Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (2023)

The United States of America is not known as a land of top-notch passenger railroading. Much of this has to do with a fundamental lack of investment. Unlike Japan, France, Spain, or China the country has not committed to building modern high-speed rail infrastructure. But the operational aspects of American passenger rail are also curiously primitive. In other words, we don't use the infrastructure that we do have in a remotely efficient way or apply international best practices to railroad management.

Consider the curious case of boarding a train at Amtrak's most popular stations.

1) How do you board a train?

In general, once one knows on which track a train will arrive, one goes to the adjacent platform and waits. When the train arrives, the doors will open and people who need to disembark will get off. Then you go through the open door and hop on the train. This process is seen at train stations around the world, including intercity trains everywhere from Brussels to Shanghai and mass transit trains such as the 1, 2, 3, A, C, and E New York City Subway lines at Penn Station and WMATA's Red Line at Union Station in Washington, DC.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (1)

Alex Wong/Getty Images

2) How does Amtrak think you board a train?

At smaller stations such as New Haven, New Carrollton, or New Rochelle, Amtrak uses the same boarding procedure used by foreign intercity railroad operators and by commuter rail and mass transit rail systems in the United States.

This makes sense, since that's how one boards a train.

However, at larger stations, Amtrak chooses to ignore 150 years of accumulated human wisdom about boarding trains. So at Boston's South Station, New York's Penn Station, Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, and Washington's Union Station, people wishing to board intercity trains must go through a more elaborate process. You wait for your track to be called and then need to queue up — with each passenger presenting a ticket to an Amtrak staff member before you are allowed onto a platform. This is roughly how one boards an airplane in all countries, but it is not normally how one boards a train.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (2)

Nayu Kim/Flickr

3) Why is standard boarding procedure different for planes and trains?

Airplanes typically only have one door, which makes single-file queuing unavoidable. What's more, trains typically use either turnstiles at station entrances (for mass transit) or on-board conductor checks (for intercity trains) to verify payment. This makes a ticket inspection queue unnecessary, while the multiple doors factor makes an inspection queue burdensome.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (3)

(Video) A very informative Amtrak conductor calms the fears of worried passengers....


4) Is Amtrak unaware of the differences between planes and trains?

They seem to be aware. As noted, Amtrak employs standard train boarding methods at many stations, offering a clear indication that they are aware that trains have multiple doors. What's more, Amtrak employs conductors who check tickets on trains, indicating that they are aware that there is no need for pre-boarding payment verification. The queuing is limited to a handful of stations that happen to be located in major cities and thus happen to account for a very large share of total boardings.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (4)

Grant Wickes/Flickr

5) Why does Amtrak think the queuing system is a good idea?

Amtrak officials have represented to me that the ticket check is a necessary security measure. They have not been able to point to a specific legal directive instructing them to employ this method, but they gesture in the direction of airport security procedures.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (5)

Auburn Alumni Association/Flickr

6) Why would verifying that a passenger has a ticket help prevent a terrorist attack?

Unclear. All of the 9/11 hijackers were bona fide ticketed passengers. Purchasing a train ticket is a trivial task compared to assembling a bomb or obtaining a visa to enter the United States.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (6)

David Wilson/Flickr

7) Couldn't terrorists just board at one of the smaller stations where they don't do ticket checks?

Yes. Even if the ticket checking did have security value, the fact of the matter is that a malefactor could always board the train in Newark or Stamford and evade the system. It inconveniences law-abiding travelers but offers no meaningful impediment to a determined villain.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (7)

(Video) What To Expect At An Amtrak Train Station

Matthias Rosenkrantz/Flickr

8) How can I avoid this fiasco at Penn Station?

At New York's Penn Station one can avoid the queuing madness by adopting the following procedure: go to the main waiting room. Observe the escalators located in the middle of the room near the main information board. Descend the escalator.

You will find yourself in a mezzanine area whose primary function is boarding New Jersey Transit commuter trains. Wait by the monitors near the bottom of the escalator and watch for your train's track to be announced. When the track is announced, you will be able to proceed directly from the mezzanine to the appropriate platform without going through the queue or the ticket check.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (8)

Matthew Yglesias

9) How can I avoid this fiasco at Union Station?

Oftentimes you can't. But if you are on a northbound Amtrak Regional (or sometimes Vermonter) train that originated in Virginia and boards from one of the low platforms, you may be in luck. Note the track number, but instead of proceeding to the assigned gate, go to Gate L. Once passing through the Gate L doors, you'll go upstairs to a small waiting area for Virginia Rail Express commuter trains. That waiting area should contain stairs that descend to the platforms that serve tracks that run through to Virginia. Pick the appropriate staircase, head to your platform, and wait for your train.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (9)

Rafael Yglesias

10) How can I avoid this fiasco at South Station?

