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Travel Tips

Last major update December 2012

On Track On Line - Amtrak Tips - Photos & Electrical

Photography, Electricity, and Electronics

Photography: It is fun to record the scenery that you travel through, but it’s not easy to take pictures through the heavy-weight safety windows of an Amtrak train. Glare is a serious problem. Here are some hints from photographers:

  • Technique (focus & glare): Whenever taking pictures out a window, you'll want to either manually set the focus to infinity, or simulate it by blocking one of the auto-focus sensors (use tape or an agile finger). This works great on most 35mm cameras. However many digital cameras have auto-focus systems which do not use sensors, but rather uses image analysis to determine when the image is in focus. In this case, it is vital that your camera is not focusing on the reflections in the glass. To do this, you'll need to either press the camera right up against the glass (careful if your camera's lens moves while taking the picture), or shield the camera from reflections with a dark material (paper, fabric, etc.). If your camera can use a polarizing filter, it will greatly reduce glare.

  • Film: Especially when you're moving fast, you'll need higher-speed film (400, 800, etc). This can make your shots grainier, but that only becomes a problem if you plan on enlarging your photos. For digital cameras, look for the option that allows you to adjust your shutter speed settings.

  • Camera: In order to minimize blur, you'll need to maximize the shutter speed by finding a camera with a lens that lets in a lot of light quickly. We look for a camera with a big aperture (i.e., small F-stop number), f2.8 or better if possible. Set the exposure times as short as possible, 1/250th of a second or faster. Be cautious about using zoom as it reduces the amount of light coming through your lens, thereby increasing your exposure time and creating more blur.

  • If you have an integral flash attachment, turn it off or cover it so that it doesn't ruin a picture by reflection.

  • To give your pictures perspective, try to include the head or tail of the train in your pictures whenever possible. Although please don't open any doors or windows and lean out of the car to do so. Take the photo instead while the train is on a curve. The size and scope of a mountain gorge is made much more understandable if an Amtrak locomotive is in the picture.

Electric items: Electric outlets exist in several places on Amtrak trains.

  • Superliner and Viewliner sleepers have one outlet in each Roomette (near the attendant call button), two in Bedrooms and the Accessible Bedrooms (near the call button and over the sink).

  • Most Superliner coaches have now been retrofitted with two outlets at every seat. There may still be a couple of cars running around that don't have outlets at every seat. In that case you can ask to move to another car, but failing that you can usually find outlets low on the baseboard about midway between the car end and the center stairs on the stairway side around seats 19 & 55, but these are often difficult to find and blocked by the seats.

  • Public restrooms in all cars also have an outlet.

  • Most Superliner lounge cars have been retrofitted with outlets at every table and near every other seat just below the windows. Should you find a car that has not been retrofitted, then an electric outlet can be found on the upper level in the service area next to the stairway, which may or may not be accessible to passengers.

  • Amfleet I and II, including all Business Class cars, have been upgraded to provide electric outlets at every pair of seats in addition to the original ones in the baseboard.

  • Acela Express cars have electric outlets at every pair of seats, and at single seats in First Class.

Other Electrical Info: Superliner II and Viewliner sleeping cars have protruding outlets that accept just about anything, but many chargers won't fit the recessed outlet on the older Superliner I cars, so bring a short 3-prong extension cord or a surge protector with you. The extension cord/surge protector will be useful in all situations where you need to connect more than one item. Also we've found that occasionally the power may not be sufficient to properly activate some chargers, so spare batteries are suggested.

Train power is not exactly stable, so you may want to make sure that your battery is fully charged before doing any major work on a laptop computer. You may wish also to keep your other electronics fully charged whenever possible in case there is a loss of power.

Finally, a surge protector isn't actually needed to protect your equipment as unlike commercial power, there are no surges. But again, it does come in handy if you have more than one item to plug in like many travelers do today.

WiFi: Many people today ask about WiFi. Amtrak has been responding to that demand, but they still have a ways to go. At present Amtrak is using a cell based WiFi system that generally works well on trains in the northeast and on other short haul corridors in California and the Northwest. Please don't count on it always working, there are occasional problems. And it is not capable of streaming video and music. Its use is geared towards email service and web browsing only.

Unfortunately because cellular data signals along the runs of the long distance trains come and go, this system has proven to be ineffective for the long distance trains after testing. Last we knew, the Pacific Parlour Cars on the Coast Starlight still had the system installed and turned on. But the signal is only found in the PPC and service comes and goes, especially when the train is in the mountains. Amtrak is currenlty evaluating other possible technologies to use for the long distance trains, but no timeline for providing any service has been forthcoming.

Scanner Radios: If you're really serious about rail travel, consider purchasing a portable scanner radio (about $100 and up). Check our Scanner Radios section for more info.

GPS: Learn about the use of a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver on a train on our GPS Train Tracking page.

In addition to dedicated GPS receivers, many Smart Phones today are also capable of GPS functions and can be used to track your position as well as approximate speeds. Most phones have a basic map function that will work as long as one has a data signal, meaning on the long distance trains you're going to have problems using such an App. So we suggest looking for an App that will allow one to download maps ahead of time to the phone. As an iPhone owner, my favorite for the iPhone is MotionX GPS for 99 cents. A free version is also available, but it is more limited and it only allows for 1 map file to be downloaded.

Miscellaneous tips Some random hints that will help you enjoy your Amtrak travels.

Amtrak does not endorse this page and other associated On Track On Line pages, nor does it sponsor this or any other On Track On Line page. Amtrak sources were used to compile or confirm some of the information here, but this does not represent official Amtrak information, nor is this information endorsed by Amtrak.

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