When it comes to ground transportation, Amtrak flies over Greyhound

The lead engine of an eastbound California Zephyr train dwelling at Grand Junction, Colo., on Friday, March 6, 2020.

The lead engine of an eastbound California Zephyr train dwelling at Grand Junction, Colo., on Friday, March 6, 2020.

I’ve been spending more time on Reddit lately, as the discussions there seem more lively and engaging than what’s available on X/Twitter or Facebook (although Threads has been surprising me lately). As I surf the subreddits, I chime in from time to time.

Since many of these responses are geared to be informational, I figure it would be useful to reproduce them here. (I will also note that my musings get more views on Reddit, but I do enjoy keeping a blog after all these years.)

On the r/Amtrak subreddit, someone asked what was better — Amtrak or Greyhound? Considering that it was a train-focused forum, nearly all of the responses favored the train (although many don’t have rose-colored glasses and are more than willing to point out problems with America’s Railroad).

Passengers wait to board a Greyhound bus at the Oceanside Transit Center in Oceanside, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022.

Passengers wait to board a Greyhound bus at the Oceanside Transit Center in Oceanside, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022.

Here’s the bulk of my response:

All things being equal, almost any train including Amtrak is usually going to be a better experience than Greyhound/FlixBus. Amtrak is usually a pleasant journey with a few frustrations. Greyhound is usually an exercise in frustration that manages to get you from point A to point B.

Of course, this is a Amtrak subreddit, so responses will likely favor the train.

FlixBus/Greyhound has sold off most of their station buildings, so you’re often waiting curbside for a bus on initial departure or transfers — even in big cities. Amtrak has some of those stops but bigger cities usually have station buildings (which range from spectacular to merely serviceable).

The experience onboard the train is going to be a huge step up from the bus. While bus accommodations have taken a step up in recent years with Wi-Fi, power outlets, etc., most of those are also on Amtrak (Wi-Fi varies). On the train, it’s far easier to walk around and between the cars (while you’re usually stuck in your seat on the bus).

Trains have windows so you’ll be able to catch the sights. In the cities, you’re often seeing people’s backyards or the industrial areas of town. It’s definitely different from being in the No. 2 lane on a 8-lane expressway. Amtrak often shines outside of the city, as the train sometimes goes to areas hard to reach by car. In the west, Surfliner, Capitol Corridor and Coast Starlight run along the water in places and the views are spectacular (but it’s not along the entire route). Many of the Western routes, like Empire Builder and California Zephyr, have great views.

There’s often food aboard the train available for purchase in the cafe car. Long-distance trains often include a diner car with full meals (primarily for sleeper car passengers, but it’s sometimes offered to coach passengers). A bus will usually make meal stops, but it’s not really the same.

Many long-distance trains have lounge cars where people can relax, sightsee and chat with friends and strangers. The train is usually a better social experience — people who want to chat with others will usually be in the common areas, people who don’t are often back at their seats.

For both services, the nature of passengers can vary. Both services often serve cities that are inaccessible by other modes of mass transportation. Economically, the bus is usually cheaper and can draw passengers who need to save money. The train can have those passengers, but there are also people who are paying considerably more for sleeping accommodations (and may have higher expectations for their trip).

The nature of on-board staff can also vary. I really haven’t had either a bad Amtrak or Greyhound staff experience, but I’m sure that those are out there. With the bus, you’re usually just dealing with the driver, but Amtrak can have many more people — car attendants, conductors, cafe staff, etc.

The bus does have a bathroom, but I don’t know who would want to use it unless it’s urgent. The train bathrooms aren’t always top-notch, but there’s usually at least two per car including a larger accessible restroom.

I hope this helps. Good luck planning your journey!

My first head-to-head comparison between Amtrak and Greyhound was in Northern California. I needed to get from Chico to the Bay Area on short notice and I opted for the bus because it had the better departure time.

The bus got the job done but there was a long transfer in Sacramento at a crowded and aging depot building (that’s since closed after a new building opened north of downtown). When the train arrived in Oakland, the station building wasn’t in the best part of town and the building had clearly seen better days. That building has since closed and was being used for underground raves, according to The Oaklandside.

The return trip was slightly better, although the driver I think struck a sign and then was sideswiped by a vehicle in a left-turn lane. We had to wait for the police to take a report.

An Amtrak California bus loads passengers at the Chico train station on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014.

An Amtrak California bus loads passengers at the Chico train station on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014.

By comparison, the train was a vast improvement. There was only one train per day through Chico, but it was supplemented by three buses to connect with trains in Sacramento and Stockton. The transfers are timed, so you’re not waiting for a long time to board the train (although there’s some additional waiting time on weekends and holidays). Plus, if a train was late, buses would wait for it to arrive (the opposite is _not_ true, trains don’t wait for buses).

The stations were in better repair and the on-board experience was stellar with large windows, wide open seats and a cafe car for snacks and beverages.

In the bistro car with available food and drink on an Amtrak Cascades train en route to Seattle on Thursday, April 18, 2019.

In the bistro car with available food and drink on an Amtrak Cascades train en route to Seattle on Thursday, April 18, 2019.

