Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (2023)

The United States of America is not known as a land of top-notch passenger railroading. Much of this has to do with a fundamental lack of investment. Unlike Japan, France, Spain, or China the country has not committed to building modern high-speed rail infrastructure. But the operational aspects of American passenger rail are also curiously primitive. In other words, we don't use the infrastructure that we do have in a remotely efficient way or apply international best practices to railroad management.

Consider the curious case of boarding a train at Amtrak's most popular stations.

1) How do you board a train?

In general, once one knows on which track a train will arrive, one goes to the adjacent platform and waits. When the train arrives, the doors will open and people who need to disembark will get off. Then you go through the open door and hop on the train. This process is seen at train stations around the world, including intercity trains everywhere from Brussels to Shanghai and mass transit trains such as the 1, 2, 3, A, C, and E New York City Subway lines at Penn Station and WMATA's Red Line at Union Station in Washington, DC.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (1)

Alex Wong/Getty Images

2) How does Amtrak think you board a train?

At smaller stations such as New Haven, New Carrollton, or New Rochelle, Amtrak uses the same boarding procedure used by foreign intercity railroad operators and by commuter rail and mass transit rail systems in the United States.

This makes sense, since that's how one boards a train.

However, at larger stations, Amtrak chooses to ignore 150 years of accumulated human wisdom about boarding trains. So at Boston's South Station, New York's Penn Station, Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, and Washington's Union Station, people wishing to board intercity trains must go through a more elaborate process. You wait for your track to be called and then need to queue up — with each passenger presenting a ticket to an Amtrak staff member before you are allowed onto a platform. This is roughly how one boards an airplane in all countries, but it is not normally how one boards a train.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (2)

Nayu Kim/Flickr

3) Why is standard boarding procedure different for planes and trains?

Airplanes typically only have one door, which makes single-file queuing unavoidable. What's more, trains typically use either turnstiles at station entrances (for mass transit) or on-board conductor checks (for intercity trains) to verify payment. This makes a ticket inspection queue unnecessary, while the multiple doors factor makes an inspection queue burdensome.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (3)

(Video) What To Expect At An Amtrak Train Station


4) Is Amtrak unaware of the differences between planes and trains?

They seem to be aware. As noted, Amtrak employs standard train boarding methods at many stations, offering a clear indication that they are aware that trains have multiple doors. What's more, Amtrak employs conductors who check tickets on trains, indicating that they are aware that there is no need for pre-boarding payment verification. The queuing is limited to a handful of stations that happen to be located in major cities and thus happen to account for a very large share of total boardings.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (4)

Grant Wickes/Flickr

5) Why does Amtrak think the queuing system is a good idea?

Amtrak officials have represented to me that the ticket check is a necessary security measure. They have not been able to point to a specific legal directive instructing them to employ this method, but they gesture in the direction of airport security procedures.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (5)

Auburn Alumni Association/Flickr

6) Why would verifying that a passenger has a ticket help prevent a terrorist attack?

Unclear. All of the 9/11 hijackers were bona fide ticketed passengers. Purchasing a train ticket is a trivial task compared to assembling a bomb or obtaining a visa to enter the United States.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (6)

David Wilson/Flickr

7) Couldn't terrorists just board at one of the smaller stations where they don't do ticket checks?

Yes. Even if the ticket checking did have security value, the fact of the matter is that a malefactor could always board the train in Newark or Stamford and evade the system. It inconveniences law-abiding travelers but offers no meaningful impediment to a determined villain.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (7)

(Video) The Don'ts of Amtrak Train Travel in the US

Matthias Rosenkrantz/Flickr

8) How can I avoid this fiasco at Penn Station?

At New York's Penn Station one can avoid the queuing madness by adopting the following procedure: go to the main waiting room. Observe the escalators located in the middle of the room near the main information board. Descend the escalator.

