Is It Safe to Travel by Train During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on around the world, experts reiterate that the safest way to travel is via your own two feet—preferably using them to go on a nice, solitary walk around the block or through the woods. Of course, you may have good reasons for getting away from home, and putting one foot in front of the other just isn’t going to get you very far.
In theory, at least, traveling by train seems like a good compromise between taking a long car trip (with or without a portable potty) or getting on a disconcertingly crowded airplane. On top of that, you may have heard that Amtrak recently announced enhanced safety and cleaning measures intended to protect passengers during their rail journeys.
But is train travel during the coronavirus safe? We talked to Amtrak's corporate medical director, Ann Kuhnen, MD, as well as two epidemiologists about why these precautions matter, and what else you should know before booking a trip.
Keep your distance in the station.
One of the things that’s most concerning to health experts about trains—and planes—isn't what happens on the vehicle (although that's extremely important), but how we get on and off them. The airport, for example, is usually an extremely busy place with people coming and going from all over, and passengers typically spend a long time cooped up together waiting for their plane. "There are a lot of bottlenecks at the airport that make it hard to practice good social distancing, like the ticket counter, the baggage check, security checkpoints, and the boarding queue," says Eric Lofgren, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Washington State University. All of those situations increase your risk of coming into contact with the virus and picking it up.
One advantage to taking a train over a plane is that there are often fewer crowds and queues. To maximize space between passengers and manage flow, Amtrak is encouraging customers to arrive 30 minutes before departure (60 minutes if they need ticketing or baggage assistance). App users will also receive boarding gate and track information at select stations so they can head directly to their train.
In the station, Lofgren says you should practice the same kind of social distancing that you'd do at, say, the grocery store: Minimize your contact with other people, so if someone is boarding, hang out until there’s space for you to safely get on behind them.
On the train, it's critical to wear a mask.
Due to safety reasons, the windows on Amtrak trains open only in case of emergencies, explains Kuhnen. However, she adds, "I don't think many people realize that the trains have very sophisticated ventilation." An onboard filtration system continuously refreshes the space every four to five minutes, removing air from the car’s interior and replacing it with new, conditioned, external air.
Fresh air is helpful to keep droplets from lingering, but it still won't protect you from a direct hit of a cough or sneeze. "There's no filtration system in the world that will move air fast enough to get COVID-19 away from you before you can be exposed to it," says Lofgren. He adds, "We've seen this in studies of flu transmission on airplanes." While the flu virus doesn't necessarily spread throughout the entire plane, a sick person who expels the virus into the air is likely to spray contaminated droplets on the people in the seats around them. This is why it's crucial that you put another layer of protection between you and everyone else on the train.
"The most important thing we can do to keep passengers and employees safe is the use of face coverings," says Amtrak’s Kuhnen. "We now understand that smaller airborne particles can spread this virus, so employees are wearing face coverings, and we're asking passengers to do so, too."
Widespread mask use is key, says Lofgren. "The truth is that few of us are wearing masks with strong enough filters to reliably screen viruses out of the air. But if a person with the virus is wearing a mask, the face covering will catch those droplets. At the very least, it does no harm to wear a mask. At most, it cuts transmission substantially." He recommends only removing your mask to eat or drink.
(If you want to take your PPE to the next level, consider adding a plastic face shield to your packing list. These face visors not only offer some added protection, says Lofgren, but they also make it easier to eat, drink, and communicate with other passengers.)
Guidelines and suggestions only work if they're enforced, and Amtrak has said that customers who refuse to wear a facial covering will be denied boarding, and those customers who still opt not to wear a facial covering will be provided with a full refund.
Pack disinfectant wipes.
Bring disinfectant wipes to clean the surfaces in your area, like the armrests and tray tables. And be sure to wash your hands after boarding (Amtrak bathrooms are equipped with soap and running water).
But remember, the real risk of transmission comes from other passengers.
"There's not a huge amount of evidence that contaminated surfaces are the major source of transmission of COVID-19," says Lofgren. "It's the people in your immediate vicinity that you have to worry about." He acknowledges that the joys of long-distance train travel include being able to wander around, pick up snacks at the dining car, and stretch your legs. Unfortunately, roaming around the train is a bad idea right now—and for the foreseeable future. You are safest in your seat.
The great news—from an epidemiological, safety, and comfort standpoint—is that Amtrak is limiting bookings on reserved trains, which will allow for more physical distancing in seating areas. Customers are assigned specific seats once they board, says Predmore, and they won’t be seated next to or facing other passengers—unless they're traveling together with friends or family members. Solo passengers can use the empty seats next to them for personal belongings.
While this reserved seating option doesn't apply to your local, commuter train, you can follow the same best practices.
Protect your bubble.
Still, Lofgren reminds us that we need to be vigilant about maintaining six feet of space. "If another passenger somehow ends up sitting or standing too close to you, politely ask them to move—or, better, move yourself. You don't want to get sick just because someone was unwilling to choose a different seat." Or, get someone sick if you're a carrier.
Indulge your roomette fantasies.
If you can splurge on a private room, do it! "When thinking about the risk of transmission, I like to use a rhyme that was coined by Bill Miller, an epidemiologist at The Ohio State University: people, place, time, and space," says Eleanor J. Murray, ScD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. "People refers to how many different people will you be coming in contact with. The place is the environment. Time: How much of it will you be spending in a place where you could get infected? Space: Do you have any personal space, do you have enough distance between you and others? If you’re traveling a long distance, then booking a private car—especially if it has a bathroom—could substantially lower your risk." It might be worth the price. In lieu of offering everyone private rooms, Murray says that assigned (spaced-out) seating is a smart step for Amtrak to take to protect passengers and allow for social distancing.
Exit when instructed.
When the train is approaching your stop, avoid crowding near the door and pay attention to crew announcements advising customers how and where to exit the train. "We have new procedures that ask people to stay seated and listen for directions for on how to detrain," says Kuhnen. This will hopefully avoid clusters of people in aisles and at doorways.
The bottom line:
While there are certainly ways to heed caution by rail, "If you can drive, drive," Lofgren says. "You'll have much more control over your environment and you can go a long way without being in contact with other people. Yes, it's lonely and solitary, but unfortunately during the coronavirus, that's perfect."
View the original story on OprahMag.com: How to Create a Cozy Home in Case There's a Second Wave of Coronavirus.