city center.

On the other hand, if you like to spend time in small towns, like I do, flying can be a lot more complicated. Case in point, several years ago I wanted to go from St. Goar to Pfronten (near Füssen). The rail trip was 7½ hours and the cost including reserved seats, with a Saver Fare ticket was under 30€ pP. The most convenient airports were Frankfurt (FRA) and Munich (MUC). Neither airport was particularly close to my starting point or destination. It took 1½ hours from St. Goar to Frankfurt and 3½ hours from Munich to Pfronten. It might have taken less than 2½ hours from arrival at FRA to departure from MUC -security, getting to the gate, waiting to board, and boarding time, 50 minutes flight time, deplaning in Munich and finding the S-Bahn station, but it wouldn't have been much less, and just St. Goar to FRA and MUC to Pfronten (with a Bayern-Ticket) would have cost more than the cost of the Saver Ticket for the entire train trip, plus you have airfare, which was not cheap.

So, there are times when even a 7½ train trip is preferable to flying.

Posted by
5352 posts

Regarding Amtrak -- to me one of the plus factors is the long time it takes to go cross-country which makes one realize how large and varied the U.S. is! How flat the Great Plains. How green and hilly Ohio. How magnificent the Rockies. How much you miss just flying over.

Took my daughter to college in Massachusetts and back home four years later with all her accumulated belongings. Three days and nights in sleeper car with enforced mother-daughter bonding. (And the many boxes of stuff carried free in the baggage car.)