That experience set the tone for most of my bus and train journeys in subsequent years, and I tried to prioritize travel on trains instead of buses.

Part of that may be due to the California state government subsidizing Amtrak services, including buses, to create a robust intercity transit network in the state. However, it generally works pretty well, even if they rely on buses to connect Los Angeles with Bakersfield and the Central Valley.

The other part of it may be due to the crumbling intercity bus networks. Greyhound was the bigger player, but they’ve since been bought out by Flixbus. Other companies have tried to enter the market, like Megabus, but they haven’t necessarily built much traction.

The Greyhound/Flixbus network has been getting a bit patchier with some potentially key routes getting the ax (like between Salt Lake City and Reno, Nevada) and others being outsourced to partner agencies. For example. Salt Lake Express handles Greyhound trips between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.

Compounding the problem for passengers is that Flixbus/Greyhound has been leaving and selling many of their station buildings. That station in Oakland has been swapped with a curbside stop at the West Oakland BART station. That’s all well and good unless the weather’s atrocious or just darn hot/cold.

I saw some of this firsthand when I needed to travel from San Diego to Salt Lake City after the Southwest Airlines meltdown in December 2022. The train, even if it had been available, wasn’t a great option — I would’ve had to get from San Diego to Sacramento and then take another train from there to Salt Lake City. I’ve done similar routings before but it would take a lot of time.

Thankfully, Greyhound was an option, but it was a 21-hour schlep that included four buses. At one point, my first bus visited Los Angeles Union Station en route to Glendale. I waited for a transfer at Glendale … to go back to Union Station. I would’ve preferred to get off at Union Station (where I know a good restaurant or two), but I didn’t want to run the risk of having my reservation canceled due to not transferring at the correct station.

The journey wasn’t too bad, although it was long, the power outlets generally didn’t work and I wasn’t able to get much sleep. Plus we kept visiting train stations and airports offering arguably better modes of transportation.

Oh, the bus driver struck a stop sign in a darkened parking lot in Barstow. Hitting signs — a proud Greyhound tradition.

At the end of the trip, we arrived at Salt Lake International Airport — apparently the downtown Salt Lake Central Station was no longer the primary stop. In fact, it would’ve cost an additional $120 to take a shuttle from the airport to a curbside stop downtown … somewhere. Thankfully, my car was already at the airport, so I could just go home after the ordeal.

The Salt Lake Express bus stop at Salt Lake International Airport on Dec. 28, 2022.

The Salt Lake Express bus stop at Salt Lake International Airport on Dec. 28, 2022.

Ultimately, riding either the bus or train can be something of an off-beat adventure. I’ve struck up conversations with people on both modes of transportation, although it’s slightly easier to do that on a train when you can walk around. During the long trip home in 2022, I was able to use Google Translate to help guide a young man in Las Vegas that primarily spoke in Spanish.

Both are mostly safe, although there was one crowded Greyhound trip where I had to sit next to a man who seemed angry and twitchy, but nothing happened. (And, to be fair, I met someone traveling home on the train after being released from prison. He seemed fine, but I was a little cautious.)

While I would rather be on a train, the bus still has some appeal, especially when it came to last-minute travel that was often affordable and visiting destinations that aren’t frequented by plane or train. As routes and stations fall away, any possible allure of the bus fades and some of the ties that help bind us together as a nation weaken.

Surfing Internet from train a breeze… when I could get online

Surfing the Web from the Surfliner

A window decal on a train at Los Angeles Union Station notes the arrival of Wi-Fi Internet service aboard Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner trains.

Taking the train to visit family in Southern California over the holidays gave me a chance to check out the new Wi-Fi Internet service from Amtrak. The service was convenient when it worked, but I often had problems connecting to the Web.

Dubbed Amtrak Connect, the free service is available on many regional routes including the Amtrak California services — the Pacific Surfliner in Southern California, the San Joaquin in the Central Valley and the Capitol Corridor connecting Sacramento to the Bay Area. Amtrak California rolled out the service just in time for the holiday travel season.

There was a cool surprise even before I boarded my first train. Many of the buses, which are operated by a contractor, also have Wi-Fi. When I started my trip aboard the Amtrak Thruway motorcoach from Chico to Stockton, I was able to get some work done as we sped down Highway 70. That’s something I couldn’t do if I was driving by myself.

As the San Joaquin train pulled out for Bakersfield, I sought to get online but ran into problems right off the bat. I’m not sure if it is a problem on my end, the network’s or a combination of the two.

Before getting into my difficulty, I should explain how the Wi-Fi works aboard the train. As I understand it, there is one car on the train that pulls in outside cell phone signals carrying the Internet connection. That one car then becomes the head of a local network providing the Internet connection to the rest of the cars in the train.

My issue wasn’t with the Internet connection. When it was available, it was fairly reliable and speedy for basic surfing for things such as email or Facebook. Amtrak Connect caps downloads to 10 MB and blocks some popular video/audio websites (but my Spotify streaming music app was able to make a connection although I didn’t fully test it).

There were some points where the connection lagged, but I suppose they were in areas where the cell phone networks aren’t as well established.