At South Station, it is common for Amtrak trains to dwell on tracks that are adjacent to platforms that also serve MBTA commuter rail trains (see above). In this circumstance, Amtrak will cordon off half the platform to facilitate pointless queueing while allowing free entry to the other half of the platform so the commuter trains can operate like normal trains. Simply stick to the left as if you plan to board the commuter train, and then dart quickly over to the intercity train.

Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (10)

Jeffrey Zeldman/Flickr

11) How can I avoid this fiasco at 30th Street Station?

Two helpful Philadelphia tips in my inbox, both from readers who prefer to remain anonymous:

(Video) The One Tiny Law That Keeps Amtrak Terrible

The life-hack for avoiding the queue at 30th street station is using the elevator. You need the assistance of an amtrak employee to operate the elevator but I was commuting between NYC and Philadelphia 3 times a semester for my entire college career and they were always willing to take me down. I used this technique at homecoming this year.


The staircase opposite your gate is almost always open and leads to the same track. Go down that, and you beat the line. Sometimes they close it off, so it doesn't always work. But most of the time you are golden!

Great to know!

12) Aren't you going to ruin it for everyone by getting Amtrak to shut the Penn Station trick down?

It is certainly possible that Amtrak is going to ruin it for everyone by shutting down these entry points. But there's another outcome: Amtrak could reconsider the boarding procedure across the board. The personnel currently employed doing pointless ticket checks could be reassigned to work at the ticket or information desks and improve service across the board. Better rail transportation in America is possible, but it will only become a reality if American rail operators adopt best practices.

The better way to board an airplane

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Amtrak’s insane train boarding rules (11)

(Video) Amtrak's LEAST POPULAR train! - Where does it GO?!


How does Amtrak boarding work? ›

Boarding an Amtrak train at some stations starts ten to twenty minutes before departure. At other stations, as soon as the train arrives, people board, and when the scheduled time hits, the train leaves with or without you.

Does Amtrak check boarding ID? ›

Following federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines, we regularly conduct random ticket verification checks onboard trains to ensure that passengers are properly ticketed. Please be prepared to show valid photo identification to a member of the onboard crew upon request.

Does Amtrak have priority boarding? ›

Seniors, families with small children, active military, disabled in wheelchairs or walkers, and business class have boarding priority on Amtrak. In the larger stations, they will reserve a separate waiting room with more seating available.

How early should I arrive for Amtrak train? ›

When riding Amtrak, you only need to arrive at the station minutes, not hours, before departure.

What happens if you don't board a train? ›

In case you miss the train from your designated boarding station, the TTE cannot allocate your berth to anyone else until the train passes the next two stops or during the next one hour (whichever is earliest). The rule thus allows you to board the train from the next upcoming station, if that is feasible.

How does the boarding process work? ›

How does the boarding process work? You will be assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) and position (1-60+) upon check in. Your unique group and position combination (for example: A35) will be displayed on your boarding pass and represents a reserved spot in the boarding group at the gate.

Does the Amtrak check your bags? ›

Checked Baggage

Each traveler can check up to 4 bags (2 free and 2 at $20 per bag). Size/weight limitations apply.

What happens if you don't have ID on Amtrak? ›

Many people travel by Amtrak every day without having or showing ID. But many other people are harassed for traveling by Amtrak without ID, or are unable to buy tickets. As with ID to fly and many other requests and demands made of air travelers, there are no “rules” for ID to travel by Amtrak train.

How do you know if a passenger has boarded the train? ›

There is no way to access the full passenger's list of a train other than railway administration. It is a matter of safety of passengers. Earlier a passengers chart of all coach was pasted on every coach of a train at the before departure from the originating station.

Who qualifies for priority boarding? ›

Most airlines offer priority boarding to specific customers without paying a fee, including: US military personnel with an ID. Passengers who need assistance to board. Families with children of age two or younger.

How do you qualify for priority boarding? ›

All passengers flying in a premium cabin get priority boarding. But the group you'll be assigned to depends on which class of service you're flying. Passengers in the front cabin board with Group 1.

Can you sit anywhere on Amtrak? ›

Can I choose a specific seat? Not while you're making a reservation. Your seat will be automatically assigned when you complete your reservation. You may change your assigned seat at any time after your booking is complete using interactive seat maps on the Amtrak app or on


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