As airline travel becomes more expensive and restrictive, many travelers are asking themselves if traveling by train is more comfortable than traveling by plane. Since there are so many other variables in general head-to-head comparison between air and train travel, keeping the focus on comfort provides a clearer picture with some level of subjectivity as part of the equation.
If we define comfort by the seating, the matchup is pretty uneven as airline cabins have become fuller while seat width and seat pitch (legroom) have gotten tighter. Airlines have also been steadily reducing the padding on airline seats to accommodate more seats. While they state that this does not reduce the size of the seat, a direct comparison in dimensions shows a pretty dramatic difference.
An Independent Traveler.com article on airline seat size and comfort cited research that shows on short-haul flights up to six hours, comfort is a low priority for most travelers. On long haul flights over six hours, however, comfort is the number one concern after flight availability.
A recent USA Today article pointed out that seat pitch on the four biggest carriers —American, Delta, Southwest and United—now range from 30 inches to 33 inches. Seat width on those four carriers ranges from 17 inches to 18.5 inches. In contrast, Amtrak’s coach seat offers pitch of 39 inches (50 inches to 52 inches on Superliner sleepers) and width of 23 inches.
It is a significant plus in comfort that the vast majority of Amtrak trains have no more than two seats abreast. Add in the fold-down trays, reading lights, electric outlets and overhead storage area as well as less restrictive luggage regulations and included Wi-Fi, and the comfort level difference is more dramatic.
An earlier USA Today article pointed out that examination of cost of traveling by train between two major cities was significantly cheaper than flying in the matchups. The city matchups included Boston and New York, Chicago and St. Louis, New York and Washington, San Antonia and Dallas, Miami and Tampa as well as San Diego and Los Angeles. The matchups utilized advance reservations varying from 24 hours to 21 days. All three articles were by Consumer Reports Contributing Editor Bill McGee.
Another major indicator of comfort for travelers is the level of occupancy. Anyone that has flown recently can attest to the generally full capacity of most flights, which makes for a less than comfortable trip where seats are three abreast. According to the Passenger Rail Policy Institute known as the United Rail Passenger Alliance, current Amtrak occupancy, known as load capacity in the parlance of the industry, is also dramatically lower than air travel.
Their detailed special report on Amtrak’s 2013 financial and operational results showed an average load factor of 51.3 percent. In contrast, U.S. airlines posted occupancy rates of 84 percent in 2013.
It pays to keep in mind that the measurement of comfort is subjective and therefore can vary by traveler and situation. With many aspects of both modes of transportation changing over time, it is difficult to say what the future will hold in terms of comfort for passengers.