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Why Riding Amtrak Trains Usually Beats Riding Intercity Buses
OK, let's say you want to avoid the hassle of flying, including those invasive security checks, and you're willing to spend the extra time traveling on the ground ... but you want something safer, more scenic, and less stressful than driving. Well, that generally narrows it down to either an intercity motor coach (bus), such as Greyhound, or an Amtrak train in the USA (in Canada, a Via train).
So, which is the better way to go?
Rail and bus work together
There's no "absolute" answer to this, but while sometimes it might make more sense to take an intercity motor coach, most of the time, especially for a long-distance overnight trip, Amtrak probably has the advantage. Sometimes you hear claims (usually rather hypothetical) that traveling by motor coach should be just as comfortable as by train ... but this defies real-world experience.
Now, both modes are definitely useful, and a savvy traveler might use either one, or both, to advantage during a trip, depending on the circumstances. In fact, it probably makes a lot of sense to interface both rail passenger service and intercity coaches, as well as local mass transit, as much as possible.
As a general rule, motor coach services (such as Greyhound) provide a very useful adjunct to Amtrak's rail services, and vice-versa — often, for example, one public transport mode will connect to places where the other doesn't go (or doesn't serve adequately). But for long trips, rail does seem to have some significant advantages.
Several major differences
Riding comfort. Certainly, one of the biggest advantages of long-distance rail is the superior level of comfort — especially spaciousness, seating comfort, ride smoothness, freedom to walk through the train, and access to onboard beverage and food services.
Seat space and comfort. Coach seats on Amtrak's long-distance trains are significantly wider than those on buses and airliners; furthermore, they recline completely, with comfortable full leg rests. Plus each seat has a large tray table adequate for not just snacks but also writing or supporting a laptop or DVD player. And each pair of seats has a standard electrical outlet.
In contrast, most bus seats are not only narrower, but are crowded and crunched much closer together (thus reducing privacy, too) — too close to use a laptop — and they have minimal reclining capability, usually with footrests but no leg support. And most of the time, no electrical connections. (Some luxury motor coaches for highly specialized travel markets offer more space and amenities, but these are not typical for most long-distance overnight travel routes.)
Interesting scenery. Unless you're enthralled by miles and miles of Interstate highway, with frontage roads, billboards, service stations, shopping plazas, and the like, the view from the bus is not exactly inspiring. But the vista from your train window is different — long stretches of scenery you wouldn't get the opportunity to see otherwise, much of it gorgeous.
Freedom to move around. On an Amtrak trip, you can move around the train — spend time in the sightseer-lounge car, visit the snack bar or diner, sit at a table using your laptop or watching your DVD player, meet and talk with other passengers. (Especially for older passengers, this mobility is healthier for circulation.) On a bus, even if you could get up and walk in the aisle, where would you go? And, while each intercity bus typically has a restroom, the facilities on Amtrak trains tend to be larger, cleaner, and generally nicer.
Food and beverage services. Aboard a train, food and beverage service is generally available except very late at night — and for many passengers, having a leisurely meal aboard the train, especially in the dining car, is an enjoyable experience itself. On a long-distance bus, in contrast, you're given an opportunity to grab a quick meal (typically at a fast-food restaurant) only when the bus makes scheduled "rest stops", usually hours apart.
Overnight accommodations. The advantages of an Amtrak train in this respect are simply overwhelming. Especially the comfort — the choice between large, fully reclining seats in an Amtrak coach car, or (for a higher fare) a bed in your own sleeping compartment. In contrast, all you have on a bus is the cramped, crowded seat already described.
Better sleeping conditions. There's something to be said for the gentle rhythmic rocking of a passenger rail car compared to the somewhat rougher, occasionally lurching ride in a bus. Then there's the issue of interruptions during the night. Amtrak makes an effort to keep the lights dimmed and sounds muted (no announcements overnight, for example). The conductor's job is to wake up individual passengers when the train reaches their station. But on a bus, at every stop the driver turns on the interior lights and booms out an announcement with the name of the stop — making a solid sleep basically impossible.
Socializing with other passengers. On Amtrak, you're meeting new people all the time — especially in the dining car, where community seating is used to conserve table space. But you also meet people in the sightseer-lounge car, often near the snack bar. At night, it tends to resemble a pub — a major attraction for young people.
On an intercity bus, you might get chatty with the passenger next to you, or across the aisle, but there's very little chance for this kind of socialization beyond that.
Where buses have an edge
So do intercity buses have any advantages? Well, yes. Often, the fare is cheaper. And the bus can even be faster (Amtrak is mostly dependent on private freight railroads, which don't keep their tracks in as splendid a shape as Interstate highways, and tend to sidetrack and thus delay passenger trains in preference for their own freight traffic).
Also, many bus services have more convenient schedules than Amtrak's long-distance train routes, which typically operate one train a day in each direction. Plus, in some cases, the bus might make a stop in a more convenient place than the train, or might serve a town not connected by Amtrak.
And let's not forget that Amtrak's route structure is quite limited! Major cities — like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Lubbock, Amarillo, Corpus Christi, Tulsa, Wichita, Des Moines, Nashville, Knoxville, Mobile (and still more) — are totally omitted from Amtrak's train route system. And lots of travel routes are impossible — if you want to travel by Amtrak to Florida from the West Coast, Southwest, or Middle West, you have to get there by way of Chicago and Washington, DC!
Despite those challenges, plenty of travelers still seem to prefer the train, particularly for lengthy overnight trips, and many look forward to their next unique travel experience by train. Perhaps some of the comparisons above will help explain why.
Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, freelance investigative journalist and analyst, and transportation planning consultant. He produces the Writing Perspectives blog:
Lyndon also is a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and editor and a team writer for the Light Rail Now website. In addition, he produces a blog for Railway Age magazine.