Amtrak’s Boarding Procedure Brings the Stress of Airports to Trains

Union Station waiting area
Amtrak remodeled the waiting area in the Union Station underground with harsh lighting, drab ceilings, and small entries. Photo: straightedge217

While intercity and long-distance train travel is on the rise in the United States, Amtrak could still do a lot more to improve the customer experience and boost ridership further.

I’m new to using Amtrak, having only ridden it three times in my life, but I have experience riding European intercity and cross-continent trains. Last week, I made my fourth trip on Amtrak, a 34-hour ride from Chicago to Salt Lake City, visiting my family for Thanksgiving. I knew that Amtrak boarding was different so I arrived an hour early. After checking to see if a roomette was available at a last-minute discount, I went over to my train’s “gate” (which Amtrak calls a boarding lounge) to see if there was anything I should know.

There was no special knowledge required to get on board, but the process embodied the unpleasantness of most major American train stations. Amtrak has a cumbersome boarding process at Chicago’s Union Station (which it owns) that forgoes the international standard — people board the train as they arrive — in favor of airline-style gate checks. The method packs passengers into long lines in a fluorescent dungeon.

Despite the logistical difficulty and annoyance for passengers, this serves no purpose — humans have shown a propensity to consistently board the correct train for over a century. Imagine if Metra required passengers to present their ticket before boarding.

Amtrak’s airline-style boarding procedures, which gained internet infamy at busy Penn Station in New York City, have already been critiqued multiple times. In Europe, you on’t find pre-boarding ticket checks on any international intercity train line except Eurostar (between London and Paris, for border control purposes). By importing the security theater of air travel, Amtrak loses a key advantage — the lower-stress experience of train travel.

ICE diesel train arrives from Denmark
Passengers at the Berlin, Germany, central train station don’t have to wait in “boarding lounges” for their arriving trains.

Making passengers find their gate instead of their train’s platform is also different than the prevailing travel experience. At airports your gate is the same place you board the plan, but Amtrak at Union Station routes you through an arbitrary gate and then to a platform 100 feet away. Airlines check tickets to ensure the right people get on the plane, but Amtrak’s gate check doesn’t assure that: The staffer at the gate doesn’t check the validity of the ticket, and once past the gate, people can proceed to any platform. Ticket validity, as is standard around the world, is checked after the train departs.

The gate check at Union Station reduces the amount of time one can relax at the station’s restaurant and bar, or in the beautiful, well-lit Great Hall. In most train stations around the world, including small ones across the United States, passengers can arrive up to minutes before the train leaves, or wait in the station and then walk on when they please, without having their tickets checked.

But at Union Station, passengers slog through narrow corridors with short ceilings to reach limited seating at the gate. When I arrived, more than a hundred people were standing in line  for over 30 minutes for a train to Michigan. That’s uncomfortable, and unnecessary. Amtrak doesn’t require anyone to wait in line, but they invite it with their boarding procedure and waiting area design.

Now that I think about it, an announcement for the Michigan train said you could arrive up to five minutes prior to departure, and some people skip the queue. If you arrive earlier than that, though, you’ll find a rope corral, cutting you off from being able to board the train immediately, like you can with transit and intercity trains around the world.

Waiting for the train
The previous waiting room before the renovation, with glass walls and no looping “for your security” videos, was more comfortable than the current one. Note the soft lighting. Photo: Robert Powers

Amtrak, Metra, and the city of Chicago recognize these issues and created the Union Station Master Plan in May 2012 to improve the passenger experience and add platform capacity. It says nothing about using a more sensible and time-tested boarding process, though. The plan recommends moving ticket counters to the Great Hall (where they used to be) and opening up sight lines “so that people can more easily see where they want to go” — this would be a welcome improvement to the narrow corridors.

Funding for these changes is still needed, but other changes should come soon: Amtrak will be replacing the Jersey barriers on Canal Street with bollards, and CDOT is building a better connection for CTA and Pace bus passengers.

Amtrak also intends to double the size of the underground waiting room by moving the sleeping car passenger lounge to the Great Hall area, but it’s not the waiting room’s capacity that needs an improvement. This change does little to make up for the demolition of the old, extensive concourse building in 1969, nor the placement of the ticket counters and waiting rooms in the smaller concourse. Matthew Yglesias nailed the problematic combination of small waiting rooms and airline-style boarding:

[Amtrak’s airline-style boarding] method is both slower than the standard method and also involves overcrowding the interior of the station. Amazingly, Amtrak says it wants $7 billion to ameliorate track capacity constraints [at Penn Station] and station interior overcrowding when for the low price of $0 they could adopt standard train-boarding procedures.

Of course, in light of the fact that Union Station handles more passengers daily than Midway airport, which receives much more investment, fixing these problems should be a much higher priority than it is.

