Granted, it was a Saturday. But looking around the Penn Station Amtrak Acela Business Lounge at 9:30am, there was just one other passenger, and a very gracious front desk host, who offered us coffee with a smile. This was, for now, the new reality (we’ve decided to suspend the use of the badly over-flogged term “the new normal”): quiet airports, half-empty train stations. But in the Northeast, the citizenry had nobly done the work of banding together and decisively beating back the spread of coronavirus…and so we’d earned the right to a short visit to one of our sister cities—so we were determined to make it to DC, to see how the re-opening measures were coming along there.
Of course, now that the EU has closed off Americans’ entrance to the Continent until further notice, all travel plans will have to be carefully reconsidered—as domestic jaunts will be pretty much subbing for all those cancelled trips to Italy, France, Croatia… And with the COVID numbers as they are, popular US destinations like Texas and Arizona seem to pretty much be off the table for now.
This actually doesn’t present much problem for us, as we have always been enthusiastic advocates of the Northeast Corridor cities—specifically D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Providence and Boston. And we’re frankly looking forward to a summer-into-fall of watching these culture-forward destinations spring back to life—with all apologies to our friends in London and Paris, who we likely won’t be seeing any time soon.
What this also means, naturally, is that we will be spending a lot of time on Amtrak, which has responded to coronavirus safety concerns decisively and thoroughly. And their efficiency will be urgently necessary to our recovery in so many ways—economically, psychologically…
We were obviously excited for our first trip out of NYC since the lockdown, and, as before, were ready to take all necessary precautions. As we boarded the 10:03 out of Penn, things felt reasonably normal…just with fewer fellow passengers; indeed, our car was clearly less than half capacity. Then after pulling away from 30th Street Station in Philly, an announcement came that they would be coming through the train for an interim cleaning—and sure enough, staff members came by to resolutely wipe down the train interiors. It was a comforting feeling.
Also, though, there’s something a little more serene about riding the rails now, almost meditative. The WiFi, not always reliable on trains and busses, was working at lightning speed; but we chose to close the laptop, and engage with the existential pleasure of just watching the world go by out the train window. We had never before noticed certain things, like a collection of adorable little identical houses somewhere near Wilmington (a city which seemed noticeably quieter.)
We watched as huge warehouses suddenly appeared and then immediately disappeared, followed by long stretches of calming green. And witnessing the scene of boats whizzing around on the Delaware River, we were reminded that it’s one of the truly safe pleasures right now; but being on the train also made us feel remarkably safe.
The architecture lovers in us always thrilled to the site of the 1835 A. Hoen & Company Lithographers building just outside Baltimore. We were getting close to DC, and we were feeling pretty okay with the idea that the Acela train would be our new airplane for the coming months—we loved trains, and we loved traveling in them.
As we sauntered into the main hall at Union Station, our final destination, we couldn’t help but notice it was also quieter than we’d probably ever seen it. But as we looked up at the spectacular plaster ceiling, covered as it is in 120,000 sheets of gold leaf, we knew we were where we needed to be.
(Until August 31, Amtrak is offering incredible advance purchase fares—examples: $29 one-way NYC to DC, $49 one-way DC to Boston—making it the perfect way to do a summer weekend getaway. Look for special offers on their Roomette private sleeping cabins, as well.)
Five Questions With Amtrak’s Kimberly Woods
What were the key measures Amtrak had to put in place to make sure riding the trains would be safe for all?
Amtrak is leading the way by setting a new standard of travel with enhanced safety and cleaning measures. In an effort to simplify and safeguard the travel experience, several cleaning, contact-free and convenience measures have been implemented into every part of the customer journey—from time of booking to the moment of arrival. We have enhanced cleaning frequency and retrofitted protective plastic barriers where necessary. Commonly used surfaces in stations such as door handles, counter tops, seating areas and Quik-Trak kiosks are cleaned with EPA-registered disinfectants.
Signage has been displayed at our busiest stations to indicate safe distances in high traffic areas. In addition, protective plastic barriers have been installed at customer counters at our busiest stations. All customers and employees must wear a face covering or mask while on trains or thruway buses. Face masks can be removed when customers are in their private rooms.
How has the return to train travel been going? Do you sense a strong desire to get back to travel?
As states have started relaxing their restrictions and we restored some services, we are seeing an increase in ridership.
Will train travel replace lot of air travel?
Amtrak is an attractive option for travel. In addition to aggressive steps to enhance cleaning protocols at stations and on trains, we have implemented new measures to deliver a new standard of travel. Also, offered on many routes, a private room is the perfect option for customers seeking privacy and space on a short trip and added comfort and amenities when traveling overnight.
Will those traveling for fun find train travel a safer alternative to airports and planes?
We have the unique advantage of a full-time medical director and public health and safety team who have been on the front lines throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. Together, we have studied, analyzed and made improvements to the Amtrak travel experience, from beginning to end, for the safety and health of our people and travelers.
What are some of the new highlights and offerings we will see from Amtrak over the rest of 2020?
Amtrak is investing in new high-speed trainsets to dramatically improve service on the Northeast Corridor from Washington, DC to Boston. Debuting in 2021, Amtrak’s entirely new fleet of Acela trains will feature customer-generated improvements leading to a faster, smoother ride, with more modern amenities and serving as a greener way to travel. Some of the upgrades include: nearly 25% more seats; personal outlets, USB ports and adjustable reading lights at every seat; exceeded accessibility requirements for people with disabilities; spacious restrooms with a 60-inch diameter turning radius; contactless storage option for luggage; and comfortable seating with winged headrests to serve as a barrier between customers.