Amtrak: A Time and Cost Competitive Mode of Travel?

Amtrak: A Time and Cost Competitive Mode of Travel?

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I’ve ridden trains back and forth across Europe. Doing so has been easy, comfortable, and reasonably affordable.

But train travel in the U.S. is problematic. Few passengers trains run to few places all too few times a day or week. And all are operated by Amtrak.

Amtrak Carriage
(Francis Storr Flickr Photo)

Nevertheless, sometimes you do have the option of taking the train as well as driving or flying, so I sat down to figure out which was best for visiting one of my favorite destinations.

Here’s what I learned.

During the past forty-odd years I’ve often traveled north from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the southern Oregon town of Ashland. Although I typically see at most one play per day, on most Tuesdays through Sundays theater devotees can attend both an afternoon matinee and an evening performance of two different plays.

Long ago, trains ran north from California, over the shoulder of Mount Ashland, and dropped down into town. But since today the tracks run through Klamath Falls, 65 miles to the east, I wondered if traveling to the festival by train was even feasible, let alone a cost competitive mode of transportation.

So I asked “Julie,” Amtrak’s automated “Virtual Travel Assistant,” to help me plan a five-day, Tuesday through Friday, round-trip train ride from the San Francisco Bay Area  to Ashland.


Here’s what she told me, and how that train trip would compare time and cost-wise to driving or flying.

I’ve excluded en-route meal expenses since they probably would be about the same regardless of the mode of transportation. And with the exception of travel by train, which would reduce the length of my stay in Ashland, I’ve also excluded the cost of lodging/meals/and theater tickets in Ashland from my comparative trip expense calculations.

Drive Time

Travel Times and Cost

Depending on how much lollygagging I did along the way, it would be a six to seven hour drive, or overnight trip, from my home to Ashland.

But driving is tiring, and not that cheap. I’d only spend about $125 for gasoline, but if I used the IRS business mileage rate of $0.565/mile to estimate the true cost of automobile travel, I’d be out around $400.

An overnight stop between home and Ashland would probably add another $150-$200 for lodging and dinner to my total travel expenses.

Festival Schedule Matchup

If I left home on Tuesday morning and drove straight through, I’d be in Ashland in time to have dinner and catch an evening stage play. If I stopped overnight, I could easily arrive on Wednesday in time for lunch and a afternoon matinee performance.

Depending on how late in the day I wanted to arrive back home, I could  depart on Friday either after breakfast or seeing one last afternoon matinee, have dinner on the road, and pull into my driveway about bedtime.

Nights and Plays: Two to three nights in Ashland, seeing up to six plays.

Total travel time: Six to seven hours, each way

Total travel cost: $125-$600, round-trip.

Flying Through The Air With The Greatest of Ease

Instead of driving my own car, I could fly from the San Francisco Bay Area to Medford, just up the road from Ashland.

Travel Times and Cost

The cheapest airfare I could find would require me to change planes in Seattle or Portland, and maybe stay overnight there. But even if I could complete my air travel on a single day, I’d spend hours and hours getting from here to there.

My best choice would be to fly non-stop. Figure an hour’s travel time to the airport, at least an hour at the airport before departure, 90 minutes or so flying time to Ashland, a half hour or so to retrieve my bags and pick up my rental car in Medford, and 20 minutes plus to drive to my Ashland lodgings, and I could make the trip, door-to-door in around four and a half to five hours, if I didn’t encounter any flight delays.

Although I could fly for as little as fare $242 round-trip if I was willing to stop over and change planes in Seattle or Portland, I’d probably opt to fly non-stop, which would set me back $418.

Then there’s the $40 airporter bus fare, or at least a comparable amount to drive my own car to and park it at one of the two airports that are an hour’s drive from my home.

Add on to that the cost of a rental car and we’re talking another $200, give or take. However, since there are plenty of accommodations and restaurants in downtown Ashland within an easy walk of the festival theaters, I could save about $125 by taking a $75 round-trip airport shuttle ride between Medford and Ashland rather than renting a car.

Festival Schedule Matchup

If I caught an early morning non-stop flight, I could have lunch in Ashland, attend a matinee, and take in an evening performance as well. If I took late morning or early afternoon flight, I’d arrive in time for dinner and an evening play.

On Friday, I could head for home in the morning, or see one last play in the afternoon before flying back to the San Francisco Bay Area late in the evening.

Nights and Plays: Three nights in Ashland, seeing up to seven plays.

Total travel time: At least four and a half hours, probably closer to five, each way.

Total travel cost: $317 to about $658.

Riding the Rails

imageSince I’ve driven to Ashland numerous times, and because flying is never any fun these days, I posed this question to Amtrak’s “Julie”:

“How can I get to Ashland, Oregon, by train?”

She politely suggested a way for me to find the information myself:

“Before searching for travel, we need some more information. Provide the remaining information in the Fare Finder Tool on the left side of this page and click Find Trains.”

