Amtrak v Greyhound: an experiential study

We got on the train, right at the very back.

Everyone else travelling south from New York’s Penn Station seemed to know exactly which track the train was going to arrive on. By the time they announced it would be Track 14, the queues for the escalators were already long and wide; one heading south, the other north, the two meeting in a ragged mess in the middle of the station concourse.

We took advantage of the disorder to gently merge into the line, and ended up taking the north escalator down to the platform, hence ending up at the back of the south-bound train.

We lumbered our cases on board, and started looking for seats. Our tickets said we had reserved seats, but when I had questioned which seats they might be, I had been told it was a free-for-all.

This is a very loose way of using the word “reserved”.

The train had arrived about 30 minutes late from Boston, and by the time it jerked its way out of Penn Station, it was still 30 minutes late.


We struggled through carriage after carriage, only finding the odd seat here and there, many covered with bags and coats to discourage people from sitting there. We squished past people (and their luggage) coming the other way. I never know which way I’m supposed to turn when squeezing past people in narrow aisles, so I improvised as appropriately as I could.

In the last carriage, right at the front of the train, we luckily found a group of four seats together and plonked ourselves down, tired, sweaty … and frustrated at having had to lug our cases the entire length of the train.

The ticket collector jovially told me we were lucky to get four seats together, especially on this route, but I was far too annoyed with the rubbish seat reservation process to feel grateful.

“We had to walk the full length of the train,” I said, determined to make the point
“I know, I saw you getting on at the back, making my train late!”
“I think your train was making itself late all on its own. It didn’t need any help from me,” I said

He laughed and said “I think you’re right,” and then called me a tough guy, so I was pleased.

Then the train stopped.

We were somewhere anonymous in New Jersey.

A few minutes later they announced: “We have to stop here because there is some police action up ahead, we don’t know how long we will be here … oh and sorry, but the Wifi doesn’t work”

It was an hour later before we moved again.

The four seats were facing each other. This is fine, you’d think, because it means we could effortlessly share the crisps we had bought for the journey, but two people have to sit facing backwards. This is OK by me, I like it, the view is so much easier to take in when you see it drifting away behind the train rather than racing toward you.

We crawled through New Jersey to Philadelphia.

The seats get pretty uncomfortable after a while. The thing is, there was only leg room for one set of two people, and so if the person facing you also has legs, you’re snookered.

I stuck my legs in the aisle.

Eventually – over two hours late – we crawled into Baltimore.


The sun was hot, and all that Greyhound provide in Annapolis is a tiny bus shelter that doubles as a beehive (and the bees are size of ping pong balls), so the 25-minute delay was not ideal.

Eventually a rickety old banger of a bus trundled up.

The driver, John, was a lovely fella, but wasn’t very clear about what was going to happen to our luggage when we changed in Baltimore. I fretted a bit, not wanting to lose all our possessions, but then thought, fuck it, how hard can it be, let’s just get on the bus and get to Baltimore where surely we will find order and efficient processes that will give confidence to the weary traveller.

The bus wasn’t exactly comfortable, but not uncomfortable either. It was probably about 200 years old, built in a time when the only safety precautions taken were to make sure the horse was properly bridled. This meant that its squashy old seats had a certain lived-in feel, but not unpleasantly so.

The bus had come up from Ocean City, so was already half full, and the lady behind me was telling her rather colourful life story to the couple of the back seat who smiled awkwardly, hoping she’d get the hint and shut up, but too polite to say so.

Baltimore bus station is not the panacea of systemic order I had dreamed of. It is a large room with three broken ticket machines, a vending machine that doesn’t accept $10 bills, and a shop staffed by a human who would rather die than change a $10 bill.

The process for boarding the buses is to stand around and hope that someone somewhere knows what they’re doing.

At one point, a small man with a strong accent started telling me and my children about the history of Spain. I understood one word in ten, and soon grew weary of nodding and smiling, but not wanting to be rude I remained rooted uncomfortably to the spot, hoping he’d go away.

Eventually he did.

Someone in a Greyhound uniform shouted that a bus was going to New York and we realised we’d forgotten to get in the queue, so we shuffled forward, slightly miffed that our Priority Boarding seemed to count for nothing, before being told yes, this was the right bus, and then no, this was not the right bus.

This was the 12:40 bus, whereas ours was the 13:50. The time was 14:00, so you can see where the confusion might have came from.

Fortunately, our lovely driver John kept his eye on us and told a colleague to make sure we got on the 13:50 bus first. We got led to a separate “Priority ” line and waited a few minutes before they announced the 13:50 was ready to go.

They then boarded the main queue, leaving us wondering if we’d misunderstood something fundamental about bus travel. I looked around to see if there were any vacancy posters for Bus Station Manager, but unfortunately not.

My desire to take over would have to be suppressed.

They then realised their error and stopped everyone and made them go back so we could get on first. Consumed with embarrassment, we apologetically edged forward, clambering on the same ramshackle wreck that had brought us up from Annapolis.

An hour or so up the road, just as we crossed the border into an anonymous part of New Jersey, John pulled the bus off the road and announced that we had a problem: no one had put any fuel in the bus.

I had eaten my sandwiches by this point, so was in a good mood, and immediately saw the adventure in the situation. The girl across aisle from me took a different view and made her incredulity clear to whoever was on the far end of her phone.


Eventually, after about an hour, another bus pulled up. Then a police vehicle, then a tow truck. The thing is, the bus was also on its way to NYC, and already had passengers, so it was doubtful we could all get on.

John saw his moment, and announced that women and children could go, but the men had to stay behind. This was sweet, but it was a broken down bus, not the Titanic, and anyway it turned out that there was plenty of room for everyone.

So John said we could all go, but we had to leave our luggage.

This didn’t make much sense because then we’d be stuck in New York wondering where our luggage was, so we all said no, and so John – authority in tatters – said OK, we could carry our luggage up the New Jersey Turnpike and stuff it in the new bus.

So, after about an hour since running out of fuel, we moved again.

Eventually – over two hours late – we crawled into New York.


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