I live in New Orleans, Louisiana, and having been quarantined there for five months, I was inordinately excited when the necessity of traveling to New York came up recently. I wanted to go as safely as possible, of course. I was still slightly skeptical about flying, but I also didn't particularly want to drive. Added to this, I had a flexible time scale, and so I decided to do something I'd wanted an excuse to do for a long time: take a long-distance train journey.
Amtrak's "Crescent" service runs daily from Union Station in New Orleans to New York's Penn Station. You board early in the morning in downtown New Orleans, and 32 stops, and as many hours later, you disembark in central Manhattan. It sounded civilized—decadent, even—and with some airlines controversially booking full planes and a host of safety issues to deal with at airports, I was curious to see how Amtrak fared in the time of COVID-19.
Since this was a long-held intention, I splashed out and booked myself a sleeper car, known officially (and somewhat quaintly) as a Roomette, a private cabin with sleeping space that I could relax into for the duration. The Amtrak website promised a picture window from which to watch the changing landscapes, a decent dining experience, and an attendant who would "share great stories of life on the rails." I very much felt life has gone off the rails this year, and so a sense of normality via a new travel experience was just what I was in the market for.
I arrived, bleary-eyed at 6:30 a.m. at Union Station for a 7 a.m. departure. The attendants, all masked, showed me to my car and gave me the option of checking any or all of my luggage. I'm shown to my Roomette and given a brief overview of both the in-cabin amenities and train life in general. This was to be my home for a day and a half, longer than even flying to Australia.
Two people could travel happily in the Roomette, though it would help to be on vaguely intimate terms. Two comfy chairs face each other, and there was air conditioning and Wi-Fi, as well as space to hang jackets and the like. A bunk hangs above your head that can be pulled down for sleeping on, the seats below reclining together to make a further bed space. One of the side tables lifts to reveal a toilet, and there's a pull-out sink, though some people may prefer to use the communal bathrooms in the other coaches. There's also a shared shower along the corridor, and Roomettes come with linens and towels.
I was still exploring the amenities as we moved off, picking up speed quickly and forging a path through the flat Louisiana landscape. There's a delightful early highlight as the train crosses Lake Pontchartrain, and the tracks disappear beneath you, the train so low that it feels and looks as though you're floating across the water. If you've ever seen the movie "Spirited Away," and even if you haven't, you'll find it quite evocative.
An hour or two in and the rocking of locomotive life is calming, my contentment levels rising even more as my complimentary breakfast order of coffee, juice, and a tasty breakfast sandwich is taken and delivered to my cabin. I'm especially smug as I think about the inevitable stopover on my theoretical flight from NOLA-NYC, which I'm imagining would be especially stressful.
This brings us to the critical question: Is traveling on Amtrak safer than traveling by plane in terms of COVID-19 exposure? In all honesty, the answer isn't clear cut. Some airlines are practicing distancing measures in the cabin, and if you fly, you're definitely exposed to the outside world for a much shorter amount of time than a 30-plus hour train journey.
Amtrak has put its own measures in place, though. At the busier stations, signage and protective barriers have been installed, and increased push notifications mean less crowding around departure boards for service information. Face coverings are required in all stations.
On the train, Amtrak reports that cabins have been prepared under enhanced cleaning protocols. High-touch surfaces such as handles and countertops have been cleaned with EPA-registered disinfectants. Travelers may remove their face masks in their private cabins, but masks must be worn in shared spaces such as the corridors and the Cafe Car, which are operating carry-out services only.
Anyone traveling in regular seating must wear a face covering, and social distancing measures in these cabins are subject to how busy the individual services are. One notable recent development has been on the Amtrak online booking engine, though, which now displays how full each train is to best inform ticket purchasing decisions—especially helpful if travelers are considering any of these regular seating options.
If you can book a private cabin, then, my impression is that it’s safer and less stressful than airline travel. In the regular cabins, assuming some level of social distancing is possible, the risks feel roughly the same, but again a train station check-in has less potential crowding and stress points than an airport. In general, train travel offers more control over your immediate travel environment. However, travel times are a fair bit longer, and so that’s a comparison to be made by individual travelers.
As the Crescent makes its way through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, my attendant has yet to regale me with great tales of train life. Still, he’s charming nonetheless and brings my lunch and dinner orders as we trade our favorite hang-outs in New Orleans. The complimentary menu is limited but retains enough variety for the four meals I eat on board, with options such as veggie enchiladas and chicken marsala. Although the infamous socializing of the Amtrak bar and dining cars of old is no longer possible, the Cafe Car is nevertheless a good backup for additional snacks and drinks.
The picture window does indeed frame some lovely scenery as the train skirts national forests and suburbs and cities come and go. The sun sets beautifully as we nose out from Atlanta around 8:30 p.m., and the Carolinas loom as darkness falls. I pull down the top bunk, grab linens from the cubby hole and lie back with a book as the train rocks me to a comfortable night’s sleep.
The level countryside of the Deep South has given way to the green hills of Virginia as I wake up, and the morning is a delightfully scenic one as the breakfast service rolls out. Rural panoramas give way to increasingly urban ones as we reach Alexandria and then Washington, D.C., where we can stretch our legs on the platform as the train makes a scheduled engine change.
Back on board, the city skylines of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and a couple of stops in New Jersey mean that we’re getting close to our final destination. The reassuringly familiar skyline of Manhattan is on the horizon as the Crescent pulls out of Newark Station, though sadly for sightseeing opportunities, the final approach to Penn Station is mostly via underground tunnels.
We arrive at the terminus on time almost to the minute, and there’s a lot to be said for stepping out into a central New York location that doesn’t require waiting for checked luggage and taking an expensive cab ride into the city. There’s a fond farewell from the attendants, and it feels like a journey that delivers memories and an experience as well as relative safety in a time where travel alternatives are more important than ever. If you can spare the time, then life on the rails is safe and civilized.
Paul Oswell traveled on the Crescent service from Union Station in New Orleans to Penn Station in New York City. Prices for a one-way trip start at $139 for a coach seat and from $478 for a Roomette. Book via amtrak.com.