Amtrak has just reported its best ever year but the passenger experience could be better / Getty

The man who pays his way

An airport with a very useful silver lining

Boston is an exception to the rule that the US doesn't "get" public transport. The Massachusetts state capital is one of only two cities I know of (the other being Geneva) where everyone arriving at the airport is invited to travel free of charge to anywhere in the urban area.

Step out of the terminal and on to the "Silver Line" bus and you are driven, in 15 minutes, to Boston's South Station. You are not merely dropped off unceremoniously at the front of the station, but taken through a tunnel to the interchange with the city's underground railway, the "T". It's akin to a free bus from Heathrow to platform level at a Tube station such as Hammersmith in west London, from where you can travel anywhere on the network at no cost (as long as there's no strike).

In Boston, you transfer from the Silver Line to the lines named after colours of the rainbow that will take you anywhere in the city and its suburbs. But once you take the above-ground railway, prepare for problems.

The steel silver lines on which America was built are, these days, used mainly for hauling freight. Rail passengers are something of an afterthought. For long-distance journeys they are entrusted to Amtrak: the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. The organisation has just reported the most successful year since its creation in 1970, with more passengers and better financial results than ever. That translates to a $35 (£23) loss, or subsidy, for every trip made. Since I paid only $20 (£13) for the 110-mile one-way trip from Boston to Portland, in Maine, and therefore was handsomely bankrolled by American taxpayers, it may seem churlish to complain. But I shall.

I bought my ticket four months ahead. Two weeks before departure, I was told by email that the train had been cancelled. As the email instructed, I phoned Amtrak reservations, to be told that the service wouldn't be running and I should make alternative arrangements.

A week later, a more optimistic email arrived: the train was reinstated for most of its journey, with just the last 20 miles replaced by a bus. Count me in, I responded.

When I turned up at Boston's handsome North Station for the train, Amtrak was not entirely confident about delivering passengers in the two-and-a-half hours scheduled for the trip. Even before we were allowed on the platform, an announcement urged travellers in a hurry to switch to the competing bus service, Concord Bus Lines. Concord buses may not be supersonic, but with a journey time of two hours they do better than Amtrak. But I stuck with the train I was booked on. Or so I thought.

When the ticket inspector arrived, I handed over my pre-printed e-ticket, and was told: "This booking has been cancelled on our reservations system." Evidently my wish to travel on the resurrected train had not registered. I offered to pay him, but was told that the only solution was to phone the call centre and re-book. A fellow passenger kindly offered his mobile, rather than me racking up charges far higher than the original ticket. After 40 minutes of hanging on the line, I was finally cleared to travel – which was just as well, because we were deep into northern Massachusetts by then.

Training for the train

I sat back and looked out of the window. Watching the great American railroad landscape of meadows and backyards, country towns and working ports, is a joy. But relaxing was different. Had I brought my passport? Amtrak says you must carry it with you on every journey.

Next, despite the slovenly nature of most of the American trains I seem to catch, forget the notion of climbing on board with a minute to spare. Amtrak tells you to "arrive at the station at least 30 minutes before your train is scheduled to depart". And don't expect to be able to use any door and sort yourself out later, as you can in Europe and most other parts of the world. In the US, particularly at smaller stations, only one door is earmarked for getting on and off, and so you must be properly organised in advance of the stop – and prepared to lug your bags through miles of corridors.

Next problem: where to sit? In Britain, so long as you have a valid ticket for the journey and class of travel, you can take any unoccupied, unreserved seat. In America, if you have an assigned seat, you have to sit right there.

On some trains, such as the Pacific Surfliner on the Californian coast, seats are unallocated – but don't pop yourself in a spacious area for four unless you are in a party of at least three. Even if these sought-after facing seats are empty, singles and couples may not use them.

Tipple trouble

If you've no rail journey plans for next weekend, consider Whitefish – 30 hours west of Chicago on the Empire Builder. This small town in Flathead County, Montana is the venue for Amtrak Train Days, a well-meaning touring exhibition intent on promoting "a safer, greener and healthier rail service, connecting communities across the country". But before you toast the new age of the train with beer or wine that you've thoughtfully brought on board, be warned that Amtrak stipulates "You may not consume private stock alcoholic beverages in any public areas." The only option for travellers who enjoy a bring-your-own nightcap is to book a sleeper compartment.

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