Gina Suh, head of the Mayo Clinic’s travel clinic, says train travel isn’t too dissimilar from air travel. There’s not enough data on either to say which is safer, but the same risk factors are at play. It’s all about how many people you come in contact with during your journey.
“That could mean if you are in a crowded train station, if the train itself has it has a density of people around you — whether that’s passengers or crew members — that could still pose a risk,” Suh says. “That [risk] could be mitigated and reduced with mask use, but it’s still possible [to become infected].”
According to Amtrak’s website, it is limiting bookings on reserved trains to allow for more social distancing (family members may still sit next to each other) in addition to carrying out extensive deep cleaning and sanitizing of trains before service. It has installed signs to encourage social distancing in high-traffic areas, such as the stations and cafe cars, where it has also put up plastic barriers at the customer counters.
Additionally, Amtrak now shows the capacity of its trains online as people shop for tickets, which may help customers choose emptier options.
The company requires customers over 2 years old and employees to wear face coverings while onboard and in stations unless they are actively eating or drinking or in their own private room with the door closed. Those with medical conditions who cannot wear masks must wear a face shield as a substitute.
Those measures don’t guarantee risk-free travel on board.
Joseph Khabbaza, a critical care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, said travelers can be meticulous about their plans and still “the wild card is you don’t know who’s going to be close to you and how close they’re going to be, what are their personal views, and how they have been approaching these last seven or eight months.”
Khabbaza recommends train travelers book a private roomette or bedroom if they can afford to and if they are available.
“You can isolate from really everyone, so that, of course, becomes essentially just as safe as driving in your car,” Khabbaza said, although you may still have to encounter people if you go to the dining car or a communal restroom or when you exit the train.
For those who can’t get a private room, Khabbaza recommended accessing fresh air for improved ventilation, even though Amtrak says all of its trains have onboard filtration systems with a fresh air exchange rate every four to five minutes. He has also been recommending face shields to patients.
“If a window is able to be opened, that always helps getting droplets to disperse very quickly, making it very unlikely that they will make it to another person in enough of a concentration to transmit infection, especially if masking is enforced,” he said.
However, Amtrak doesn’t allow passengers to open windows any longer because of safety regulations and the central air conditioning. An alternative option for passengers in the coach class is to choose seats near train doors that open during stops.
Travel writer Ali Wunderman has taken a couple long-distance Amtrak trips during the pandemic, from Montana to the Bay Area in August and from Portland, Ore., to Chicago, then to Boston in September and October.
Wunderman said coronavirus precautions fluctuated from destination to destination. She noticed more thorough sanitation on her Portland-to-Chicago route, and less mask enforcement from Chicago to Boston. At night, she saw passengers traveling in coach with masks down as they slept, and during the day, mask use seemed “intermittent at best” in communal areas.
“That made me not want to gather in any kind of a public space while on the train whatsoever,” she said. “In the dining car people wouldn’t wear a mask while they were actively eating, but it seemed like they would use eating — just like on planes — as an excuse to keep their mask off.”
Wunderman’s advice for travelers considering taking trains this holiday season is to book a roomette or fly instead.
“I would only travel by train right now if I could get a private room” she said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Travel during the pandemic: