The almost post-pandemic rails

Does an Amtrak trip between Philly and New York feel Covid-safe?

6 minute read
Six feet apart…in the station, that is. (Photo by Roz Warren.)
Six feet apart…in the station, that is. (Photo by Roz Warren.)

I used to do it all the time, but I last month I did it for the first time in more than a year. I traveled from Philly to New York City and back on Amtrak. I’m fully vaccinated, but still a bit of a nervous nelly when it comes to pandemic travel. So did I feel safe?

The Keystone

I took the Keystone from 30th Street Station to New York City on May 22.

Two hours before my train was scheduled to leave, I received a text from Amtrak telling me that “Federal law requires a mask on transit, regardless of vaccine status. Rebook if you have Covid-19 symptoms.”

That was a good sign. And speaking of signs, when I boarded the train there were signs everywhere telling passengers to mask up and maintain social distance. And frequent announcements that masks had to be worn over both your nose and mouth unless you’re eating.

But this was the Keystone, where there’s no dining car. On past trips, that was always a drag — there’s nothing I love more than sitting at a table in an Amtrak dining car enjoying a snack and watching the world go by. But today it was a plus because it meant nobody in my car was eating, although a few of my fellow passengers were sipping drinks they’d purchased at the station and carried onto the train.

I didn’t worry about it, because the car I was in wasn’t at all crowded. There was plenty of room to enable everyone to space themselves out, and everyone did. Not only was the seat next to me empty, but so were the seats around me.

It was a sweet trip. I relaxed and enjoyed the ride, delighted that train travel, something I’ve always loved, was a thing I could once again feel comfortable doing.

Not so fast.

The Acela

Returning to Philly on the Acela two days later was a totally different trip.

I got the same make-sure-to-mask text from Amtrak two hours before the train was scheduled to leave. And when I boarded the train, everyone was properly masked.

But this time the train was packed. Almost every seat was taken. There were way too many people here! Too close together! We were all breathing! All at once! Yes, we were all masked up, but after a year of obsessively staying six feet away from others — or staying home entirely — this just felt wrong.

The seats were assigned, and mine turned out to be at what Amtrak calls a “conference table,” a configuration of four seats in which passengers face each other over a narrow table. I was so close to the man across the table from me that our knees were touching.

No way this was six feet.

And the Acela, unlike the Keystone, has a café car. Once the train began to move, both of the passengers across the table from me took off for the café car, then returned with a bunch of snack food and spent the rest of the ride to Philly chowing down, masks around their chins.

Despite frequent announcements reminding us all to mask up and give each other plenty of space, Acela had placed me in a situation where maintaining that distance was impossible. And where the people I had to sit too damn close to didn’t have to wear masks because they were eating. And because the train was packed, and the seats assigned, I couldn’t get up and try to find a seat where I wasn’t a couple feet away from a couple of unmasked travelers.

Fear and traveling

But I shouldn’t care about any of this, right? I’m vaccinated! And I’m in good company: as of early June, according to the CDC, almost 140 million people in the US (about 42 percent of us) have been fully vaccinated. Strong evidence continues to grow that Covid infections are extremely rare in vaccinated people—and when they occur, most of them are mild or asymptomatic.

That means I’m not worried anymore about getting Covid myself, and even if I did, I wouldn’t end up on a ventilator. But for millions of people who haven’t gotten or finished their shots (or who are unable to be vaccinated), Covid safety guidelines in public spaces remain important.

Is it Covid-safe? That depends. (Image courtesy of Amtrak.)
Is it Covid-safe? That depends. (Image courtesy of Amtrak.)

So I still felt anxious about being surrounded by so many people. I’ve spent the past year focused on the dangers of Covid, and changing my life in drastic ways so that I wouldn’t get it. It’s not easy to return to my pre-pandemic mindset. Enjoying the Acela ride was out of the question. I couldn’t wait to get off that train. And what about the unvaccinated travelers on it? How could this be a safe trip for them?

I rarely take the Acela. Paying a bunch of extra money to get to my destination 15 minutes earlier makes no sense to me. I was only here now because a fluke in Amtrak pricing had made it $30 cheaper than the Northeast Regional. And I sure wasn't happy to be here.

Safety rituals?

So Amtrak, how can you tell people that they have to stay six feet apart and then assign them seats that are two feet apart? And tell us that it's federal law that we stay masked—unless we want to gobble some Doritos? Doesn't this render all of the rules that are supposed to be keeping us safe meaningless? How can masking and distancing protect us if they're constantly being undermined because Amtrak (or the airlines or your favorite restaurant) needs to maximize sales?

Is all of this just safety theater? A bunch of rituals we're supposed to perform to con us into feeling better about leaving our homes and re-entering the world?

Science tells us that masking and distancing—if everyone complies with them—help keep us safe. But while businesses pay lip service to requiring these things, in practice, they really don't. Which leaves us to make our way through the world, scared and stressed out and at risk.

Accepting the stress

So is Amtrak travel between Philly and New York Covid-safe? I guess that depends on what train you’re on. And your vaccination status. And the vaccination status of everyone around you. And how much the person sitting next to you wants a sandwich.

In other words, I have no idea what is safe.

Will I be taking Amtrak to New York again? Sure. I’ve already booked my next trip. After all, I am vaccinated. And I love New York. While this last experience taught me that traveling on Amtrak could end up putting me at risk and stressing me out, I've decided to take the chance.

But I'm not taking the Acela.

Image description: A photo taken inside 30th Street Station shows a yellow sign with black lettering that says “Please practice social distancing: Maintain a 6 foot distance from others.”

Image description: A photo of an Amtrak Acela train outside against a cloudy sky.

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