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A Guide to Amtrak Train Travel During the Pandemic

​​​What to know about mask rules, service cuts, change fee waivers and more

Passengers board a train bound for Boston on the day before Thanksgiving at Union Station on November 24, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

En español | After a dramatic drop in ridership during the first few months of the pandemic, Amtrak has been steadily welcoming back more customers — but it's still operating with modified policies and guidelines to keep passengers safe in stations and onboard trains.

First up: facial coverings. As with airlines, federal regulations require all Amtrak passengers to wear masks at all times aboard trains and in stations, regardless of vaccination status and state and local laws. Refusing to wear a mask may lead to fines, denied boarding, being removed from the train and being barred from future travel. 

Passengers must remain masked unless in a private room (available on long-distance routes) or actively eating or drinking while maintaining appropriate distance from other passengers.

Here’s more on Amtrak’s latest policies and practices.

Service changes

The national rail service has temporarily cut back operations due to staffing shortages fueled by the omicron variant

Overall, it has reduced service by 8 percent, including on its busy Northeast Regional service (from Boston to Virginia). It has also temporarily suspended operation of the Silver Meteor train, which runs between New York and Miami. (Riders can still use the Silver Star or Palmetto routes to reach destinations served by the Silver Meteor.)

Nine other long-distance trains are reduced to operating five days a week, instead of daily. The affected trains include the Southwest Chief (Chicago-Los Angeles), Coast Starlight (Los Angeles-Seattle), California Zephyr (Chicago-San Francisco), Empire Builder (Chicago-Seattle or Portland, Ore.), Crescent (New York-New Orleans), Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio), Capitol Limited (Washington, D.C.-Chicago), Lake Shore Limited (New York-Chicago) and City of New Orleans (Chicago-New Orleans.)

Anyone who has a trip canceled due to the service cuts will be notified and offered alternative travel plans. Amtrak says the reductions should have minimal impact because ridership remains down by 25 percent, and the schedule changes coincide with a slower travel season.


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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 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

Like the airlines, Amtrak is no longer limiting capacity and can’t guarantee an empty seat next to you for social distancing. But it has made it easier to determine if you’ll find the train crowded once you’re aboard.

When searching for travel online or on the Amtrak app, the percentage of seats sold displays next to each trip option. The number adjusts as additional seats are sold, which gives passengers the chance to switch to a train that is less crowded without a fee, although a fare difference may apply. 

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 four to five minutes.” Augmented onboard cleaning procedures include the use of EPA-registered disinfectant.

Food and beverage service

Onboard dining service is largely back to pre-pandemic practices. 

Café service is available on most trains but is suspended on two California lines: the Capitol Corridor between Sacramento and San Jose, and the San Joaquins service connecting the Central Valley to Oakland.

For passengers in private cabins, formal traditional dining with chef-prepared meals has returned to most long-distance trains. Customers can make reservations for set mealtimes in the dining car, or they can chose complimentary room service in their private cabin. 

Booking and cancellation policies

If Amtrak needs to change your reservation, it will contact you and offer you an alternative trip.

If you want to change your reservation, Amtrak is waiving all change fees for bookings made by April 30, 2022. A fare difference may apply to your new itinerary. The change fee waiver does not apply to a previously purchased fare rebooked for the same train, date and origin/destination at a lower fare. The removal of some restrictions on Multi-Ride tickets on the Northeast Corridor is extended through April 30, 2022.

Sarah Elizabeth Adler joined aarp.org as a writer in 2018. Her pieces on science, art and culture have appeared in The Atlantic, where she was previously an editorial fellow, California magazine and elsewhere.

Virginia native Larry Bleiberg is president of the Society of American Travel Writers, a frequent contributor to BBC Travel and the creator of CivilRightsTravel.com.

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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