Over Thanksgiving weekend, the Transportation Security Administration reported a record number of travelers passing through airports, and AAA predicted that nearly 50 million people would be traveling by car. Those numbers suggest that there could be another travel bump in the next few weeks, around Christmas.
Driving and flying are the most popular travel options, but where does taking a train fit into pandemic travel? During the 2019 fiscal year, Amtrak carried a record 32.5 million passengers; however, an Amtrak internal analysis in April showed a 95% drop in ridership because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Air travel was also down by 96%).
Gina Suh, head of the Mayo Clinic’s travel clinic, says train travel is not 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].”
Amtrak says on its website that it is limiting bookings on reserved trains to allow for more social distancing (family members may still sit next to one another) in addition to carrying out extensive deep cleaning and sanitizing of trains before service. They have installed signs to encourage social distancing in high-traffic areas, such as the stations and cafe cars, where they have also put up plastic barriers at the customer counters.
Amtrak now shows the capacity of its trains online as people shop for tickets, which may help customers choose emptier options.
The company also requires customers over 2 years old and employees to wear face coverings while aboard 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.
But those measures do not guarantee risk-free travel on board.
Joseph Khabbaza, a critical care medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, says 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 that 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 says, although you may still have to encounter people if you go to the dining car, go to a communal restroom and exit the train.
For those who cannot get a private room, Khabbaza recommends trying to access fresh air for improved ventilation, even though Amtrak says all of its trains have 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 says.
However, Amtrak does not 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 took two long-distance Amtrak trips during the pandemic, from Montana to the Bay Area in August and from Portland, Ore., to Chicago in October. She felt safe in her private roomette and not so safe outside it.
Wunderman said coronavirus precautions fluctuated from destination to destination. She noticed more thorough sanitation on her Portland-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 says. “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 says. “There’s no doubt about that.”