Traveling by Intercity train in the USA

thaitransit Feb 26, 2009

  1. thaitransit

    thaitransit TrainBoard Member

    I'm fairly new to the US rail system and Amtrak and have a copy of some of the major train timetables from there website I assume there are more train services than just the ones listed in the main timetable. Anyway I'm planning a trip and would like to ask for some more information.

    In 2010 I'm Planning to visit the US for about 6 weeks in either April or October. I refuse to fly direct into LA or New York but will fly direct into Toronto and cross the US border by rail to start my trip. This is due to your counties over the top airport security system.

    As I have worked it out there is one train a day from Toronto to New York (Train 64) taking about 12 hours to get to New York. However there appears to be no train service to Chicago from Toronto this seems odd as its closer than New York and a major city. If there is some kind of direct train service on this route I would like to know?

    I also need to visit Charleston City WV during this trip. But the train service to this city is very very limited to only 3 trips a week on (Train 51 or 50). Does anyone know if there are additional local rural commuter trains operating part of the route between Washington DC and Chicago? The route appears to be a major corridor but doesn't get even a twice daily basic intercity train service strange.

    Also what does the two letter code next to each name on the timetable mean. e.g. Charleston City (WV)?

    As I'm also a railfan who likes to photograph various passenger and cargo trains.

    What areas of the US are great for photography of passenger trains on the eastern side of the country?
    What areas of the US are great for photography of Cargo trains on the eastern side of the country?

    Any recommendations of must do intercity or rural commuter train trips in the US?

    Some more general questions regarding Amtrak rail travel.

    What is the seating like in coach class? It seems to be the lowest class on the trains is it basicly unreserved 3rd class non aircon seating. I.e only good for short trips.

    Is it safe to travel alone on the overnight intercity trains in the US?

    What is the best type of sleeper on the overnight trains? Is there a 1st class twin berth aircon sleeper with toilet at the end of the carriage? Or is it mostly 2nd class open corridor style where bunks are along each side of the carriage and directly open on to the corridor.

    I have had some pretty poor experiences with food standards on intercity trains in the past ie got very ill from it. What is the food like on Amtrak overnight intercity trains?

    Is it best to purchase the tickets at a local station on the day of travel or a few days in advance? Does this apply to Sleeper berths on overnight trains as well?

    Are there any special rail passes that include sleeper use for international visitors to the US? Such passes exist in Europe and Asia and offer huge savings over buying tickets on the day.

    Thanking you all in advance for the help on this.
  2. atsf_arizona

    atsf_arizona TrainBoard Supporter

    Hi, ThaiTransit,

    Welcome to the US (in the future), I'll take a crack at a few of your questions and
    I hope many more add answers.

    My answers pertain to western US Amtrak, and while I'm sure things vary a bit,
    here's what my guess would be as a US citizen who has traveled on Amtrak's
    Coast Starlight a fair amount. I've also traveled decently extensively in Asia, Europe,
    and have been to Thailand several times, so I'll do my best here to provide some info.

    Seating in coach class on Amtrak is generally good. Even long distance travel in
    coach on Amtrak is reasonably comfortable. As long as everything is working,
    all cars are air-conditioned.

    It is safe to travel overnight alone, in both coach and sleeper. I do understand a
    little of the issue you are concerned about, but as long as you take normal precautions
    that any traveler would in Western Europe for example, you are quite safe to travel overnight alone, in both coach and sleeper in US Amtrak.

    The overnight basic sleeper is fine, you just need to plan on walking down the hall to
    the restroom.

    Food: I wouldn't say Amtrak food is all that good, but it's generally safe. The cost of the food is "medium".

    Whether you purchase tickets in advance or on the same day is matter of supply and
    demand. If you can supply an itinerary, many of us here would probably know if that
    train is in high demand and would best require reservations. The time of year you are
    traveling obviously makes a difference too. I'd say sleeping car reservations in
    advance would be a good idea.

    While I don't believe we have any special passes for visitors with international passports, Amtrak does have USA Railpass. Here's some info from the web site (you can
    find this info under 'Hot Deals' tab, and then go look for 'Railpasses and Programs':


    USA Rail Passes

    Travel through out the entire United States.
    Available in 15-day, 30-day and 45-day durations.