You will find yourself in a mezzanine area whose primary function is boarding New Jersey Transit commuter trains. Wait by the monitors near the bottom of the escalator and watch for your train's track to be announced. When the track is announced, you will be able to proceed directly from the mezzanine to the appropriate platform without going through the queue or the ticket check.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (8)

Matthew Yglesias

9) How can I avoid this fiasco at Union Station?

Oftentimes you can't. But if you are on a northbound Amtrak Regional (or sometimes Vermonter) train that originated in Virginia and boards from one of the low platforms, you may be in luck. Note the track number, but instead of proceeding to the assigned gate, go to Gate L. Once passing through the Gate L doors, you'll go upstairs to a small waiting area for Virginia Rail Express commuter trains. That waiting area should contain stairs that descend to the platforms that serve tracks that run through to Virginia. Pick the appropriate staircase, head to your platform, and wait for your train.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (9)

Rafael Yglesias

10) How can I avoid this fiasco at South Station?

At South Station, it is common for Amtrak trains to dwell on tracks that are adjacent to platforms that also serve MBTA commuter rail trains (see above). In this circumstance, Amtrak will cordon off half the platform to facilitate pointless queueing while allowing free entry to the other half of the platform so the commuter trains can operate like normal trains. Simply stick to the left as if you plan to board the commuter train, and then dart quickly over to the intercity train.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (10)

Jeffrey Zeldman/Flickr

11) How can I avoid this fiasco at 30th Street Station?

Two helpful Philadelphia tips in my inbox, both from readers who prefer to remain anonymous:

(Video) 24 hours in Amtrak COACH CLASS - The Sunset Limited Train

The life-hack for avoiding the queue at 30th street station is using the elevator. You need the assistance of an amtrak employee to operate the elevator but I was commuting between NYC and Philadelphia 3 times a semester for my entire college career and they were always willing to take me down. I used this technique at homecoming this year.


The staircase opposite your gate is almost always open and leads to the same track. Go down that, and you beat the line. Sometimes they close it off, so it doesn't always work. But most of the time you are golden!

Great to know!

12) Aren't you going to ruin it for everyone by getting Amtrak to shut the Penn Station trick down?

It is certainly possible that Amtrak is going to ruin it for everyone by shutting down these entry points. But there's another outcome: Amtrak could reconsider the boarding procedure across the board. The personnel currently employed doing pointless ticket checks could be reassigned to work at the ticket or information desks and improve service across the board. Better rail transportation in America is possible, but it will only become a reality if American rail operators adopt best practices.

The better way to board an airplane

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How does Amtrak boarding work? ›

Boarding an Amtrak train at some stations starts ten to twenty minutes before departure. At other stations, as soon as the train arrives, people board, and when the scheduled time hits, the train leaves with or without you.

Does Amtrak check boarding ID? ›

Following federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines, we regularly conduct random ticket verification checks onboard trains to ensure that passengers are properly ticketed. Please be prepared to show valid photo identification to a member of the onboard crew upon request.

Does Amtrak have priority boarding? ›

Seniors, families with small children, active military, disabled in wheelchairs or walkers, and business class have boarding priority on Amtrak. In the larger stations, they will reserve a separate waiting room with more seating available.

How early should I arrive for Amtrak train? ›

When riding Amtrak, you only need to arrive at the station minutes, not hours, before departure.

What happens if you don't board a train? ›

In case you miss the train from your designated boarding station, the TTE cannot allocate your berth to anyone else until the train passes the next two stops or during the next one hour (whichever is earliest). The rule thus allows you to board the train from the next upcoming station, if that is feasible.

What is the process of boarding a train? ›

1) How do you board a train? In general, once one knows on which track a train will arrive, one goes to the adjacent platform and waits. When the train arrives, the doors will open and people who need to disembark will get off. Then you go through the open door and hop on the train.

Does Amtrak search bags? ›

They've targeted carry-on baggage such as backpacks as well as typical checked baggage items. Passengers tell stories of being awakened on a stop and being searched right there at their seats.

