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I'm planning to go to the USA for some months. I'd like to travel there by train, but I heard that trains aren't really widely used in USA. So my questions are:

  • How is the rail network in the USA? Is it possible to reach the big cities and also some smaller sights in a feasible amount of time?
  • Is there a train ticket that allows an unlimited use of all trains?
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3 Answers 3

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I'd suggest you start with reading the Seat61 page on Train Travel in the USA. That'll tell you about the main routes, the main trains, general timings and prices etc.

As a general rule, most big places on the east and west coast can be visited, but only certain ones inland (in other cases the appropriate lines have closed). For long distances, the trains are normally slower than an equivalent european one, and don't run as frequently.

There are a few areas with the kinds of frequency and speed you get in Europe, but they tend to be along the east coast (such as Boston - New York - DC)

For information and geographical accuracy, you probably want the Seat61 Map, but the official Amtrak one will give you an idea of roughly where you can travel: Amtrak Map

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You can also expect long-distance AMTRAK trains (particularly those crossing the country) to be hours late. Acquaintances traveling recently from Reno to near Minneapolis were 14 hours late. Passenger and freight trains share tracks and it often seems that the freight trains have priority. –  mkennedy Aug 31 '11 at 15:12
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@mkennedy The reason for this is typically snow in the mountain passes. I have a friend who designs rail layouts and he informed me that most delays are cause by the snow cracking the rails. Any train coming over the Rocky Mountains between September and June will most likely be hours late. Any train coming from the east will be less likely to be late, but don't be surprised if you are still waiting an extra hour or two. I once went from Denver to Chicago one train was 19 hours late, and coming back was 2 hours late. –  Ginamin Sep 1 '11 at 3:20
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@Ginamin I'm sure that's one issue. My acquaintances were delayed first by freight trains. Then, because of hurricane Irene, they were told in Chicago that they could either wait 3-4 days and try to get seats onto later trains, or go to Toledo, at which point they were on their own. Their destination was Maine. They went to Toledo and rented a car. Admittedly, Irene was unusual, but their trip west included having to transfer trains when the first broke down. –  mkennedy Sep 1 '11 at 16:39
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@mkennedy That isn't that strange. I used to date this girl and AmTrak kicked her out of a train in Raton, NM in the middle of a blizzard in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, some old gentleman found her and put her up. I had to drive 6 hours through the Rocky Mountains in a blizzard to pick her up. Whenever we tried to complain to Amtrak they would basically hang up on us. We even once got the response, "Well, we are government subsidized." Basically saying they don't care because the government is behind them. I would never recommend taking a train in the USA unless required. –  Ginamin Sep 2 '11 at 3:32
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wow, these trains are so slow. 16h40m for 780 miles from DC to Chicago? That's like 3 times slower than trains in Europe. –  vartec Sep 2 '11 at 9:58

Train travel in the US in general sucks rocks; either it's very inconvenient or it's very expensive.

However, it's almost always worth stopping by the amtrak.com website to check out the intercity pricing and schedules. Some routes are subsidized by state governments, which make them inexpensive, and occasionally more convenient, than air or bus travel.

There's no question: hands-down, train travel in the US is more luxurious than bus travel. Air is usually the cheapest for long distances. And if you're considering car rental, remember that a) you'll pay a lot of money if you're under 25, and b) gas prices are dirt cheap here by most people's standards.

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Rail is only really practical in the Northeast part of the USA between big cities like Boston, New York, Chicago and Washington DC. In the Southwest and South Central parts of the country very few people would even consider traveling by train. First, this is a very big country so it takes a very long time to travel by any land based transportation, secondly there aren't many hubs down here so you will often be forced to go thousands of miles out of your way if you want to travel between Southern cities.

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Europe, China, and Russia are also very big so while the lack of hubs has to be a factor I doubt that size is really a factor. I think the big rail operators have figured out that trips they can achieve in about two hours can compete very well with flying due to hassles reaching and using airports. –  hippietrail Sep 16 '11 at 15:48
    
All I know is that when I looked into a trip from Austin,Texas to Denver,CO it was a very circuitous route that went through Indiana or Missouri and required a 2-4 hour leg via bus. If you look at a map that is a long way out of your way. Not so much of an issue on a plane, but it can add almost a full day (or more) to an overland trip. –  JohnFx Aug 28 '13 at 13:09

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