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What to Know About Riding Amtrak During the Pandemic

Mask rules, cancellation fee waivers and more changes for train travelers

A passenger wearing a protective face mask arrives in Orlando, Florida on a nearly empty southbound Amtrak train

NurPhoto/Getty Images

En español | Amtrak is preparing for the holiday season (typically one of the busiest travel times of the year) with comprehensive guidelines for maintaining safety and social distancing in stations and onboard.

First up: facial coverings. Similar to the major U.S. airlines, Amtrak says passengers who refuse to wear masks on its trains could be barred from service. And while previously passengers could take their masks off when seated, they now must keep them on unless in a private room (available on long-distance routes) or actively eating or drinking while maintaining appropriate distance from other passengers.   

Amtrak is also limiting bookings on reserved trains including the high-speed Acela with service along the Northeast corridor. When you book, you’ll automatically be assigned a seat — window seats only, to allow for social distancing. If you’re traveling with a companion, you can move to sit together once you board.

Here’s more on Amtrak’s latest policies and service changes.

Service changes

Nearly three dozen train routes across the country are operating on adjusted or reduced schedules, among them California’s Pacific Surfliner and Capitol Corridor services, as well as Amtrak’s popular Northeast Regional service (from Boston to Virginia) and Acela high-speed service along the Northeast corridor.

Most Amtrak long distance routes are operating triweekly, including Capitol Limited service between Washington, D.C., and Chicago as well as the Coast Starlight route from Seattle to Los Angeles.

An up-to-date list of service changes can be found online.

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At the station

Before their trips, passengers are encouraged to download the Amtrak app, which allows you to scan an e-ticket to board and receive gate and track information on your device at certain stations — eliminating the need to crowd around departure boards.

Stations (and trains) are receiving enhanced cleaning, particularly of high-touch surfaces like door handles and countertops. At certain stations you might also see signs marking out how to keep your distance from others, and clear plastic barriers at the customer counter.

To keep station crowds to a minimum, Amtrak is also urging passengers not to arrive too far in advance. A half hour before departure is recommended for most passengers, 60 minutes for those who need help with ticketing or baggage.

And again, plan to arrive wearing a mask: Passengers are required to wear facial coverings both at the station and onboard unless they are in a private room with the door closed or actively eating and drinking while maintaining distance from others.

An empty Amtrak car is shown pulling out of Union Station

Rob Carr/Getty Images

On the train

In addition to requiring facial coverings (the company notes that service will be denied to those not wearing one), Amtrak is encouraging passengers to place their belongings on the seat next to them to help keep the distance between themselves and other passengers.

Private rooms, available on long-distance and overnight routes, are another option for customers hoping to keep their distance from others while onboard.

Other precautions include the removal of non-safety materials from seatback pockets, and “automatic door open” buttons that customers can tap with their foot to move between cars.

All trains are also equipped with onboard air filtration systems that Amtrak says offer “a fresh air exchange rate every 4-5 minutes,” and augmented onboard cleaning procedures include the use of EPA-registered disinfectant.

Northeast Regional passenger Chris Norvell recently traveled to Union Station in Washington, D.C., from New Brunswick, New Jersey, a route he’s taken many times before.

“Everyone on the train was wearing a mask,” he says of his most recent journey. “There was about one person for every three or four rows of seats. So in general the train in both directions was less than a quarter full.”

Despite the need for masks and small hiccups (like a hard time finding a taxi once he arrived in D.C.), Norvell says the train ride itself was in fact less stressful than usual thanks to the ample space onboard.

Food and beverage service

Onboard dining service is still up and running, with some key limitations and changes. First, have cards or another form of cashless payment at the ready if you visit the Café Car, as cash is no longer accepted.

Café service may not be available on some trains. When it is, it’s carryout only: Seating areas will be shut down and items can be brought back to your seat or room.

The more formal traditional dining car service typically found on long-distance trips, requiring reservations during set meal times, is suspended on all routes except the nonstop Auto Train.

Flexible dining service — which allows sleeping car passengers to choose from a variety of ready-to-serve meals — is available on all long-distance routes (except for the Auto Train) through Dec. 15.

Physical distancing protocols will be observed on routes where dining and lounge seating remains available. Customers in private rooms can also opt for complimentary room service.

Booking and cancellation policies

To help keep passengers physically distanced onboard, ticket sales are limited in order to reduce train occupancy — so you should book early to secure your spot.

If Amtrak needs to change your reservation, it will contact you and offer you an alternative trip, whether on a different train or departure on another day.

If you want to change or cancel your trip, the usual fees will be waived for reservations made by Dec. 31, 2020, including for those booked with points (fare differences still apply).

Editor's note: This article was originally published on June 9, 2020. It's been updated to reflect recent Amtrak procedures.

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