What happens if you don't have ID on Amtrak? ›

Many people travel by Amtrak every day without having or showing ID. But many other people are harassed for traveling by Amtrak without ID, or are unable to buy tickets. As with ID to fly and many other requests and demands made of air travelers, there are no “rules” for ID to travel by Amtrak train.

How do you know if a passenger has boarded the train? ›

There is no way to access the full passenger's list of a train other than railway administration. It is a matter of safety of passengers. Earlier a passengers chart of all coach was pasted on every coach of a train at the before departure from the originating station.

Who qualifies for priority boarding? ›

Boarding order

Active duty U.S. military with military I.D. *Eligible AAdvantage® credit cardmembers (on American Airlines flights) include: Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select World EliteTM Mastercard.

How do you qualify for priority boarding? ›

All passengers flying in a premium cabin get priority boarding. But the group you'll be assigned to depends on which class of service you're flying. Passengers in the front cabin board with Group 1.

Can you sit anywhere on Amtrak? ›

Can I choose a specific seat? Not while you're making a reservation. Your seat will be automatically assigned when you complete your reservation. You may change your assigned seat at any time after your booking is complete using interactive seat maps on the Amtrak app or on

Can I bring my own snacks on Amtrak train? ›

Bringing Your Food Aboard

You may bring your own food and beverages onboard for consumption at your seat or private Sleeping Car accommodations. However, you can only consume food and beverages purchased in Dining and Lounge Cars in those cars.

What am I allowed to bring on Amtrak? ›

Each passenger may bring two personal items, 25 lbs. (12 kg) and 14 x 11 x 7 inches each, and two carry-on items, 50 lbs. (23 kg) and 28 x 22 x 14 inches each, onboard. Make sure you have a tag with your name and address on the outside of all your bags.

Should I bring a blanket on Amtrak? ›

Any luggage you bring on board needs to be in your custody, stored in overhead racks, under seats, or in designated baggage areas. Travel necessities like pillows, blankets, computer cases or medical devices are allowed. The great news is those do not count toward your two-bag limit!

Can you get in trouble for train hopping? ›

But why would people risk their lives hitching a ride on a freight train today? Train hopping, sometimes referred to as freight hopping, is against the law in all US states. But the practice continues.

What is the penalty for boarding train without ticket? ›

Punishment: Ordinary single fare for the distance which he has travelled or from the station from which the train started and the excess charge i.e. `250/- or equivalent to the fare whichever is more. Punishment :6 months jail, fine `1,000/-or both.

Can I board train after 1 station? ›

Any passenger who wants to change his boarding station will have to make changes online 24 hours before the train's departure. But, as per the official IRCTC website to the passengers, once passengers change their boarding station, then they cannot catch the train from the original boarding station.

What is the order of boarding? ›

Passengers that check in first get on the plane first. The boarding groups are A, B and C — with each passenger assigned a number somewhere in that group. When the gate agent calls your group number, you find your place in line. Business Select tickets will get to board first (they are always A 1-15).

How is boarding done? ›

Boarding is the next step after completing your check-in. Passengers get into the aircraft after completing their check-in through websites, counters or kiosks. The difference between boarding and check-in is boarding is done vis-a-vis while check-in can be done through mobile phones.

Does Amtrak have security checks? ›

With due respect to passengers' privacy, the random and unannounced screening and inspection of passengers and their personal items is completed as quickly as possible - usually in less than a minute.

What can you not bring on a train? ›

Prohibited Items

The following items are prohibited onboard the train: non-service animals, firearms and ammunition, hover boards, corrosive or dangerous chemicals and materials, incendiaries, martial arts and self-defense items, archery equipment, devices containing propellants, sharp objects, and similar items.

Can you bring CBD on Amtrak? ›

Traveling with Weed by Train, Bus, or Boat

For example, bringing cannabis is not permitted on Amtrak trains, even in legal states.