    Passes for Travel Throughout the United States

    The USA Rail Pass an excellent way to see the United States from a different viewpoint. The pass enables you to visit any destination in Amtrak's system and to choose how long you want to travel. The USA Rail Pass is not intended for use as a commuting pass.
    Regions and Travel Periods

    Passes are available in three travel durations and travel segments (15 days/8 segments, 30 days/12 segments and 45 days/18 segments) through out the entire United States. Travel must begin within 180 days of the date the pass purchased.

    How Do I Travel?

    How Do I Purchase a USA Rail Pass?

    Online: You can purchase USA Rail Passes at any time on our web site. A major credit card is required. Purchase a USA Rail Pass here.
    International Travel Agency Representatives: You can purchase USA Rail Passes by contacting one of our worldwide sales representatives.
    USA Rail Passes are not available for purchase onboard trains.

    Do I Need Tickets and Reservations?

    Yes. Your USA Rail Pass is not a ticket. When traveling on a USA Rail Pass, you must have a ticket and a reservation for each train you board. You must make reservations and pick up your ticket(s) before boarding any train.

    Reservations for train travel should be made as far in advance as possible; seats available for USA Rail Pass passengers are limited on each train. We do not recommend waiting until the day of departure to make your reservations since there is a greater chance that seats allocated for the USA Rail Pass may not be available on your desired train. If your plans are not flexible, non-USA Rail Pass seats may be available at an additional cost.

    How Do I Get My Tickets? etc....

    If you have a credit card you can purchase online. Note that if you use Railpass, you really *should* make reservations in advance as Railpass seating is limited.

    I hope this initial set of answers helps and I hope a lot of us help our international visitor here. :)
  3. SteamDonkey74

    SteamDonkey74 TrainBoard Supporter

    The two letter codes next to the names of the cities might be postal abbreviations for the various states. I don't know exactly what you are looking at since it's not in front of me, but I imagine that your train, starting in Toronto, would have the abbreviation ON for the province of Ontario. I don't quite know why WV would be on there since that's West Virginia, unless Amtrak routes it's Toronto - New York train through West Virginia.

    You'll need to have all your standard point-of-entry documentation with you when you cross the border from Canada to the U.S. Whatever you would need flying into a U.S. airport in terms of documentation I believe you will still need to have even if you come in by land.

    I have not taken trains in Thailand, but I have taken them in Europe, especially in Italy. I would say that the coach seating is roughly equivalent to somewhere between 1st and 2nd class on an Italian train. All my Amtrak travel has been through the western states, and here we have either Talgo trainsets, which I find quite comfortable, or Superliners, which have even more leg room and lots of space to get up and stretch a bit.

    We do have some opportunistic thieves on our trains, so I wouldn't leave your camera sitting on your seat while you go to the bathroom, but in the Western states at least you don't have to worry necessarily about pickpockets. I would use the same level of care you use when traveling in Europe, if you've been there.

    If you are going to be doing a LOT of rail travel, I would definitely recommend checking out your rail pass options. There is, I believe, an Amtrak-VIA pass for use in the U.S. and Canada. Also, you'll have to have a sense of humor and a lot of flexibility. On large parts of the Amtrak system, the passenger trains often get delayed due to freight traffic. It's kind of a convoluted system, and the subject of lots of debate both here on TrainBoard and in the general public, but the result is that your train will sometimes be held up for hours. I wouldn't plan your itinerary so tightly that being a couple hours late will ruin your vacation. The Coast Starlight through California, Oregon, and Washington, often runs 3 or 5 or 8 hours behind schedule.

    I think it's still the best way to see the country, and the most comfortable way to travel.
  4. Ed M

    Ed M Passed away May 2012 In Memoriam

    I wonder if thaitransit kind of answered his own question when he asked:

    And yes, the two letter codes next to the city in the timetable are indeed the abbreviations for the state.

    Actually, depending on the country of origin, the documentation required when crossing by land can be stricter that that required when flying. I can't speak to citizens of other countries, but since my wife is Mexican we cross the border by land frequently. Flying, she only gets asked to show her passport and US Visitor Visa. When crossing by land we have to be prepared to show, in addition to the passport and visa, proof of residence (they usually ask for six months of utility receipts showing a Mexican address), financial support, local bank accounts showing sufficient activity, etc.

    I suspect it will be shock to someone from a country that has frequent passenger rail service to find just how scarce passenger trains are here in the U.S.


  5. thaitransit

    thaitransit TrainBoard Member

    The border issue seems to be a major problem with regards to reliable access to the USA. From what the canadian embassy told me as an australian it will be easy and no problem no proof of funds or employment needed. But the US will be a problem as im likly to be using mostly Thai Baht cash and Thai Baht credit cards to pay for the trip and train tickets. I'm used to countries where you just show your passport and visa and thats it not even a hand check of bags just an xray.

    In the end its looking like it would be better for me to pay for my few US friends to take the train to canada and meet them there for a few days each instead. Plus do a train ride from vancouver to toronto entirly inside canada. This appears to also be about 70% cheaper over all as well. not the train but the flights and visa requirements and better exchange rates.

    I wonder if when the US border guards stop you they just make you take the train back into canada if so i could still try for access and a US visa but accept the risk i might not gain access to the US and have to change the plans to get people from the US to visit me at my cost. This also means i would not be able to book anything untill i actuall crossed into the US due to this risk of being denied entry.

    I'm sorry but the US embassy in Bangkok was most unhelpful regarding this type of trip which is a shame. Maybe one day the US will see value in international toursits and business visitors. Only then ill be able to do this trip.

    The trip that i had planned would have looked like this. Subect to change but all the US part would have been rail only.

    Fly Bangkok - Vancouver
    Vancouver - Seattle
    Seattle - Chicago
    Chicago - Charleston WV
    Charlston WV - New York
    New York - Boston and Portland
    Portland - Dallas
    Dallas - LA
    La - Seattle with a stop at San Fransisco.
    Seattle - Vancouver
    Fly Vancouver - Bangkok
  6. atsf_arizona

    atsf_arizona TrainBoard Supporter


    I might suggest to contact your US friends and research the matter more. I agree
    the US Embassy may not be the most helpful source, however, unfortunately the
    Embassy is not in the business of promoting tourist travel to the degree that
    that we all would like.

    As a US citizen, I would think that it is quite possible for you as a Thai tourist
    traveling to the US to be able to do what you wish to do. I'd suggest that it's possible
    to find reputable travel agents who have experience in advising Thai tourists.
    Certainly, you would want to and can pay for most expenses using credit cards, and
    any cash would need to be US dollars. Almost anything in US can be paid for with
    credit cards, even McDonald's hamburgers.

    I do see that Mahachai City seems to be a fair distance away from a large Thai
    city, so I can understand that finding this kind of US travel information may not
    be as easy to come by as we'd like. If possible, it does sound like a good idea to
    have your USA friends perhaps meet you in Canada and travel together with you
    across the border to USA and be with you long enough inside the USA to help you
    get acclimated.

    I have to believe that there must be some information that Thai people
    living in the US would be able to give you. Maybe if you or your USA friends can find some USA citizen Thai friends or maybe local USA Thai community organizations, who may have had Thai relatives visit the USA, who would be willing to give advise as to what exactly are the requirements, based on their experience, for entry using a valid visa. As in most
    countries of the world, I hope your local USA friends would help you out.

    The trip you are speaking about sounds like a nice and quite long journey, and covers
    some beautiful scenery. I do notice that your itinerary does not include Chicago-San
    Francisco (i.e. the Amtrak California Zephyr). Due to the scenery, this is one very popular train
    that you may want to consider, as crossing the Rocky Mountains over the old DRGW and
    the Sierra Nevadas over the old Southern Pacific are wonderful US railfan dream trips.
    California Zephyr would also allow you to stop over in Sacramento, CA, and visit the
    California State RR museum - one of the best in the USA - including the one and only
    surviving Southern Pacific 4-8-8-2 Cab-Forward, preserved as a static display. The reason
    I point this out is that Dallas to LA can be pretty, but it's not the same level of beauty
    that Chicago-San Francisco is. One way to do this is possibly pick up the Calif Zephyr
    in Denver and somehow see if San Francisco-Denver fits into your journey.

