Happening Now

Of Masks, Mobility And Magic

May 7, 2020

Beginning May 11, You'll Need Your Own Mask To Ride Amtrak

by Jim Mathews / President & CEO

We learned today from Amtrak that beginning on May 11, passengers will need to wear facial coverings while in stations and riding trains and Thruway buses. You'll have to bring your own, Amtrak won't provide them.

Amtrak says passengers can take them off while eating in "designated areas," in their rooms if they've booked sleepers, while sitting alone in a coach seat "or with a travel companion in their own pair of seats. Children don't have to keep masks on.

I think this is something we're all going to have to get used to, whether traveling on Amtrak or just going to the grocery store. It took six weeks for COVID-19 to kill the same number of Americans as the flu killed in six months. Until there's a vaccine and a genuinely reliable treatment that can make the coronavirus less deadly, physical distancing, masks and caution are likely to be the order of the day.

Yesterday the New York Times offered a nice feature profiling just who is traveling on Amtrak these days, now that ridership is down 95%. And you know what? It's the same kinds of folks who traveled before the crisis began. A young woman who splits her time between farming and traveling. Another woman hoping to catch up with an old college roommate facing a terminal illness. A retired police officer who's spending his retirement on the rails.

Each one of these riders has a personal story, a reason for heading out. Those stories will still be true, whether they're wearing a mask or not. And that's the magic of rail travel, the way a long-distance train becomes a kind of temporary community serving the needs of rich and poor alike.

If you have the time, take a look at the New York Times feature, and then settle in with a cup (or a glass) of your favorite beverage to read Anthony Lane's beautifully written take on Europe's overnight trains.

Why am I telling you about a couple of magazine features right after notifying you about masks on Amtrak? Because I've noticed that a lot of journalists seem to be spending their lockdown time writing about train travel. There's a pent-up desire after the crisis to head out into the world, and there seems to be renewed interest in the space and the distance of train travel. If it's a marker of the cultural climate, I'll take that as a very good sign to keep in mind as I don my mask to ride Amtrak. And if that gets me back out on to the rails, frankly I'm OK with that.