Can you bring a vape pen on Amtrak? ›

Pack items that are in containers larger than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters in checked baggage. – Amtrak prohibits use of devices on its trains, Thruway buses and stations. Vaping is allowed in designated smoking areas.

Can undocumented immigrants ride Amtrak? ›

This means that anyone traveling on Amtrak or Greyhound, for example, face the prospect of a uniformed and/or non-uniformed law enforcement officer asking them for their “papers”. If they cannot prove that they are here legally in the United States, a person faces detention until proven legal.

Can I travel in train without ID proof? ›

A. The user is not required to give any input of the photo identity card details of any of the passengers while booking the ticket. However he shall have to carry and show one of following identity card of any of the passengers in original while travelling.

Does Amtrak ticket need to be in my name? ›

Yes. When purchasing tickets on line, you just need to fill in the traveler's name.

What happens if a passenger does not board at boarding station? ›

If a passenger, for whom a berth or seat has been reserved, does not turn up up to 10 minutes before the scheduled departure of the train, the Railway Administration may cancel the accommodation reserved for him and allot it to the passenger on the RAC list/Waiting list accordingly on priority.

What happens if someone occupied my seat on a train? ›

You can also complain on 139

Regarding such matters, railway officials say that if someone illegally occupies the reserved seat or berth of any passenger, then, first of all, the matter should be taken to the TTE of that train.

What is considered denied boarding? ›

What is denied boarding? Denied boarding occurs when a passenger has a valid ticket for a flight, but is not allowed to occupy a seat on board the aircraft because the number of passengers who have checked in and are at the gate on time is greater than the number of available seats that can be occupied.

Does priority boarding get you through security faster? ›

With Sky Priority, you'll enjoy faster check-in and accelerated security, early boarding, and expedited baggage service.

Why do people buy priority boarding? ›

Purchase Priority Boarding to enjoy the convenience of boarding earlier. Priority boarding lets you avoid the lines and get to your seat sooner.

How much does it cost to upgrade to priority boarding? ›

How much does Upgraded Boarding cost? Upgraded Boarding pricing starts at $30 per segment, per Customer, based on the popularity and length of each flight segment. A credit card must be used for the purchase of Upgraded Boarding.

How much more is priority boarding? ›

Go First offers Priority Boarding at just INR 400 for Domestic and INR 600 for International. This is a pre-paid service and can be bought by paying a non-refundable fee as mentioned in the below table.

Can you be denied boarding pass? ›

The most common reason for denied boarding is overbooking. This is when airlines sell more tickets than there are seats on the aircraft. The reason for this common practice is so-called 'no-shows'.

Are you allowed to walk around on Amtrak? ›

You're allowed to walk about the train as often as you'd like. Just make sure to watch where you're walking onboard the train between cars. The safety plates often shift and pinch when the train is in motion.

Can I board the train from any station on the way? ›

Now, railway passengers can change their boarding station, 24 hours before they begin their journey. As per the rule of IRCTC, one can change his/her boarding station if they have booked their tickets online.

Is it better to sit on the upper or lower level on Amtrak? ›

The best place to sit in Amtrak Coach Class is on the upper level. It's all about the view on the upper level. This is the biggest advantage of sitting in the upper level. You can also move from car to car more freely as there is access from each car on the upper level.

Does a backpack count as a carry-on Amtrak? ›

personal items do not count toward the carry-on baggage limit. Each passenger on board the train; each item should not exceed 50 lbs. (23 kg) and 28 x 22 x 14 inches.

Can you travel with edibles on Amtrak? ›

All Amtrak trains, Thruway buses, and stations are entirely non-smoking. The use or transportation of marijuana in any form for any purpose is prohibited, even in states or countries where recreational use is legal or permitted medically.

Can I drink my own alcohol on Amtrak? ›

We serve alcoholic beverages onboard trains in most Dining, Lounge, and Café Cars. You may bring aboard your own private stock of alcoholic beverages subject to the following limitations: You may consume private stock alcoholic beverages only in Sleeping Car accommodations for which you have a valid ticket.