Platform corridor at Roma Termini
An airy, high-ceiling corridor to freely access platforms in Rome, Italy.
  • decisivemoment

    It may be as simple as a train company with an identity crisis trying to be an airline. I think the only way to fix it is for passenger groups, green advocates, architects, planners and so on, to really push Amtrak towards improving the quality and experience of what they have. You need a certain degree of vision, and Amtrak’s nature militates against those kinds of ideas coming from within the company. If this isn’t done, US train operators, primarily Amtrak, will end up seriously impairing high speed rail.

  • thickernell

    Good discussion all around. But we’re missing one important piece. We have to look at the process form start to finish, not just when passengers arrive at the station. The trains often don’t get delivered to the platforms until 10 minutes at most before Business Class and/or Disabled/Senior boarding commences. For most trains, allowing passengers to just free-board would not really accomplish much. We’ve got to get trains out of the yard, inspected and on the right platform sooner. I don’t know what the problems in the yard are, but I’ve personally watched train after train arrive at the platform only minutes before boarding begins. Maybe the yard is under-staffed, maybe there are inflexible work rules, or maybe Amtrak just doesn’t own enough equipment and cannot turn-around a train from the terminus if one route to the beginning of another. But that upstream part of the process needs investigated too.

  • Eustacius

    I’ve ridden trains in England, Germany, Italy, and Russia. Surprisingly, European governments credit people with having brains they can use. The US had become the land of the dummies in special need of the bureaucrats’ guiding hand resting always on the back. These bureaucrats don’t use the service and give fat consultant’s contracts to their pals who also do not use the trains. But the bureaucrats’ mind works like this: “Gee, I couldn’t make a decision because I’m incompetent, so I pushed to hire my friend to give an opinion and then design something around that. We got it funded and built it. It doesn’t work, but we have to say it works since it is our butts that might get kicked. Appearance is everything as is stonewalling. Passengers? We don’t need no stinking passengers! We make decisions even when we should not. We create problems so we can solve them. Stupid Europeans!”

  • Alex Brideau III

    Perhaps Amtrak has updated its schedules, because I think the Chicago to New York trip is only 19 hours by train and the Chicago arrival and departure times are about 12 hours apart.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I think Amtrak is a more relaxing, albeit much slower, travel option. That said, for overnight trips, I usually book a roomette. This drives the cost up to first-class airline prices, but since I try to save up for an upgrade when I do travel by air, the cost is usually a wash. The real expense is travel time.

    Like others, I also find Amtrak a good option for short routes, but I also have enjoyed their single-night long-distance trips, especially if they depart during the evening hours. This allows me to avoid red-eye flights and “rush-hour flying” and drops me off in a city center near my destination rather than at a suburban airport.

    That said, Amtrak’s two-nighter trips, while still pleasant, can have limited appeal unless you’re deliberately traveling by train for the experience or vacation. If Amtrak is able to increase its average speeds, perhaps some of these two-nighters may one day turn into one-nighters.

  • Alex Brideau III

    FWIW, I think the freight railroad has recently sold a fairly significant part of the Wolverine route’s tracks to Amtrak or the state of Michigan. I think Amtrak has upgraded some of those rails to allow trains to run at 110 mph, which is impressive by American standards, sadly.

  • Charles Frey

    I am planning on taking the train for the first time ever in 37 yrs! what am I to expect when I get there? what about packing my luggage. is there any restrictions or bag checks like the airport? I dont want to pack my bathroom bag in my carry on and have it taken cause i couldnt. Any helpful advise would be great! Looking forward to my trip across country! you can email me at charlesfrey15@gmail.com. just put train trip in the subject. Thank you everyone!

  • Having everyone on the platforms 0-30 or even more minutes before a train is scheduled to depart isn’t an ideal situation, yes, especially if a platform serves trains on both sides or isn’t wide enough for a lot of people.

    That’s why train stations have amenities, including waiting areas, restaurants, bathrooms, and other services. Union Station definitely falls into this category.

    As long as there is real-time travel/department information scattered around the station, passengers can do as they please in the time before a train arrives to the platform.

    It’s common in Europe that people will be on the platform 10-15 minutes prior to the train departure time, and as the time reaches 2 minutes prior, 99% of prospective passengers are now on the platform.

  • Hi Charles, I assume since you commented here that you’re departing from Union Station.

    Amtrak has a “special” (read: dumb) boarding procedure at Union Station, which they describe in detail on their website: https://www.amtrak.com/chicago-union-station-boarding.

    You *must* check in for your journey to be given a boarding pass (this is really ridiculous).
    “When you get to the station the day of your trip, check in with any uniformed Amtrak employee located throughout the station.”

    You can check bags, but there is a lot of space on each train car to hold large carry-on bags.

    Inspecting liquids is thankfully a procedure that Amtrak hasn’t borrowed from airport screening procedures. You don’t need to separate your liquids or put them into small containers.

    Here’s Amtrak’s full baggage policy: https://www.amtrak.com/baggage-policy

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG