When you buy through our links, we may earn money from our affiliate partners. Learn more.
Amtrak eTicket; iStock; Alyssa Powell/Business Insider
- As Americans return to travel, many are eyeing regional domestic destinations for their first trips following lockdowns.
- If you’re planning to venture beyond a short drive and don’t want to board a plane or sit behind the wheel for hours, traveling by train is still an option.
- To find out if train travel is safe, and how to best protect yourself, we talked to experts including two doctors, a disaster recovery firm owner with a coronavirus arm, and a representative from Amtrak.
- Read more: Is travel safe? We interviewed experts on risks associated with flying, booking hotels or Airbnbs, renting cars, and more, plus ideas on safe vacations during COVID-19
As lockdowns ease around the country, more Americans are returning to travel in some measure. But rather than immediately return to previous habits, it’s likely that many will eschew air travel in favor of ground transportation to visit regional destinations that are close to home.
Certainly, traveling by car — either the family vehicle or a car rental — is one way of accomplishing such trips, and medical professionals consider rented cars fairly low risk for virus transmission.
Trains offer another way to travel for both regional and long-distance routes. For travelers who prefer to stick closer to the ground and avoid planes, or for those who would rather nap, read, and take in the sights over managing navigation and traffic, trains offer an alternate option.
And while you’ll have more space to spread out than in an airplane, traveling by train still generally involves interfacing with many people — so, is train travel safe?
For answers, we talked to experts including a pair of doctors, a cleaning company owner with a new coronavirus division, and a representative for Amtrak. Here’s what they say about how to know if train travel is clean and safe, how to take extra precautions when you ride, and the level of potential risk exposure compared with other modes of travel.
For more reporting on whether it’s safe to travel right now, click a link below to jump directly to related coverage:
The most important thing to keep in mind when traveling (or leaving the house at all) is to understand how the virus is generally transmitted, which is directly from person to person by way of respiratory droplets.
Now apply that fact to various modes of getting around. Airplanes and airports present plenty of opportunities for exposure through in-person encounters. Rental cars provide far fewer. But unlike renting a car, riding a train will indeed likely expose you to other travelers as well as staff during your journey.
“Remember that most of the transmission of the coronavirus is respiratory — it’s not through inanimate objects,” says Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, who also notes that much-discussed pre-clinical and asymptomatic possibilities for exposure. That means the bulk of the risk in train travel comes from fellow passengers and staff on the train and in the station.
So, your chief concern if traveling by train should be minding your social distance, and also maintaining impeccable hand hygiene.
What are train operators doing to make travel safer in the pandemic?
National railroad service Amtrak has rolled out a host of new safety measures meant to facilitate a safe travel experience. All travelers must wear masks, and Amtrak is limiting ticket sales on reserved services to allow for social distancing.
And not just on the trains, Amtrak has also enhanced cleaning protocols at the station, with added measures for social distancing. Signage at Amtrak’s busiest stations indicates safe distances in high-traffic areas, and protective plastic barriers have been installed at customer counters. Staff and passengers must also wear masks in stations.
“As states have started relaxing their restrictions and we restored some services, we are seeing an increase in ridership,” notes Roger Harris, Amtrak EVP, chief marketing and revenue officer. “With that, we are limiting bookings on most trains to allow for more physical distancing in seating areas. Individuals traveling alone may use the seat next to them for personal belongings, while friends and family members will easily find seats together.”
Harris notes that more travelers will likely choose the train, compared with air travel or other modes of public transportation as the pandemic continues, saying, “We expect that this summer ridership will continue to increase.”
Dr. Edo Paz, VP of medical at the digital primary care provider K Health notes that distancing measures will be key to a safer experience on a train. “Physical distancing plays a big part in keeping passengers safe. Combined with wearing protective gear like masks and gloves, these protocols suggested by the CDC and implemented by Amtrak can make traveling by train a safer experience.”
Do note, however, that a vacant seat next to a passenger still does not guarantee the CDC-recommended minimum distance of six feet from others elsewhere in the car.
Amtrak, which serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, also offers a unique class of service that might especially appeal to travelers in the COVID-19 era: private rooms. While these are not new, Amtrak is re-branding them given circumstances surrounding the pandemic and has announced enhanced cleaning protocols for safety.
The rooms are available on long-distance routes in a variety of sizes to accommodate solo travelers, couples, and groups of families or friends. A standard room features two seats that can be converted into beds, and comes with complimentary Wi-Fi, charging outlets, and an expansive window for taking in the views. It’s not unlike a moving hotel, both in terms of amenities and also potential risk exposure.
For an idea of sample pricing on a long-distance, popular route down the US West Coast, consider that from Seattle to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight, one passenger in a Roomette could pay as low as $432; one passenger in a Bedroom would start at $807; and one passenger in a Family Room would go as low as $630.
These prices apply for the full length of the route and not all passengers travel from the very beginning to the very end of the route. As a result, these prices can vary quite drastically. For example, if traveling only for a portion of the route from Seattle to LA, prices will be far lower than these sample fares.
A regular seat on the same route starts under $100. But the sleeper options do come with meals, too.
For cost comparison, you could expect to fly nonstop for about the same cost or less, with advanced notice and flexibility. Obviously, you’d arrive much faster, but for many people who travel the Coast Starlight route, known for its beauty, speed is not the goal.
Cafe service is available to both coach and sleeping car customers along select routes. When it is available, seating will be closed and offered as carryout only. Travelers may bring items back to their seats or private rooms.
There are new markers and signage promoting physical distancing leading up to the cafe counter, and protective plastic barriers are being installed at cafe countertops. Amtrak is also temporarily offering flexible dining service on long-distance routes and encouraging customers in private rooms to opt for room service. Amtrak does not currently, nor did it previously, offer bar cart service. However, customers in private rooms may make beverage orders via an Amtrak attendant.
If you’re considering a trip, routes include such destinations as Glacier National Park, the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands National Park, or Disney World. Of course, wherever you disembark, you’re on your own to manage your own safety.
What extra precautions should I take when riding a train during the pandemic?
Dr. Russo — like most public health professionals — advises wearing a mask in any situation in which you might encounter other people, and certainly, that goes for a train environment. Again, direct person-to-person contact is the most typical way the virus is transmitted, and masks help mitigate risk.
Compared with direct contact with people, your risk will be much lower through exposure to particles that may linger on surfaces within a train. “The virus on surfaces dies off over time — it’s not that viable over time on inanimate objects,” Dr. Russo says, noting that there is a “small but finite risk from inanimate objects.”
Therefore, you should regularly wash and disinfect your hands and surfaces where the virus could exist on the train, in the station, or elsewhere in the course of your travels.
“The virus is very susceptible to disinfectant,” Dr. Russo says. “So if you want to afford yourself an extra level of protection, wipe any areas down with a disinfectant wipe that your hand touches.”
John Marroni, owner and president of the disaster recovery company National Restoration, which now has a dedicated coronavirus arm, agrees. “When boarding a train, you are going to be among people, so first and foremost, wear a mask,” he says. “Secondly, always keep hand sanitizer on your person.”
In addition to frequently sanitizing and washing your hands on a train, “Do your very best to make sure you try not to make contact with high-touch areas,” Marroni says. He notes that on a train, these areas might include, “doors, handrails, and seats especially — areas with the most frequent human contact.”
Whether or not cloth seats pose a particular danger is not yet fully clear. “According to the CDC, coronaviruses on surfaces and objects naturally die within hours to days. When it comes to any fabric or cloth items, the infectious droplets could penetrate deeper into the fabric due to its porous structure,” Dr. Paz says in regards to trains’ cloth seats, noting, “however, this is not very well studied.”
Comparing the overall safety of train travel to commercial airplane travel involves taking into account many factors.
First, unlike trains, airplanes have advanced airflow and filtration systems that make the air much safer: flow rates are high, air supply is pure thanks to HEPA filters, and it’s directed in a controlled manner, from ceiling to floor, to limit mixing.
However, airplane cabins are also smaller enclosed spaces than trains, which can mean closer proximity to more travelers, and greater potential risk exposure. Dr. Paz says the safety of each of these two modes of travel is really going to vary depending on the specifics and the number of the particular travelers involved.
“When comparing a mode of transportation, whether train or airplane travel is safer is dictated largely by the passenger,” Dr. Paz says. “By maintaining social distance from others, using face coverings, and frequent hand washing, you can drastically decrease your chances of contracting COVID.”
Let’s consider a scenario in which someone else on the train is infected — whether symptomatic and actively coughing and spreading virus particles, or asymptomatic. You could become infected through direct and prolonged contact with that person. For instance, if you were sitting near each other in the same train car.
However, Dr. Russo notes that the virus is known to settle out of the air relatively rapidly — about one to three hours under experimental conditions and perhaps much less in real-world scenarios — so the air quality is not likely to be a concern if an infected person was on the train, but disembarked, say, the day before.
Given the level of exposure to risks through train travel, would our experts travel this way while the pandemic continues?
“While not ideal, as the lesser of the evils, trains are a moderately safer method of travel during this pandemic,” Marroni says, comparing train travel with other public modes of transportation, including the relatively riskier proposition of air travel. “And they are easier to disinfect because the turnover per person is not as frequent as other means of public transportation.”
In the end, his verdict is this: “Yes, all things considered, it’s relatively safe — and safe enough that I would travel by train myself, as long as I felt disinfecting protocol was being properly enforced.”
For his part, Dr. Paz is less enthusiastic. “Ideally, the fewer people entering and leaving a train, the better,” he says, nothing. “I still recommend that passengers hold on non-essential travel when possible.”