What is not permitted on Amtrak? ›

Black powder, percussion caps or any ammunition used with a matchlock, flintlock, percussion-cap ignition system or similar type are never permitted; this includes self-loaded, gunpowder-based modern ammunition. *Amtrak accepts no liability for theft or damage for any items brought onboard.

How early should you arrive for Amtrak? ›

Plan to arrive at the station at least 30 minutes before your train is scheduled to depart (Auto Train passengers should arrive at the station at least two hours prior to departure).

Does Amtrak check bags before boarding? ›

Luggage must be checked at least 45 minutes prior to your train's scheduled train departure.

Does Amtrak give you pillows? ›

Just like a hotel! Facial, hand and body towels are all included, and your train attendant will make your bed for you at night and put it away for you in the morning whenever you want. We also provide pillows, but you're free to bring additional ones. Just remember space is at a premium in our room!

How long does it take to board an Amtrak? ›

Unless you're taking the Auto Train, plan to arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled departure. If you need assistance with baggage and/or ticketing, we recommend you arrive 60 minutes early.

Do you sit next to someone on Amtrak? ›

Families and friends traveling together will easily find seats next to each other. If traveling alone, customers may place their personal belongings on the seat next to them.

Do you have to have a ticket before boarding a train? ›

Buying tickets

Like all train companies*, you must buy a ticket before you board, or risk getting a penalty fare.

Do they wake you up on Amtrak? ›

If you fall asleep on Amtrak and your destination is coming up, an Amtrak conductor will wake you up. When you board the train the conductor will put a destination ticket above your seat to let them know which stop you are getting off at.

Do you tip Amtrak attendant? ›

General Guidelines: Tipping is NOT required, but is considered correct for the service crew personnel on the train. Recommendations: Snack bar attendant: roughly 10%. Dining car: 15% of menu prices (sleeping car passengers may want to note this when ordering their meals).

Can I bring my own snacks on Amtrak? ›

You may bring your own food and beverages onboard for consumption at your seat or private Sleeping Car accommodations. However, you can only consume food and beverages purchased in Dining and Lounge Cars in those cars. Personal food and beverages are allowed in the upper level of Superliner Sightseer Lounges.

Is it rude to talk on Amtrak? ›

Our advice, don't be a loud talker. By all means chat it up (not if you're in the quiet car… obvi), just do so quietly. All the space on Amtrak trains is a bit intoxicating in all the best ways.

Can a family sit together on Amtrak? ›

For customers traveling with kids in First Class, Family Rooms span the width of the car with ample space for two adults and two children (aged 2 - 12) and feature: Seating for four by day transformed two upper and two lower beds by night.

Is it OK to board the train from a different station? ›

Once a passenger has changed the boarding point they will lose all the rights to board the train from the original boarding point. If found travelling without any proper authority to travel, passenger will have to pay the fare with penalty between original boarding point to changed boarding point.

Can I board train with waiting? ›

They are not allowed to board the train. If detected traveling in the train, they shall be treated as passenger traveling without ticket as per extant Railway Rules.

Do you tip the Amtrak sleeper car attendant? ›

While tipping isn't required, leaving a gratuity is the norm. Usually, for one night in a sleeper, I suggest about $10 per person/per night. If your room attendant brings your meals to you in your room, then think about adding more to the tip as you would have left a tip anyway for the dining car waiter.

Does Amtrak have sniffer dogs? ›

Vapor wake detection dogs are trained to alert on a passing individual. Amtrak currently has the most K-9 units in the railroad industry with vapor wake capabilities. Additionally, The APD currently has two working narcotics detection K-9 teams.

Can I bring alcohol on an Amtrak train? ›

We serve alcoholic beverages onboard trains in most Dining, Lounge, and Café Cars. You may bring aboard your own private stock of alcoholic beverages subject to the following limitations: You may consume private stock alcoholic beverages only in Sleeping Car accommodations for which you have a valid ticket.


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