Support this website by joining the Silver Rails TrainWeb Club for as little as $1 per month. Click here for info.

Phones On Amtrak

There are no phones on many long distance Amtrak trains. Shorter Amtrak corridor routes (as well as some long distance trains) usually offer onboard GTE Railfone service. Personal cellular phones work along most portions of most Amtrak routes. A cellular phone is present on most Amtrak trains, but is for emergency use by the train crew. In exceptional circumstances, arrangements can sometimes be made for use by a passenger.

If you do have your own cellular phone, it will most likely work through many parts of your journey. After all, trains do go to major cities and through major suburban areas, the prime markets where cellular phone service is available. Only during some of the stretches of track that are far from any city or that pass through mountanous areas is cellular service not available. However, the quality of the cellular service will vary from excellent to extremely poor, just as cellular service varies in a moving automobile.

You are almost guaranteed service 10 minutes before and after each station stop since most Amtrak stations are in towns with adequately large population to justify cellular service. The tracks are also often not far from Interstate highways and the cellular companies have made providing coverage to drivers on the interstates one of their priorities. Sometimes you'll be dozens of miles from any significant population and not within an area covered by cellular service. Even so, you are seldom 30 minutes from getting back within range of the next cell. Bring your cell phone battery charger along as there is AC in the sleepers. Don't bother with your cigarette lighter adapter. There is no place to plug that on the train!

Along the train routes I've noticed many large arrays of cellular telephone transponders. I know that almost every cellular company is building more cell towers at a tremendous pace. Erecting them near the railroad tracks makes a lot of sense. Railroad tracks are usually found in areas that are zoned for heavy industry, sort of the reason why so many junk yards are located right next to the tracks. Most residential and business areas try to avoid having cellular towers, but such aversion is unlikely in industrial areas. Thus, when a cellular company can find an industrial area near where a cell tower is needed, that is probably the location they will select. More than likely, that will be near railroad tracks. I guess that is good for those of us that carry cellular phones on our rail journeys as it provides for good coverage along most of the routes.

Also, the cellular transponders appear to hold much more equipment than the originals. When cellular phones first came out, the towers looked like they each had 3 transponders separated by 60 degrees from each other. There still seem to be 3 sets on each tower separated by 60 degrees from each other. However, instead of seeing just 1 transponder on each side, I often see 6 transponders on each side! That would be a total of 18 transponders on each tower. I guess those are all needed because of the tremendous growth of cellular phone subscribers.

Railfones are mainly featured on the San Diegans and on many of the Metroliners. Rates are much higher than using a regular pay phone and the Railfone does not accept cash or coins. Communication over the Railfone can be disrupted when the train goes through tunnels requiring you to call your party again to complete your conversation. Railfones are located in some of the regular Amfleet and Horizon coach cars and in the lower level of the new Cafe Cars on the new Amtrak California Car trainsets. On those long distance Superliner trains that do offer public telephone service, the Railfone is located on the lower level of the Sightseer Lounge car. On the Coast Starlight, there is a second Railfone next the counter upstairs in the Pacific Parlour Car.

As of 1998, I have started to notice that my cell phone works in even extremely remote parts of the nation where it did not work in previous years. This includes densely forested areas through the Rocky Mountains and in the middle of the deserts in southwestern United States in what seems to be hundreds of miles from anywhere! Cell towers have probably been built to serve nearby highways beyond the view from the train, but from the train itself I did not see the cell towers nor any other signs of civilization. But ... the phone works with 100% clarity!

I usually keep 2 phones with me. The primary phone that I use is a Nextel. I use this phone because the monthly charge includes 400 minutes per month and Nextel has NO ROAMING charges anywhere in the country! If I am outside my service area, all they add is 10 cents per minute to my call. Thus, I can call all the way across the nation for 10 minutes for about $1 in long distance charges and only use up 10 minutes of my monthly allocation of 400 minutes! Nextel seems to work throughout most of the nation except for one huge hole in the southeast that spans from Florida to Texas.

Actually, determining whether your cell phone will work or not across the nation has become much more complex in 1998. When all cell phones were analog, there were just two phone networks. These corresponded to the A and B channels on your analog cell phone. Every local provider belonged to one of these two networks, usually. One network was very good at providing cellular service along the railroad tracks. I don't know the name of this network, but it is the one that was used by Airtouch in southern California. My analog phone used that service and I had excellent service throught the nation. The other cellular network did not have coverage as good as this, plus problems were compounded by them having more complex intercompany agreements and billing procedures throughout the nation. This meant that cellular calls often had to be manually put through when you were outside your local area. This network is the one that L.A.Cellular in my area belonged to. I think this is also the cellular network that is used by the cell phones that Amtrak carries onboard. I'd often hear the crew complaining over the radio that they could not use their cell phones because they didn't have any reception while in the same location my cell phone was working fine!

The digital networks are a real mess and you will have to check with your carrier to see what coverage they provide nationwide. Many digital cellular networks have just begun to build their nationwide network from scratch and often only cover select metropolitan areas. I'm sure they will all eventually cover the nation, but for now, most of them have very big gaping holes in their coverage areas once you leave the big cities!

Before you embark on your rail journey, you should contact your cellular company and let them know of your travel plans. Until I started doing this with Airtouch Cellular, their fraud detection computers would shut down my phone by the second day of my journey! That happened 3 times to me before I learned to call them ahead of my journey. I guess their computers have been programmed to understand people quickly hoping from one city to another in a plane, or even driving slowly along the highways from one city to another. But, the computers don't seem to understand the pattern and speed of movement from one city to another along rail lines. When the cellular company's fraud-detection software sees a cellular phone being used from several different cities within time intervals that make no sense according to flying or driving, they assume your phone has been cloned, that the same code is being used from multiple cell phones simultaneously, and they shut down your cellular phone! This can usually be avoided by letting your cellular provider know of your travels and of this problem before you start your travel.

Click below for pages in the directory of TrainWeb sties:
0-9 A B C D E

ad pos61 ad pos63
ad pos62 ad pos64

Support this website by joining the Silver Rails TrainWeb Club for as little as $1 per month. Click here for info.