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Why Riding Amtrak Trains Usually Beats Riding Intercity Buses

Updated on January 20, 2012
Amtrak train (left) tends to offer better choice than intercity motor coach (right), especially for overnight travel. [Photo composite by L. Henry; photos from WikiTravel and Nocargo.com]
Amtrak train (left) tends to offer better choice than intercity motor coach (right), especially for overnight travel. [Photo composite by L. Henry; photos from WikiTravel and Nocargo.com]


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!

Summing up

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:

http://writingperspectives.wordpress.com

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.


Published: 2011/11/29

URL: http://lhwritings.hubpages.com/hub/Why-Riding-Amtrak-Trains-Usually-Beats-Riding-Intercity-Buses

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      R. van Wormer 5 years ago

      I think the bus is not quite as convenient as this article seems to indicate. Intercity bus service is vastly reduced from what it was 20 years ago. Greyhound and other intercity bus companies have eliminated most of their small town stops, closed most of their bus stations. Frequency of service is often, as with trains, only once a day, often at inconvenient times. They are trying to get the business between major cities with limited stops in between.

      It is hard to describe the usual unpleasantness of bus travel. It can be like a long nightmare. Overnight travel should definitely be avoided for many reasons in addition to those mentioned in the article.

      Busses could be an important part of a transportation system but at present this is mostly an ideal not a reality. Interface between other modes is often very poor. An exception is the thruway bus system operated by Amtrak itself in California. The timetables sometimes list Greyhound or other bus companies as "Thruway" connections but these are just ordinary intercity bus routes in no way up to the quality any typical traveller would find acceptable.

      So many anti-train comments I've seen, suggest that train travel be eliminated and that the passengers just use the busses. Unfortunately these busses usually aren't even available in most of the country nowadays. These writers are just displaying their ignorance, let them try to find a bus route and they'd understand a lot more about public transportation.

    • LHwritings profile image
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      Lyndon Henry 5 years ago from Central Texas

      Thanks T. van Wormer - your comments are mainly on target, and I think we're on the same page on this issue.

      Your last point is excellent, and parallels what I've been asserting in other forums. I strongly suspect that the critics that argue that buses can just replace trains mostly never ride either trains or buses, and they're probably preaching to others that also never ride either mode. Furthermore, if trains were eliminated (as the critics and opponents desire) it's likely that the vast majority of passengers would not shift to buses, they'd shift to personal motor vehicles (and perhaps a few to air travel) - thus further overcrowding highways and the air travel system.

      The point I was trying to make about convenience and bus travel was not intended to extol the convenience of buses but merely to argue that, in many cases, intercity bus schedules are more convenient, and you can actually travel (feasibly) between important city-pairs on buses, whereas by Amtrak's system, you can't. For example, from here in Central Texas, I cannot currently travel to Florida, Denver, or Salt Lake City by train (I'd have to go by way of Chicago!); however, I could go directly by intercity bus (and probably have several times to choose from).

      The best role for buses, in my view, is to provide useful short (1-3 hrs) connectors to link to Amtrak for longer intercity journeys. Another issue this raises is the salient need to expand Amtrak's network, and provide the kinds of additional routes I've suggested. Unfortunately, this isn't likely to happen in the current political climate, which seems to have its mindset firmly rooted in the 13th century, or even earlier, perhaps the early Stone Age.

      LH

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