The biggest issue appeared to be how the Internet connection was established throughout the train. I could establish a connection in some cars, but very rarely in the cars where I was sitting for some reason. I was able to connect to the train’s network, but I wasn’t able to get the right connection to get on the Internet.

While I preferred the seats in the cars I chose (and I could do a whole series of posts about the different types of seats on these trains), I often moved to a different car for a while to get online.

I never was really able to determine what was going on. Unfortunately, I ran into this problem on nearly every train I rode during the Christmas break.

The immediate matter was that my computer couldn’t get the right Internet Protocol or IP address to connect until I moved cars, but I don’t know why. I thought it may be something on my computer because many Mac users have reported similar problems for different Wi-Fi networks (and I have had the problem at work). However, some people near me experienced the same problem.

I also thought it was possible the network ran out of addresses to give computers (but that doesn’t necessarily explain why changing cars often helped with the connection). I was riding on very full trains and I was surprised to see so many people on their smartphones and notebook computers. If that’s the case, I read it may be possible to change the network’s settings to allow more connections.

Regardless of where the problem originated, it would be nice if Amtrak Connect had some better help documents to assist people experiencing problems. Of course, if you can’t get online you may not be able to get to the documents.

When it works, the Wi-Fi is a great service to provide passengers. While many people, myself included, like to tout the ability to relax and be somewhat isolated from the hectic outside world aboard a train, Wi-Fi helps those who wish or need to stay connected or productive while traveling. It certainly helped me — I posted two blog entries while aboard the train and got the idea for this current post.

In addition to providing an amenity for passengers, I’ve read that the Internet access can also help with train operations. One component is being able to constantly relay train status data, including its location, back to a central office.

Conveniently, Amtrak Connect’s homepage provides passengers with an estimate of where the train is (although you have to reload the page to get updated locations). Unfortunately, it appears to triangulate its location based off of cell phone signals and sometimes the system gets it hilariously wrong.

This was apparent when the Pacific Surfliner sped down the coast toward San Diego. The map status showed the train running on (or under) the ocean. Based on my estimate, it was about 4.8 miles away from the actual tracks.

Rails? We don't need rails where we're going.

Rails? We don't need rails where we're going. Amtrak Connect guesses train location, sometimes to hilarious effect.

Talking and taking trains on Turkey Day

For all of my kvetching about “virtual strip searches” and airport security gropings, my Thanksgiving travel plans always included taking the train (and a bus) to the Bay Area to visit family. It’s more of a matter of convenience and comfort rather than a fear of oppressive security or flying. With four Amtrak California buses leaving Chico every day (and the overnight Coast Starlight train), the bus/train is a pretty convenient way to get around.

It seems like a lot of other people between Sacramento and the Bay Area had the same idea — the Capitol Corridor reported carrying 26,449 passengers over the weekend.

On Thanksgiving Thursday, the train was fairly full as it zoomed past slowly moving vehicles on I-80. On board, single travelers really couldn’t hog the tables meant to seat four, but many could still have a pair of seats to themselves.

The Thursday crowd paled in comparison to the people returning home on Sunday. The four-car train I was on was standing-room only. That’s only the second time I’ve experienced that in my recent travels (for intercity travel).

With the train stuffed with people, the conductor gave fair warning to people waiting to board at stations along the line — he said there were no seats, but people could board if they didn’t mind standing. I was able to grab a seat for most of the trip, but I ultimately gave it up for a mother and daughter heading to Chico.

A huge number of passengers got off at Davis as university students returned from their holidays. There was a similar situation for Chico State — there were so many people returning to Chico on the 6:30 p.m. bus from Sacramento that Amtrak added an additional bus. The added bus provided a welcome amount of space after being on the crowded train.

The buses were running an hour late, which I’m sure was an inconvenience for some. I didn’t mind too much because I could sit on one of Sacramento Valley Station’s grand old wooden Southern Pacific benches and read a newspaper.

While the train isn’t always the transportation solution, it’s certainly an option to consider when traveling around Northern California and beyond.

Photo: A westbound Capitol Corridor Amtrak train pulls into Sacramento Valley Station in Sacramento, Calif. on Sat., May 9, 2009.

Venting to a TV shrink now worth $172

The approximate round-trip cost to take Amtrak’s first-class Acela train from New York to Philadelphia is about $172 (depending on demand). Thanks to TV, that cost might be free for a select few.
According to an acerbic post on the Web site Gawker, Dr. Phil is going to be on Acela for a round-trip from NYP to Philadelphia on Sept. 9. While on-board, Mr. McGraw will speak with passengers about “everyday problems.”
There’s a form to fill out if you are interested in being on the train/appearing on the show. If you’re selected, the trip is free.
I don’t know if I would do it. It’s interesting that people are willing to vent their problems on national TV for about $172. That’s a relatively low price for a TV producer to pay.
There’s also a fame factor involved in meeting and interactive with Dr. Phil. Fame and notoriety seem to be strong motivators even if there is little reward.
Also, the leather seats on Acela sound pretty nice compared to a counselor’s couch.
So is it worth discussing your problem with a talk-show host if it gets you a free train trip?