Amtrak began selling all seats on its trains in May after limiting capacity at half for most of the pandemic.
Safety features still include mandatory mask-wearing, plexiglass partitions at ticket counters, and hand sanitizer dispensers in stations.
Ridership is still down leaving inter-city trains with scores of open seats from which to choose.
Amtrak has joined the airline industry in welcoming back more travelers by opening up as many seats as possible on its trains.
While airlines were fighting over whether to block middle seats, Amtrak pressed on with its own policy. Capacity was limited to 50% on all trains until May 23, nearly a month after Delta Air Lines stopped blocking middle seats.
Riders could get on a train knowing that they wouldn't have a seat neighbor, regardless of where they sat. Combined with Amtrak's already generous legroom and seat width, it made for a great value proposition over flying on some journeys.
But Amtrak has been seeing an increase in ridership and has been discounting fares in a bid to get more riders back on its tracks. With more travelers choosing Amtrak once more, trains are filling up and there are no capacity limits holding back crowds.
I took Amtrak's famed Northeast Regional line from New York to Boston just a few days after the capacity limits were lifted. Here's what it was like.
I arrived at the Moynihan Train Hall at New York's Penn just 30 minutes before my train. One of the perks of taking Amtrak is that you don't have to arrive too early since there are no security screenings required.
I booked Amtrak's 8:30 a.m. Northeast Regional service from New York on train 170, making all station stops en route to Boston.
The travel time for this journey clocked in at four hours and 19 minutes, making it markedly longer than the air journey on one of the shuttle routes. But the ticket had only cost a whopping $49, making it a true value for travel between New York and Boston.
Even though Amtrak no longer blocks seats, riders are still notified of how full their trains are and can book accordingly. My train was showing only 50% full just a few hours before departure.
The newly-opened train hall offers a modern alternative to Amtrak's former subterranean home in New York.
There's more room to breathe while waiting for a train and definitely space to social distance.
Amtrak just debuted this space on January 1, with most inter-city trains departing from and arriving here.
Masks are required in the train hall and on all trains, per federal law, and Amtrak has outfitted its facilities with additional safety measures.
Ticket counters feature plexiglass partitions and hand sanitizer stations can be found throughout the station.
I visited a self-serve kiosk and quickly grabbed my boarding pass for the trip to Boston, and saw the default screen saver was a reminder that masks are required on trains.
I also noticed that Amtrak now requires travelers to complete a COVID-19 checklist, similar to the ones airlines require at check-in. I forgot to do this before departure and nobody on the train checked to see if I had.
There are no seating areas in the main train hall, leading to some crowding when trains are nearing their departure times as riders seek to board as early as possible.
But just across the hall is a waiting area for ticketed riders, providing an exclusive place to sit and wait for a train.
Riders have to show a ticket for either Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road, or NJ Transit to enter.
The room is filled with cushioned bench seating and lined with commissioned artwork. Private restrooms are also available.
Power outlets and charging ports are also readily available at nearly every seat.
I made my way back into the train hall around 15 minutes before the train's departure. Amtrak typically makes track announcements between 10 and 15 minutes before departure, and I wanted to get a good seat.
Amtrak's Acela trains have moved to reserved seating in all cabins but the Regional trains remain a free for all. A rush started once the track was announced and all social distancing went out of the window.
Amtrak's standard Northeast Regional train cars were being used for the four-hour service up north.
This was the first time I was heading north from New York and was excited to see what the trip had in store.
I ducked into one that seemed reasonably empty and scored a window seat with no problem. The train was incredibly clean, even though it started its day in Washington, DC, and I had no concerns in that department.
It seemed that Amtrak's new policy of filling trains wasn't going to factor in on this ride. Most solo travelers didn't have to share their rows, with some rows going completely empty.
We pulled out of Penn Station at 8:30 a.m. on the dot. There were 11 stops to go until Boston and a rider could choose to sit in my adjacent seat at any time, but I was hopeful that wouldn't be the case.
The morning glow was in full effect as the train crossed the Hell Gate Bridge and entered the Bronx.
I was immediately reminded why I love train travel. The gentle jostle of the train was incredibly relaxing and the view was not to be missed.
New Rochelle, New York was the first station stop and to my luck, not many riders embarked and my seat remained open. The true test would come at the larger stops in New Haven, Connecticut, and Providence when more riders were likely to board.
The train was around half full with a lot of open rows as I walked through the cars.
Most rows had at least one person in them but I didn't see too many rows doubled up.
Prominently on display in the cars was social distancing and face mask reminders, with conductors enforcing the rule.
Amtrak had also installed hand sanitizer stations in between train cars so riders can stay clean during the journey.
And train car doors can also be opened via ground-level latches that can be easily pushed by a rider's foot, further reducing contact.
I made my way to the dining car and found that around half of the tables had been opened for seating.
The entire car was closed off for seating the last time I'd taken Amtrak.
The cafe was open with extra precautions like plexiglass partitions and social distancing floor placards.
Breakfast options included a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich for $5 and a blueberry muffin for $3.25. The prices were reasonable for the offering but I wasn't too hungry.
The New Haven stop came around two hours into the journey. It's almost the halfway point for this section of the Northeast Corridor between New York and Boston.
Not many riders boarded here so I was once again spared from having a neighbor. The next major stop was Providence and that was another hour and 40 minutes away.
Regrettably, there was no time to stop for pizza while in New Haven.
We pulled out of the station and I opened my laptop to get some work done. Amtrak offers free WiFi that made it possible to work,
Power outlets are also available to keep devices charged.
The Connecticut stretch of the Northeast Corridor is arguably the most scenic and enjoyable of the line.
We were nearly on the beach as the tracks were mere feet away from the Long Island Sound.
Every time I ride Amtrak I always wonder why I don't do so more. The rides are often enjoyable and bring meaning to the phrase "the journey is the destination."
Passing through New London, Connecticut also proved fascinating. Winding tracks pass right through the heart of the town, forcing slow speeds, and the train is too big for the station so there's quite a big overhang.
In Providence, not many riders boarded and it was looking like I'd be free and clear all the way to Boston.
And even then, if I did have a seat neighbor, it would only be another 45 minutes to Boston. The Providence-Boston leg of the trip is where Amtrak's trains reach their top speeds thanks to the straight track.
We arrived at Boston's South Station and though Amtrak's new policy opened up the train to be filled, it didn't make much of a difference in my journey since ridership is still markedly down.
That may change as more travelers return to Amtrak but it's still a fantastic way to travel for now.
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