In other words, “Just use the Amtrak search feature! And next time, don’t bother me, your moron!”

imageSo I took her advice, discovered that I’d have to travel overnight in both directions, opted for a “Superliner Bedroom” sleeping compartment with a private toilet/shower instead of a day coach seat, and got the information shown in the box at the right.

Travel Times and Cost

I’d leave Emeryville on the east side of San Francisco Bay at 10:04 pm, sleep aboard, and arrive in Klamath Falls at 8:07 am the next morning.

Then I’d have to cool my heels for nearly two and a half hours before catching a bus for Ashland. Even though the bus ride covers less than 70 miles, it must be a “milk run” since it takes it two hours, forty minutes to reach Ashland.

Travel times for the return trip would be almost identical. I’d leave Ashland by bus at 4:00 pm on Friday, arrive at Klamath Falls at 6:05 pm, then find a place to have dinner and hang out afterwards until the train departed for the San Francisco Bay Area about at 10:00 pm.

At $956, the Amtrak “Superliner Bedroom” fare is far greater than either the cost of driving (even with an overnight stop on the way to Ashland) or airfare.

Getting off the train in Klamath Falls instead of taking the bus to and from Ashland would save me $60, but then I’d have to spend about $115 (plus gas) to rent car to drive between Klamath Falls and Ashland.

If I didn’t mind not having a private toilet/shower (which I would have in the Superliner Bedroom”)  I could opt for a “Roomette” sleeping compartment (which I think would be more aptly called “The Double Coffin” due to its small size and bunk-style bed arrangement) at $654 round-trip.

Coast Starlight Dining Menu
(Loco Steve Flickr Photo)

Amtrak sleeping compartments fares usually include all meals. But as a practical matter, since I’d be departing late in the evening and arriving fairly early in the morning going both ways, I’d probably miss out on dinner and maybe even breakfast as well.

Or I could sleep sitting up ala airliner coach style in a day coach seat and pay only $190 round-trip (not including on-board meals). And unless I booked my train travel well in advance, I might find that all of the sleeping compartments had been reserved for other passengers and I would be relegated to a night in a full-upright and locked position.

Unless I could get a ride from a friend, my train trip expenses would also include about $150 round-trip cab fare between my Bay Area home and the Emeryville Amtrak station. (Although I could pay just $20 round-trip via public transportation, it would take me two and half hours each way, versus about a half hour by taxi.)

Amtrak Emeryville
(Ingrid Taylar Flickr Photo)

But taking the train would also save me some money. Since I’d only be staying two nights in Ashland instead of three, I’d probably spend $200-$300 less on lodging and meals. And because I could see only three plays versus or seven, my theater ticket costs would likely be $200-$300 less. So when you deduct those expenses from the “Superliner Bedroom” fare, my train trip would cost me only about $600-plus.

Festival Schedule Matchup

Unlike driving or flying, if I took the train, I wouldn’t be able to see a play at the festival on Tuesday, and unless I rented a car in Klamath falls rather than taking the bus to Ashland, I probably would arrive in time for a Wednesday matinee, either.

And with a rental car, I couldn’t attend a Friday matinee, since it’s unlikely that the performance would end in time for me to catch the 4:00 pm bus back to the Klamath Falls Amtrak station.

Nights and Plays: Two nights in Ashland, seeing up to three plays (but as many as five if I rented a car in Klamath Falls).

Total travel time: About sixteen hours-plus, each way.

Total travel cost: $260 to over $1,000.

Name My Poison, Name Your Poison

Map picture

Ashland is just 350 miles from where I live, and both Amtrak stations and airports are within an hour’s drive or less from home, so the fly, drive, train transportation options are all available to me.

Spending time behind the wheel isn’t my favorite pastime these days, but the trip to Ashland isn’t arduous, and the out-of-pocket gasoline cost would be much less than the day coach train fare.

Who likes flying these days? None of us really do. But flying from the Bay Area to Ashland wouldn’t be much more expensive than the true “operational cost” of driving there in my own car, particularly if I took an airport shuttle rather than renting a car. And with the exception of the day coach ticket price, airfare and ground transportation costs compare favorably with the Amtrak sleeping compartment fares.

Traveling by air could also allow me to attend a play or two more than would be possible if I drove from home, and as many as four more than if I took the train.

Traveling to Ashland by train could be more comfortable than either driving or flying, and because I’d be in Ashland for few nights, could be affordable, more so if I didn’t book a “Superliner Bedroom.”

But the travel time by train is double or more, each way, and as I found riding the Coast Starlight southbound from Klamath Falls to San Francisco Bay Area route in the past, sleeping restfully as the train rocks and rolls its way through the Sacramento River canyon isn’t guaranteed.

If I drove or flew to Ashland, I’d travel during daylight hours and could gaze at the scenery through the windshield of my car or plane window. But since the train departs at about 10 pm going both to and from Oregon, I’d see nothing but blackness out of the train window during most, if not all, of the trip.

So how will I get to Ashland went I next attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival? I’d love to go by train, but odds are I’ll be traveling by car.

The next time you’re headed off on a trip, ask Amtrak’s “Julie” if riding the rails is your best choice.

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