The On-Board Experience
Let's talk about what you can expect on the train. We'll start with the layout of the train, and go on to describe different parts of it. Scroll down for more.
The Train Itself
Let's start with the train itself. At the front of the train you'll find one or more locomotives (engines) that power the train. In most of the country, the locomotives are diesel-electric, meaning they have diesel engines that generate electricity to power the motors that drive the train, as well as lights, outlets, and whatnot throughout the passenger areas. In the northeast, most trains are electric-only, powered by overhead wires called the catenary.
After the locomotives, there are different train components called cars. Broadly speaking, a rail car could be anything from a coal car to a coach car. Rail cars are larger than a bus or a semi, and a given train could have dozens. (Some freight trains could have more than that.)
The Passenger Cars
Right behind the locomotives, you might find a baggage car or some other utility cars. Then you'll get to the passenger cars, which will be generally arranged in this order on long-distance trains, from front to back:
Sleeping cars, featuring private compartments for first-class passengers
The dining car, offering full sit-down meals, restaurant-style
The lounge/snack car, offering panoramic views on the upper level and fast food service on the lower level
- Coach cars, with seating for coach passengers
We'll go into more detail on each of these below.
Passengers are allowed to pass freely between all these cars, with the exception that coach passengers are generally not allowed in sleeping cars.
These descriptions apply to long-distance trains, which usually operate bi-level Superliner equipment. Some trains that don't operate overnight might have business-class or first-class seating areas instead of sleepers, or may omit the sit-down dining car. For information on what's available on a particular train, consult train services.
Travel in coach is the cheapest way to travel on Amtrak. The coach section is roughly similar to what you'd see on a plane or bus, with a few important differences.
First of all, seats in coach are big. Generally speaking, seats in coach -- especially on long-distance trains -- offer far more legroom and all tend to recline farther than seats you'd find in first class on airplanes. They are also fairly wide -- probably almost as wide as you'd see in first class on an airplane, and significantly larger than what you'd see in coach on a plane or bus. You'll have individual reading lights. Some trains also feature an AC outlet at every seat, but not all; Amtrak equipment is being slowly renovated to add this feature, and you won't be able to know in advance if it'll be available.
Coach cars typically have an overhead rack for storage of luggage. It's pretty big on most trains, and can handle even mid- to large-sized suitcases, though some oversized suitcases might not fit. There is also usually room for storage of luggage on the lower level or ends of the cars. Coaches have restrooms on the lower level or ends of the cars.
Compared to airplanes, there is more storage space for carry-ons both in overhead racks and underneath seats. Leg rests fold out from your seat, and foot rests fold out from the seat in front of you. Dinner trays also fold out from the seat in front of you, airline style.
Some shorter trains might not provide as much room, but still tend to provide more room than you'd expect.
Windows on Amtrak are big and provide a far nicer view than airplane windows.
There are never requirements to stay seated in coach on a train like there are on a plane.
Amtrak's Seating Accommodations page has more detail and some photos for coach seats.
Main Article: Amtrak/Sleeper
First-class service on long-distance trains means a stay in a sleeper. The sleeping cars have private rooms, and there are various types available. Please see our page on sleepers for more information.
Sleeper travel is more expensive than coach travel, but usually includes free meals in the dining car. Sleeper travel also entitles ticketholders to wait in Metropolitan Lounges in select cities. See the sleeper page for more information.
Some shorter-distance trains offer things such as business class service, quiet cars (no cellphones, noisy children, or loud conversations), and the like. These vary from train to train.
Business class typically offers things such as AC outlets at every seat, free beverages, more spacious seats, etc.
Food and Entertainment
Main Article: Amtrak/Food and Entertainment
There are, in general, two types of food available while on an Amtrak train: restaurant-style service in the dining car, and more fast-food fare in the snack or observation car. Short-distance trains typically will not have a dining car, while trains that operate overnight almost always will.
For more information, see our article about food and entertainment on Amtrak.
Traveling by rail takes you places where there is literally no other way to see. You might be going along the side of a mountain, with an expansive view of the valley below, and no sign of civilization anywhere. Or you might be going through the neighborhoods of south Chicago, seeing people's backyards and peering into factory windows. Or you might travel through the fields of the midwest, seeing the waves of wheat and walls of corn. Or perhaps you'll wake up and find the Mississippi River out your window, cruising by.
Railroads run through parts of the country where roads don't. They take less land and are less environmentally invasive. You won't be seeing a sea of pavement in the middle of a wave of billboards the whole way.
Amtrak's rail cars have large windows for watching scenery. The upper level of the observation car, in particular, has floor-to-ceiling wrap-around windows.
Now that you know what to expect on-board, move on to how to travel by rail.