    Also US Amtrak long-distance trains are not that frequent, so allow *plenty of time* for
    this journey, and expect 'adventures' along the way as Amtrak long distance trains cannot typically keep on schedule. If you can do this trip - it is a great way to see USA.

    I do recognize that times and circumstances are challenging for us all, and I agree
    that the USA Patriot Act has significantly changed entry situation into the
    USA for non-citizens, of all nationalities. As a US citizen, I do recognize that
    I'm treated differently at the border than our international visitors.

    One additional thought: my company (I work for a large internation computer
    manufacturer) has had a fairly number of Thai employees visit over the years,
    and I wouldn't mind asking a few questions to my companie's international group.
    We the people in the USA in general are very open and welcoming to honest
    tourists and visitors..... speaking for myself, if I can be of some general help, please
    feel free to ask.

    I hope this helps.

    (I know I'd have tons of questions if I were to try to plan a train tour in
    Thailand! By the way, beautiful country you live in).
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 28, 2009
  7. SteamDonkey74

    SteamDonkey74 TrainBoard Supporter


    Keep in mind that, as John Sing mentions above, the Embassy is not really in the business of promoting travel and tourism. You might have slightly better luck with a Consulate, but you'd probably be best off with a travel agent with experience sending travelers to the USA.

    Unless you have a criminal record including felonies or show up on terrorist watch lists or owe loads of money in back fines to the U.S. Government or something like that I wouldn't worry about the entry hassle. Just make sure you have EVERYTHING they ask for handy when you visit. Don't lie about your reasons for visiting. You said you were intending to visit friends. That's a perfectly legitimate reason to visit the U.S.

    There's a certain amount of variation between points of entry, too. If you come into one of the larger international ports of entry, like LAX (Los Angeles International) or most of the larger Chicago or New York airports it is very likely that the border control and customs folks have seen plenty of Thai visitors already so it won't throw them off if you come with a Thai passport.

    On the other hand, Canada is a lovely country to visit and if you decide to confine your trip to Canada I totally understand that, too.

  8. Glenn Woodle

    Glenn Woodle TrainBoard Member

    Fly Bangkok - Vancouver
    Vancouver - Seattle
    Seattle - Chicago
    Chicago - Charleston WV
    Charlston WV - New York
    New York - Boston and Portland
    Portland - Dallas
    Dallas - LA
    La - Seattle with a stop at San Fransisco.
    Seattle - Vancouver
    Fly Vancouver - Bangkok[/QUOTE]

    I'd like to suggest an alternate route. Keep in mind I know nothing about border formalities.

    1) VIA Canadian train from Vancouver- Toronto/Montreal. The route in the canadian rockies is very scenic. Equipment is a very classic streamliner pulled by modern locos.
    2) Amtrak/Via Maple Leaf from Toronto to New York
    3) Amtrak Cardinal from New York to Charleston WV
    4) different day Amtrak Cardinal fro Charleston WV to Chicago
    5) Amtrak Empire Builder Chicago-Seattle
    6) Amtrak Seattle- Vancouver train.

    The Amtrak Travel Planner includes some stopovers in many cities. You can get a nice hotel to stay + some city tours with choices depending on your interests & time available in each city. It can be a great way to get around without needing to rent a car.

    I understand you do not want to enter the US in New York or LA. You may be able to get a flight directly into Chicago IL or Seattle WA. O'Hare Field in Chicago has a major international hub. It may be somewhat easier to land there & deal with jet lag issues.
  9. Kevin Anderson

    Kevin Anderson TrainBoard Member

    There are only two trains from Canada. The Maple Leaf from Toronto and the Cascades from Vacouver. If you come from Vancouver you can transfer to train 8 (Empire Builder) to CHI, or 11 (Coast Starlight) to Sacramento where you can transfer to 6 (California Zehyr) to CHI. If you take that route, you may meet me when you get to SLC.

    For good photo ops on the eas coast goto Washington DC to Boston. This is the North East Corridor. Amtrak, CSX, and the NS run on this route as well as other commuter agencies.

    Hope this helps. B)
  10. cwktrains

    cwktrains TrainBoard Member

    My dad's a travel agent. He can help you with this.
    His website is
    He specializes in train travel and can answer all, or at least most of your questions.:tb-biggrin:

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