As domestic travel rebounds from pandemic lows and prices soar, some travelers opting for trains over planes.
For many, the tradeoffs are simple: Trains are often cheaper, provide more leg room and are better for the environment than air travel. Those advantages and others are driving riders to Amtrak, the government-backed U.S. rail service, as it tries to revive pre-Covid ridership and smooth out operations.
Since emerging out of the pandemic, airline ticket prices have skyrocketed as travel demand surged. On top of that, uncertainty in the airline industry has ballooned in part due to high-profile incidents, like one that commanded headlines earlier this year when a section of an Alaska Airlines plane blew off mid-flight, leading to the discovery of loose hardware on Boeing 737 Max 9 planes in multiple airlines’ fleets.
Though train routes often take longer than flight times, the total travel time usually evens out when factoring in traffic to get to the airport, time spent in security lines and boarding wait times, according to Clint Henderson, a managing editor at travel site The Points Guy.
“We’ve done speed tests and measured the amount of time it takes to go between cities like New York and D.C. on the train versus the plane, and even though the flight is super short, it generally takes around the same amount of time,” he said.
Trains will likely never render flying obsolete, but Henderson said he’s seen an increase more broadly across the travel industry in the number of people choosing to take Amtrak trains over flights, especially in the Northeast corridor, where flying between two close-by cities doesn’t always make sense.
One of those passengers is Leonor Grave, who lives in New York City and often travels home to Washington, D.C., on Amtrak trains rather than flying. Grave said she particularly likes that train stations are typically in city centers, as opposed to airports, which are often on the outskirts of towns.
“If trains were faster and reached more destinations, I don’t think I would ever fly domestically,” Grave said. “It’s such a frictionless way to travel… and I just find it a lot more enjoyable on the train – you can get up, you can walk around, stretch your legs, you can go to the food car. You feel a lot more grounded.”
Grave said she’s even been able to bring her bike on the train and arrive at New York’s Penn Station just 20 minutes before the train’s departure, as opposed to having to arrive to an airport the typical two hours early. While she’s experienced some delays on Amtrak trains, especially post-pandemic, she said they’ve been negligible compared to flight delays and cancellations that have recently plagued the air travel industry.
“I don’t glamorize Amtrak as a corporation – there’s a lot they could do to improve its services,” Grave said. “Even though Amtrak isn’t perfect, I think it’s the best option of what we have. The more that rail becomes competitive with flying and the more people take the train, the more we can develop these train routes and connect different places across the rest of the country. It’s an exciting future for train travel.”
Reasons for rail
American trains are still nowhere near the high-speed railroad networks of Europe or Japan, for example. (Though Amtrak’s Acela trains can reach 150 miles per hour in sections of its route.)
Nonetheless, the option is increasingly attractive to some travelers as the dynamics of travel shift.
Twenty-two-year-old Chiara Dorsi booked a 19-hour Amtrak ride from Chicago to New Orleans this month rather than hopping a flight. The rail ticket saves her the hassle of dealing with bag limits and going through security. It also saved her nearly $400, and allows her to work during the ride.
“The price was just astronomically different,” she said. “And I’m working remotely and Amtrak has Wi-Fi, so the time I’m wasting on the train isn’t actually wasted because I can do my work from anywhere.”
Dorsi also said she tends to gravitate toward trains for their environmental benefits.
According to the International Air Transport Association, air travel accounts for roughly 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions. That travel impact is significantly lower when substituted with train travel, according to Aaron McCall, the federal advocacy coordinator at California Environmental Voters.
Whenever there’s communal travel, the emissions are bound to be reduced, McCall said.
“We are seeing a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions across the board, and the reason why we’re seeing that decrease is directly connected to investment in green technology and public transportation,” he said.
McCall said he’s even seen more people take Amtrak trains in California recently, where public transportation significantly lags behind the robust networks of the East Coast.
Ridership returns, with delays
Amtrak reported total ridership of over 28 million in 2023, a 24% increase from the year prior – but still down significantly from a pre-pandemic total of over 32 million passengers in 2019.
It saw particular bounce-back in its ridership and revenue along the Northeast Corridor — spanning Washington, D.C., to Boston — with a more than 22% increase year over year, according to a November report.
But the trains’ on-time performance has taken a hit since the pandemic, according to a 2022 report from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 2019, Amtrak operations had an overall on-time performance of 75%, on a weighted basis, according to the BTS. In 2020 and 2021, as ridership cratered, that on-time performance improved to 80% and 78%, respectively.
As of 2022, the latest data encompassed in the report, total delays rose again and on-time performance sank to 74%, according to the report. Much of those disruptions were the result of issues with host railroads, rather than the fault of Amtrak, but the company said it remains committed to finding ways to decrease disruptions.
“Throughout the Amtrak national network, we work around-the-clock to ensure reliable service and safety during inclement weather,” Amtrak told CNBC. “We have our own team that monitors weather conditions and assessing the state of the railroad and related infrastructure in real-time.”
Amtrak has also been building out its longer routes, bolstered by fresh funding from the White House to upgrade trains and build out more infrastructure between cities. In an effort to double ridership by 2040, the company is investing over $5 million into a program aimed at enhancing train stations, tunnels and bridges.
Those upgrades will be the key “gamechanger” in revolutionizing train travel, according to Henderson of The Points Guy – even if the timeline is looking long.
“They’re reinforcing the track beds in some places, rebuilding bridges, and these trains will be able to run faster,” Henderson said. “Once those start rolling out, it’s going to be exciting … I just urge people to be patient because it’s going to take a while before these things are full reality.”