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The former Illinois Central Stations in Kankakee, IL, is now used by Amtrak passengers.

What You Need To Know About Amtrak Flag Stops

Are you planning an adventure and discovered that your trip starts or ends at an Amtrak flag stop? If this is the case, you should know a few things. Don’t worry; they are not hard to deal with, and overall your time at the station is just a tiny part of your trip. This article gives you the resources to prepare yourself for your trip.

What is an Amtrak flag stop?

An Amtrak flag stop is either a platform or an unstaffed station that serves communities without consistent passenger traffic flow. At an Amtrak flag stop, the train will stop at that station only if at least one ticketed passenger gets on or off the train. So, if you want to get on the train, make sure you have your ticket in advance.

Kankakee stations
The Amtrak Stations in Kankakee, IL.

Amtrak is not the only passenger railroad that uses flag stops; commuter railroads like Metra, South Shore Line, and others across the United States have these stops.

Flag stops help railroads serve an area or community, even if it is not a high-traffic stop, and if they don’t have to stop, trains can make up time.

Commuter railroads often slow down when approaching flag stops to see if someone is getting on, or some have a button at the station so the crew can see you are waiting. Amtrak has a more sophisticated way of telling if they have to stop.

A few Amtrak stations are regular stops for regional trains but a flag stop for long-distance trains. One example is Amtrak’s City of New Orleans.

At regular station stops, the train will stop regardless if people are getting on or off and leave at the scheduled time. If a train arrives early, the train will hold or stay there until the scheduled times, even if no passengers are using that station.

Will the train stop, and how do I get on?

Amtrak GE Locomotive
Amtrak GE P42DC Locomotive

Before the advent of modern electronic ticketing, if someone wanted the train to stop, they would wave flags to signal the engineer someone wanted to get on, hence the term. Today you do not need to wave a flag; I am sorry if that disappoints you. The easiest way to get the train to a stop is to buy a ticket for that stop.

Amtrak conductors have a tool that looks like an iPhone with a barcode scanner that informs them if passengers are getting on or off at any station in real time. As the train gets near a flag stop conductor checks the device to alert the engineers whether they can keep going or if they need to stop. This technology eliminates the need to wave flags to get the train to stop.

If you are getting on an Amtrak train at a flag stop, keep an eye on the time, and before the scheduled time, stand out on the platform so the engineers can see you. Standing out confirms that someone is getting on the train. The train will stop and listen to the conductors and onboard crews for instructions for boarding.

How do you know if your station is a flag stop?

The Amtrak timetables indicated flag stops with two crossed flags next to the train’s time to stop. Below is an example of an Amtrak timetable for the train, The City of New Orleans, and two midwest regional trains. Look at Kankakee, IL, as made infamous from the Steve Goodman song. This community is a regular stop for the regional trains, but the City of New Orleans will only stop if someone has a reservation.

CONO TIme Table
Here is an example of a timetable with flag stops, and this schedule is not current; click here for current schedules.

Be prepared!

As I suggest for any stations, check out the parking situation before the day you leave. Nothing is more frustrating trying to figure that stuff out while the train’s headlights are shining in the distance. If someone drops you off, parking is not an issue. If you do not see signs about parking, check with the local community or police department.

21" Travelpro Bold

One travel hint is to find a place to get a snack or wait for your train. If you get to the station early, you have a place to wait for the train if the train is running a little late, and maybe treat yourself before your trip.

Coffee shops and cafes work well for this. Make sure you return to the station to start your Amtrak adventure in plenty of time.

There are a few ways to check your train’s status; the first is to sign up for email/text alerts when you buy your tickets. If you forget to do this or the option is missed or not asked, you can still get them afterward. You do not need a reservation number to receive the messages, so if someone is picking you up, they can get them.

The Amtrak app, website, and third-party sites can give you all Amtrak trains’ statuses. The Amtrak Alert on Twitter can be a handy tool as well. Amtrak tries to run their trains on time, but sometimes outside forces, like freight rail traffic, weather, and other fun opportunities. Remember, the train can’t always go around things or take a different route.

Expectations for Amtrak flag stops

Amtrak Plano IL
A platform station in Plano, Il.

The flag stop’s expectations are either an unstaffed or platform station, so do not expect them to have staff. The onboard staff will help you get on or off the train. There will not be wifi at these locations unless there is community-free wifi. Bathrooms might be unavailable, and baggage service is unavailable to or from these stations.

If you want to know what amenities are available at your station, click this link and enter the community’s name in the search box. After the station appears, the middle station info button will help illuminate what is available.

How to prep for flag stops

To be best prepared, come with your ticket printed out or use the one in the app or email. Taking a screenshot won’t hurt because sometimes you do not have cell service at the station. If you are in a sleeper, note your car and room numbers. Packing a power stick or brick will help if your electronic device runs low until you get back on the train and can plug in and charge.

Here are also a few essential pointers to make your trip successful.

  • Know the parking rules before you go
  • Pack as light as you can, with all your bags under 50 pounds
  • Have your tickets ready when the train comes, either electronically or on paper
  • Get there early!
    • If you are not on the platform at the scheduled departure time, the train can and will leave without you.
    • If you have a disability that could require assistance, indicate that when booking, then the Amtrak staff will try to look for you to help you.

Wrap up

Flag stops are nothing to worry about; if you are ready, your trip will go well. Don’t pack more than you can handle getting on and off the train. While this article covers the basics of what you need to know, I would check out the articles on unstaffed stations and platform stations for a little more in-depth look.

Safe Travels!


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Kev has been traveling with Amtrak since 2012, celebrating his tenth year this year. Over those years, he has been on over 700 trains covering over 200,000 miles of rail. Kev enjoys helping others achieve their travel dreams by assisting them to get started. Kev enjoys making music as an organist.

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